Regular readers of this blog know that I’m afraid to fly, a mild but nonetheless persistent phobia that came calling from out of nowhere a few years ago and settled in for an extended visit. I’m gradually getting better at it, thanks in large part to the patient counsel of a psychotherapist (she’s the one who talked me into riding a roller coaster this past summer), and now I can fly with minimal discomfort so long as the plane doesn’t bump around too much.
Last night I flew from St. Louis, the city closest to Smalltown, U.S.A., to LaGuardia Airport. I try not to fly at night, but this time I decided to give it a go, and at the end of 45 anxious minutes spent pushing through a cold front, our smaller-than-usual jet popped out of the clouds and started its descent into the New York area. Suddenly the once-invisible earth below me was lit by a million glittering pinpoints of copper, gold, and chilly blue-white. Not for the first time, I wondered why no painter has ever taken for his subject what one sees from the window of an airplane. Surely Whistler would have known what to do with the lights of a city, just as Constable might have reveled in the spectacle of clouds seen from above. I remembered, too, that as much as I dislike flying, it allows me to gaze as long as I want at a sight that can be seen nowhere else.
The captain told us to look out the right-hand windows, and all at once they were filled with Manhattan. I thought of flying past the southern tip of my adopted island home on the Sunday after 9/11 (I always think of that terrible day whenever I fly back to New York), but the red-and-green Empire State Building swept the unwanted, unforgettable picture out of my head. The plane swooped and dipped, Manhattan vanished from view, and I found myself staring down at Riker’s Island, so close I could have tossed a bag of pretzels out the window and hit a guard tower. Then I was on the ground, my fears forgotten, almost home and happy to be.
I’ve lived in New York for the better part of two decades now, and you’d think I’d have gotten used to it. In a way, I suppose I have, but even now all it takes is a whiff of the unexpected and I catch myself boggling at that which the native New Yorker really does take for granted. As for my visits to Smalltown, U.S.A., they invariably leave me feeling like yesterday’s immigrant, marveling at things no small-town boy can ever really dismiss as commonplace, no matter how long he lives in the capital of the world.
My cab swept me across the Triborough Bridge and the Upper East Side, past the Guggenheim Museum and through Central Park, straight to the front door of my building. I trotted up the steps, unlocked the door to my apartment, and turned on all the lights. A quick look at the walls assured me that all my prints were present and accounted for: here an Avery, there a Marin, Frankenthaler over the couch, Wolf Kahn over the mantelpiece. I dropped my bags, locked the door, and sighed deeply. Once again I had made the impossible journey from Smalltown to New York, from home to home.