Photo by Shirley Barenholz
Small miracles can occur in every city, of course, but in New York they occur with prodigal frequency. Throughout the five boroughs, people find ways to establish intimate connections to the city, hoping for their own miracles.
Young people hold exclusive parties in rooftop water towers. Urban explorers dodge trains in order to catch a glimpse of famous graffiti murals on the walls of underground tunnels. “Newcomers to New York City really want to own it, to make up for all the years they’ve missed living here,” James, an Australian artist who has been living in the city for years, tells me.
In my case this is certainly true. I visit an illegal bookstore in Manhattan whose white-bearded proprietor once owned a legitimate shop before rising rents forced him to shut down. After that, he moved his operation to a private residence. The location of his shop is a closely guarded secret among those in the know, who treat it like a sort of clubhouse. When the owner is feeling contented, with the late-night crowd milling about and Tom Waits or Bob Dylan on the stereo, he falls into conversation with his customers, chatting in worldly-wise tones and smoking a calabash pipe with an immense white meerschaum bowl.
What James said about the density of experience in New York rings true. The public city – Times Square, the Empire State Building and all the rest – can fit on a postcard, but within and behind that tourist city are thousands of private cities, all happening at once and at times overlapping, layers on layers – deep strata of experience, of time, of human lives. Cities of the living and cities of ghosts.
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