Surrounded in a Fog, A Clarity Still Emerges
One day last week, I drove to Baltimore and New York in the pouring rain and dense fog to speak at a couple of charity fundraisers. Among other things, I decided it would be a splendid opportunity to see how my daughter, Maggie, is adjusting to her new Manhattan life, maybe take her to supper somewhere nice and hear some of the happier tales.
From decades of visiting and working in New York, I suppose I know the streets and avenues and landmarks of Manhattan as well as any visiting hayseed, yet increasingly I feel like the proverbial Stranger in a Strange Land when I venture there.
As best I can describe it, it’s an unsettling feeling that I simply don’t belong there, am constitutionally unsuited for big city life, am a man out of his proper place and time. It is an awareness that everything is accelerating beyond me in the form of people and things in constant motion, a grind of metal and ambition and surface indifference that makes me yearn for my terrace garden in Southern Pines or our old house in Maine and the silence of a dense hemlock forest.
Thirty-five years ago, on the other hand, susceptible to the urging of a famous book editor and heeding the siren call myself, I left Atlanta and “moved” to New York City for two whole weeks, determined to try and make my fortune the way every Southern writer from Thomas Wolfe to Willie Morris had done, measuring myself against the best and brightest, as the cliché goes. I duly made the rounds with magazine editors, picked up a few nice assignments, dined at popular bistros with impossibly gossipy and surprisingly bitter writers, and secretly longed to be walking in the woods back home in North Carolina.
One morning after watching a guy urinate off the fire escape directly across the sooty alley from a friend’s utility room-sized loft in Soho, I wondered what the hell I was doing there. I packed up my stuff and caught the ferry over to Jersey City, where I’d found a guy who would let me park my beloved Volvo for $200. Someone had knocked out the back window and stolen the car’s radio.
I drove home to the South with the windows open and almost cried when I crossed the Potomac River.
This past summer my son — a budding filmmaker and son of Maine — tried the same stunt. After finishing his degree at Elon, he headed for Gotham City with a number of promising jo leads. He had visions of sharing an apartment in Brooklyn with his best friend just out of Syracuse University and getting on with an Internet film company that was making noises of hiring him.
He stayed about six weeks, residing in a shabby but chic Brooklyn neighborhood in a grim apartment with half a dozen strangers. He burned through a couple thousand dollars, then phoned me one afternoon from an overcrowded subway where some crazy SOB was harassing folks around him. “Dad,” he said over the din, “they’ve offered me a job but they want me to work as an unpaid intern for the first year. Hey,” he added sharply, “I’ll have to call you back.”
He hung up. I don’t know this for sure but I suspect he punched the crazy SOB — a good way to get killed in New York City. An hour later he called back to say he’d had it with life in Manhattan and was moving home to Maine to continue his job search and make a documentary on what real people do there. “I’d rather work on a lobster boat or in the woods than do this,” he said.
I admitted I thought this was a sensible decision, that New York isn’t for everyone, a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, a city of corporate paper pushers and crazy SOBs on the subway. The real opportunity and innovation in this country, I added — and truly believe — is happening in ten thousand small towns like Southern Pines or mid-sized cities like Greensboro and Raleigh. Livable places where you can make your mark early and hone your skills and not have to choose between paying rent and eating.
I also advised him to remain true to his passion to make films that mean something, like the one he’s just completed on groundbreaking rural health care in India. Some of his friends were urging him to take any sort of job just to live in New York City.
Smart lad that he is, however, he headed home to Maine and found a job in L.L. Bean’s seasonal shipping department. Ironically, a month after he arrived, the phone rang and he was invited to fly to Istanbul to show his film and possibly make a similar short for the Turkish government’s bid to host a world health expo in 2013 — an opportunity he’d never have had had he stayed in New York.
Tower of ‘Babble’
That left only his big sister Maggie living and working in The City.
And this explains why I found myself coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel into the foggy chaos of midtown Manhattan last Tuesday evening eager to take my baby girl to supper and see for myself how her big city life was going.
Underscoring the excitement of seeing her for the first time in months and the ever-present worry I strive to keep at bay whenever I think about her life in the busiest city on Earth, was the disorienting aftereffect of the satellite radio I listened to in my rented Tahoe during much of the 10-hour drive up the East Coast.
Thousands of chattering voices came at this Earthbound traveler, an electronic Tower of “Babble” offering something for every human taste: 30 channels of sports for the hopelessly addicted weekend warrior, Oprah Winfrey wisdom, Martha Stewart magic, angry echo chambers of left- and right-wing commentators, instant traffic and weather updates from every major city on Earth, Catholic priests praying right next to porn stars talking dirty.
