I don’t care for air travel, but long experience has taught me to tolerate it, and on occasion it can be–if only for a few fleeting moments–actively pleasurable. That happened to me when I took off from LaGuardia Airport on Saturday morning, headed for Florida and Mrs. T. It was ten-thirty, the sky was cloudless, and the sun cast a brilliant raking light across the rooftops of New York City. The plane swung north, then south, and all at once I realized that we were going to fly straight down the Hudson River and that my window seat would give me an unobstructed, perfectly lit view of the island below.
We were still low enough that I had no trouble picking out the six-story apartment house where I live, a few blocks south of the Cloisters. I held my breath as the familiar landmarks slipped past me, all shrunken to the size of my thumb: Yankee Stadium, Lincoln Center, Central Park, the Empire State Building, the great gash of Ground Zero. The only thing I couldn’t see was the Statue of Liberty, which was a bit too far west to be visible from my window. Having just spent three days rushing from appointment to appointment and show to show, I found it delightful to look down from a great height on the scene of my hectic activity. It felt as though I were being airlifted out of a combat zone.
A few minutes later we were flying over the Jersey Shore, endless and anonymous save for Cape May, the island at its southern tip, whose comma-like shape is unmistakable to anyone who has spent even a day there. I thought of the happy hours that Mrs. T and I had passed on its beaches and in its theaters and restaurants, and hoped that we’d be back soon.
Between Cape May and Orlando I had no idea where I was, so I pulled down the shade and got out my book, William Maxwell’s Ancestors. I gratefully immersed myself in its bone-dry ironies and gentle, reminiscent warmth, marveling at the chain of coincidence that had put me in touch with two of the author’s friends at the very moment when I started working my way through his oeuvre for the first time in a decade.
Maxwell, like Fauré and Vuillard, is a shy master whose soft-spoken tales of small-town life are not to all tastes. If he’s your kind of writer, though, you’ll know it the moment you open one of his books for the first time, as Mrs. T did a couple of weeks ago. Within days she was reading passages out loud to me, among them this lovely paragraph from The Folded Leaf:
Accidents, misdirections, overexcitement, heat, crowds, and heartbreaking delays you must expect when you go on a journey, just as you expect to have dreams at night. Whether or not you enjoy yourself at all depends on your state of mind. The man who travels with everything he owns, books, clothes for every season, shoe trees, a dinner jacket, medicines, binoculars, magazines, and telephone numbers–the unwilling traveler–and the man who leaves each place in turn without reluctance, with no desire ever to come back, obviously cannot be making the same journey, even though their tickets are identical….And for the ambitious young man who by a too constant shifting around has lost all of his possessions, including his native accent and the ability to identify himself with a particular kind of sky or the sound, let us say, of windmills creaking; so that in New Mexico his talk reflects Bermuda, and in Bermuda it is again and again of Barbados that he is reminded, but never of Iowa or Wisconsin or Indiana, never of home.
I travel light these days, with no more than a boxful of souvenirs to remind me of the places I’ve been, and my native accent has faded like a print unwisely hung in direct sunlight. But it never takes much to remind me of Smalltown, U.S.A., my first home, and as I flew over Manhattan, my latest home, I looked down at its towers and parks and squared-off streets with a surge of love that rivaled the ever-enduring love I feel for the place where I grew up. Yes, those streets too often look best at night–or from a great height–but it is the encrustation of memory that makes a home beautiful, and a quarter-century’s worth of memories and friendships has caused me to love New York City almost in spite of myself, frustrating and aggravating though it can be.
To be sure, it’s a bumpy, awkward kind of love, and I’ll always be a small-town boy at heart. Nor would it surprise me in the least if I were to pull up stakes one day and move. But by now I’ve lived in Manhattan longer than anywhere else, and should I ever move away, I know I’ll leave a not-so-small piece of my heart behind.
* * *
Dave Frishberg sings “Do You Miss New York?”: