Christo’s installation of 7,500 gates along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park is just the kind of thing that makes New York City the incomparable, experiential organism that I love. New York’s gift to visitor or long time resident is its capacity to deliver over and over again experiences that linger. I have many such experiences stored up in my memory: the laughing monks I wrote about a few days ago, seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons rise from puddles of vinyl to come to life as giant cartoon characters at 4 am, hearing artistic debates in the subway…only to realize that it was two subway graffiti artists comparing how to have the greatest impact, seeing ballet or theatre so piercingly, emotionally real that I came away feeling my life changed, …the list goes on and on and on.
The list goes on and on because New York is so big and so diverse and so wild and so unmanageable that once you know the city, you have to fall in love with it. It is like a wild child, untamed and untameable. You don’t always like it, but there is much to love.
I remember a conversation with a much older woman as we rode the Staten Island Ferry to work one day. She was a bird watcher, and she was pointing out how the tides’ different levels in the harbor brought out different birds. As we observed this wildness, we also chatted about looming drastic changes in city government, including major layoffs of city personnel in the department where she worked. I asked whether she thought the changes were right, whether they moved in a direction of more control of the big issues. Her answer stopped me cold. “Well,” she said, “it’s not like it really makes much difference. I mean, after all, everybody has their ideas about how to make New York better, but it is fundamentally unmanageable. This administration will find that out eventually.”
Partly her answer was politically motivated, aligned as she was against the incoming Giuliani administration. But the part that got to me was that she’s right. New York is unmanageable. Untamable. Wild. A collection of millions of hearts and minds on millions of collision courses, and this is what frightens many tourists, many who would never set foot in the city and even many who live or work on that crowded island. But if we look only at the scariness of New York, we miss its wonder.
The wonder of New York is that even in the most extreme circumstances, the human spirit finds ways to reach out and to rise up. Human connections are made, and the divine is celebrated.
I have been missing this celebration of wildness in Vermont, and there must be something in my perspective that has gone wrong. Vermonters know that nature is wild and untameable and ultimately to be celebrated. But lately I have wondered if they know that people are the same—wild and untameable and ultimately to be celebrated. It’s the political process that is getting to me, particularly the aspects that suggest that people can be controlled and managed and regulated and regimented into a set of common goals. Healthcare issues, environmental issues, job creation are just of few of the swirling human needs and wants that collide under Montpelier’s dome and in its halls, and that the political process can never fully address. Administrative skill, good humor, and courtesy help enormously, but we have to recognize that we will never be able to achieve agreement on the goals, much less lockstep march to their execution. We might be happier if Vermonters, like New Yorkers, accepted that like New York, Vermont is a living thing, wild and ultimately uncontrollable.
Then again, maybe it’s me. Maybe I am just trying to get others to accept my worldview—just another attempt on my part to control the world. Maybe instead I need to back off, reflect, then take my place in the dance.
Just reading about The Gates makes me happy. It makes me want to see it. It makes me want to be again in a place where I can walk and walk and find outrageous and unexpected things three times on each and every block. It makes me want Indian food and Vietnamese food and Ukrainian food and really good sushi. It makes me want new cheap Chinese shoes from Chinatown, along with a red bean bun stamped for good luck. It makes me miss turn-of-the-century skyscrapers shrouded in the morning fog. It makes me miss historical context cheek by jowl with the newest and most startling innovation. It makes me miss the bustle and the good-natured clarity of Wall Street’s focus on making a buck. It makes me fall in love with New York all over again, even from this remote outpost in northern Vermont.