On CNN, as I dodged maniacal yellow cabs and gunned my Tahoe up 10th Avenue toward Amsterdam, there was lots of talk about an October surprise. Would the surprise be another terrorist attack aimed at influencing the presidential election, or something that happened during the first of three scheduled presidential debates that next evening? Of more interest to me — a longtime suffering Orioles fan — could it be that the upstart Orioles would surprise everyone by making it to the World Series? In related news, could the dreary economy finally be about to turn around? Sales of homes, toothpaste and beer were all up significantly, bellwethers, some argued, of an Obama October surprise. The far right was already cawing about a conspiracy.
I switched off the babble and rode the final 60 blocks to 120th Street in welcome silence, a brief media fast and the thing I seem to crave most as I grow older (aside from seeing my kids, working in the quiet of a garden, going to a movie with my wife, and seeing the Orioles win another World Series, not necessarily in that order).
Big City, Small Stories
Suddenly there she was on the sidewalk by her apartment across from Columbia University, coming at me from the fog, smiling, looking like a young Audrey Hepburn. She climbed in, gave her old man a powerful squeeze and a breezy, “Hi, Dad. So where do you want to go eat?”
“This is your city, Mugs,” I came back happily. “You pick.”
She chose a place called The Mermaid Inn, somewhere on Amsterdam in the 80s. It was small, candle-lit, charming, cozy, perfect. The woman who seated us brought us a locally made ale and the best fried green tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. She was eager to know where I was from — Maggie was obviously local — and made friendly chit-chat throughout, bringing us warm bread, a fantastic wedge salad, fish tacos and a marvelous butternut squash soup with roasted pecans.
At one point she overheard my daughter telling me a hilarious story about working all day with fashion pinheads at a function for Kim Kardashian’s hair products — one of her company's clients, I gathered — which should surely help jump-start a languishing economy and rebuild the middle class. The waitress remarked, “You’re so witty. You should be a writer.”
“She is,” Papa Dog (her nickname for me) brazenly chimed in and gave the good woman my daughter’s smalltown-girl-in-the-city blog (www.footloose–fancy.tumblr.com), entertaining proof that she has far more urban moxie than either her younger brother or her dad.
Over the next hour or so she told me several small tales of her big city life, some highly amusing, others mildly startling, explaining how she feels the city simply magnifies everything and makes it feel doubly real — the loneliness she often feels for her old college town and boyfriend in Vermont, for instance, or her frustration to make her way into a serious life of writing. (Permit me to add here and now that if you check out her blog you’ll see why she’s miles ahead of where her old man was at age 23).
“Every time I think I can’t stand living here, that it’s too much, too cold, too unfriendly,” she added thoughtfully, sipping an after-supper wine, “I go for my evening run around my neighborhood by Columbia or something remarkable happens like the other night after work. I was downtown doing some big event where I’d been working since dawn and was just flat exhausted, sick of the rudeness, wishing I could just sit in Mom’s kitchen back in Maine and have a glass of wine. The taxi driver was an older foreign man and he asked me how I was doing. I told him I was homesick for Maine and Vermont. He suddenly opened all the cab’s windows and turned up the music he was playing — Frank Sinatra. It was a beautiful warm night and he drove me through the park, past the beautiful lights of the Upper West Side. It made me feel so much better.
“It’s little things like this that make living here worth it, the quiet of my neighborhood or the small kindnesses of complete strangers.”
Voices in the Fog
Afterward, we drove back uptown and parked where she runs through the Columbia University campus. Below us a couple of hundred feet lay Harlem, wreathed in fog, looking like a mystical city caught in a cloud. The silence was, in fact, remarkable. For an instant, I could see why she loves her life in the big city. It was a peace I’d never managed to find.
We took a brief walk and then I walked her to her apartment door. Somewhere in the fog a church bell bonged 10 times.
A little while later, pushing on through the darkness, I switched satellite radio on again and was pleasantly surprised to find Frank Sinatra singing about strangers in the night.
The cellphone rang and it was my daughter’s voice thanking me for stopping by, adding that she hated to see me go and planned to bring her boyfriend Dave to Southern Pines soon.
This was my idea of a nice October surprise.
A few moments later my son called to let me know the trip to Istanbul had been finalized. He sounded weary from nonstop film editing but excited about the adventure on his doorstep.
They were the last voices I heard in the fog that night —the ones that will always be with me wherever we live and roam.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story