New York City looked joltingly unfamiliar to me as I rode home from Penn Station after a month in rural New England. The fierce morning sunshine made everything seem unreal. Too many hard-faced pedestrians jammed the sidewalks, and too many cars raced up and down the crowded streets. The first thing I noticed upon reaching my Upper West Side neighborhood was that the diner where I’d lunched the day before leaving town had closed its doors permanently in my absence. I spent the whole afternoon sifting through the piles of mail with which my kitchen table was covered. At one point I snuck a furtive peek at my calendar, saw that I was booked solid through next Monday, and sighed deeply. Life in Manhattan can be hard to take, especially when you’ve just spent a month in the country.
Aldous Huxley speaks somewhere of “the blessedness at the heart of things.” It’s all too easy to lose sight of that blessedness on a hot summer day in New York, and I admit to having briefly questioned its existence yesterday afternoon. But I have more reasons than most to count my blessings, and the events that followed recalled them to me forcibly.
At day’s end I walked to Central Park West, met a waiting friend, and strolled with her to the outdoor stage where Fiona Apple and Nickel Creek were performing. The sky was falling the last time I went to an outdoor concert in Central Park, but by the time we reached our seats, the early-evening air was benignly balmy, and no sooner did my friend and I settle ourselves than the members of Nickel Creek charged out from the wings, loaded for bear and ready to play.
I go back a long way with Nickel Creek–I even wrote the liner notes for their greatest-hits album–but two years had gone by since I last saw them in concert, and a year ago they announced that they’d be going on hiatus at the end of 2007. This will likely be their last New York performance, and I expected it to sound a valedictory note. Boy, did I get that wrong. They came on like gangbusters, and within seconds I knew it was going to be a night to remember.
Fiona Apple showed up on stage midway through the first half of the concert. I’d assumed that Nickel Creek was opening for her, but it quickly became clear that they were going to perform together, and as the band tuned up, I thought, I bet they do “Extraordinary Machine.” Sure enough, they did, and I hugged myself with glee. Fiona Apple had been nothing more than a name to me until I received an e-mail last fall from my favorite blogger containing an audio file and instructions to listen to it at once. It was the title track from Extraordinary Machine, and by the time it was halfway over, I was a fan. Talk about good omens!
Mere words can’t begin to convey how strange and wonderful it was to hear Apple singing with a progressive bluegrass-pop band whose members are equally fond of Bill Monroe and Radiohead. Among many other things, they did Gilllian Welch’s “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and the effect was…well, would it sound too fancy-schmancy to call it exquisite? Rarely do I wish for a concert to last longer–enough is enough–but this one went on for two and a half hours, and I ate up each and every song.
The biggest surprise was “I Walk a Little Faster,” a standard ballad by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh whose lyrics have long had special meaning for me. Hearing them sung by Fiona Apple on a balmy summer evening came close to overwhelming me: I set my chin a little higher,/Hope a little longer,/Build a little stronger/Castle in the air,/And thinking you’ll be there,/I walk a little faster.
Yes, New York City is a difficult and (on occasion) frightening place in which to live. The low-flying helicopters and airplanes that cleaved the night sky over Central Park were sufficient reminder of that. But it is also full of daily miracles of serendipity, and the life I lead there is rich in experience and delight beyond anything I envisioned for myself when young. May I never take that blessed fact for granted.