Space is generally the most precious, sacred thing in the world for a New Yorker. You often don’t get much of it, but even a couple of feet can feel generous when you are on a crowded subway car. Stand on any busy avenue and wait for the light to change. The traffic shoots by and then suddenly, for a break of fifteen to twenty seconds, the avenue is clear, almost deserted and you’ve got space to breath, space to move.
All of which goes to explain why Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays in the city. The town is dead (and, as Emma mentioned yesterday, it makes you pine for a car just so you can park it). But it’s only dead for another day, for a handful of hours. It’s the calm before the storm because starting tomorrow morning the city will be buzzing again–families back from vacation, kids back to school. It will be congested again and summer will be over.
In the early nineties, I remember going to the Museum of Broadcasting with a friend to watch Dennis Potter’s final TV interview. He was dying and was drinking liquid morphine to numb the pain; there was no telling if he’d be able to remain lucid for the entire interview. But he did and he was brilliant:
We all, we’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but we can’t actually; it’s not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it’s too predictable, they’re locked into whatever situation they’re locked into … Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable, of the you don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
Sometimes it takes an existential crisis to stop us in our tracks and notice the world around us. The friend I saw the interview with died several years later of cancer.
Last week, Emily upgraded our phone service. We now both have blackberries. I’ve noticed people walking around the streets these days with their heads buried in their palms, looking into their phones or their i-pods. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing. (Mel Brooks once said, “We make fun, ‘look at the old guy bent over and spitting,’ pretty soon we’re bent over and spitting.’” Few weeks ago I called a friend on my cell phone and said, “You know those Herbs that talk on their phone as they are walking down the street? Well, now I’m that Herb too.”) Another thing to keep us plugged in and tuned out. It is the rare occasion when I am at home with nothing turned on–usually, I’ve got the TV and the computer going.
It’s more of a struggle than ever to keep our minds clear. But a day like today always drives home the little things for me. Soaking up the final lonely hours of summer before the bustle of autumn returns.