Friday, November 6, 2009
Nostalgia for Unknown Cities
This was mailed to me by the author upon its publication in 2007. I have a memory of having promised to send him Human Scale and then also of having forgotten to do so. I really hate going to the post office. After I mail out the initial big batch of books to reviewers and friends and so forth, it gets harder and harder for me to drag myself to the post office to mail any more of them. I don't know if this is because I am lazy or because I find post offices to be some of the dreariest most depressing places on earth (second only, perhaps, to bus stations) or all of the above.
When I wrote"bus stations" my mind suddenly cast back to my childhood, not to a bus station, but to a train station, Penn Station, before the renovation. We used to take the train from DC to New York for Thanksgiving every year. We'd get off at Penn Station and switch to the LIRR to go visit our cousins in Babylon, LI. I can remember the wonder I felt that they had this sort of shadowy underground shopping mall at Penn Station. The first time I saw it it was late at night and all the stores were closed and it felt like some kind of lost Atlantis under Madison Square Garden.
I also remember the bathrooms at Penn Station and also at Grand Central, how they were always filthy, and how on the way into the bathroom you would see 5 or 10 or 15 men sleeping on the floor or begging in the entrance way. I don't remember being scared, just kind of amazed at all the teeming life that swelled underground in New York.
I remember also seeing a television documentary or movie about people who lived underground in New York, in sewers and drainage pipes and abandoned or unfinished subway lines. The idea of living underground with them seemed very appealing to me. On our little cul de sac in suburban Virginia, there was a system of drain pipes that we used as a series of forts and hiding places. We'd race through the pipes in the summer playing hide and seek. As we got older we began to stash our cigarettes and stolen booze down there so we could have fun on the weekends.
The idea of there being a whole community living like that under the streets of New York seemed to me like a strange and wonderful kind of paradise, where people drank and partied and played hide and seek with the police from morning till night.