([New York City at Night] by Myron Wood, October 1965. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District, courtesy of Special Collections. Image Number: 002-1596.)

The Middle Distance 10.22.10: “A Solitary Heart”

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photo by Sean Cayton

Last week, we visited New York City so that my sons, identical twins, could be together on their birthday. We’ve done this before during the boys’ college years. One year we gathered in Budapest where one of the twins was studying math, and we wandered that city’s ancient cobbled streets together by day.

At night we retreated to the Hotel Gellert overlooking the Danube, a palatial hotel attached to exquisite marble and gold public baths. I loved soaking in the Gellert baths, watching the regulars come in at their appointed time of day and imagining the circumstances of their lives: elderly men with saggy paunches hanging over their Speedos, elegant working girls taking a swim before an evening on the town, mothers and babies cooing and bobbing, subdued fathers relaxing in the effervescent waters before going home to face their family duties.

At the baths in Budapest, it was understood that we were not to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Privacy was paramount.

In New York last week, I was the guest of friends who’d rented an apartment in midtown — a spacious, modern dwelling with floor to ceiling glass windows in every room. From our vantage point on the 28th floor, we could see the long reach of East 57th St. to the Hudson River, a corner of Central Park, and in the other direction, the Queensboro Bridge. But more fascinating to me than the long view were the hundreds of apartment windows we could see from ours, television sets glowing, kids doing homework, a man watering the potted plants on his narrow balcony garden in the sky. It was impossible for a nosy interloper like me, a visitor, to not watch. I have not lived my life bound to the oath of privacy that oils the clockwork of a place like New York.

In New York, life’s most fundamental concerns rotate around space and confinement. In Manhattan, where 1.6 million people occupy 23 square miles, everyone guards his or her personal space with an embedded consciousness of purpose. And yet, there is great freedom and mobility available within that private space.

Out here in Colorado, where I live, people find their freedom in wild, open spaces, on mountains populated by elk, deer, and bears. In New York, a crowded jigsaw puzzle of people, pavement, glass and steel, freedom is more internal than external and is based on an unspoken contract that guarantees privacy — a membrane that separates each New Yorker from the next one. Without that contract, nothing would work, the city wouldn’t move perpetually forward, the machinery would rust and freeze.

I visited my daughter’s sixth floor walk-up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Since my last visit, the landlord had spruced up the staircase with black and silver paint and had adorned the pitted and scarred doors with new number plates. Spicy food smells and small voices leaked out beneath the closed doors as I trudged upward. My daughter had moved into a space with more light than her previous space in the same building, and jubilantly showed me her standard length bathtub.

My son, who lives farther south in Brooklyn, showed me his new room in an apartment he shares with three other young men. When he says he loves the new neighborhood, he is referring to the neat storefronts, the interesting architecture, and the relative lack of garbage on the curbs and in the streets.

We all ate together in a crowded restaurant where New Yorkers talked and hugged and drank wine and shared news of the day and ate dishes prepared with precision and imagination. I loved the bustling intimacy of the restaurant and felt proud of my children, purposeful and self-contained, navigating life in this astonishing place, the twins as happy to be blowing out birthday candles on their individual dessert plates at 24 as they had been when they were seven.

I was proud to be able to get myself home on the subway with minimal trepidation. Late at night, encapsulated in their invisible privacy bubbles, my fellow passengers napped, studied, read, and tapped at their smart phones as we rocked through tunnels beneath the city.

We flew back to Denver and as we were driving away from the airport, I felt my New York privacy bubble dissipate in the thin, dry air. To the west, the setting sun painted the distant mountain ridges silver, then gold. My solitary heart opened and dissolved across the dry, dusty plains.

You can find Kathryn’s recipe for posole, comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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7 Responses to The Middle Distance, 10/22/10: "A Solitary Heart"

  1. Eva says:

    great piece. Made me even a little nostalgic for the City – although I haven’t visited it since ’78 – but made me nostalgic for Prague too, and I’ll be there before I know it! I think the chosen solitude you speak of may, upon consideration, be true of most world cities.

  2. T Clark says:

    Kathryn,
    I don’t know you, but I’ve known of you for years. My daughter knows your sons. So I’ve known you by proximity, and I’ve always loved your writing. Now, I have another reason to relish Fridays – your beautiful piece in The Big Something. From my open heart, thank you.

  3. Barbara Summerville says:

    Thanks I miss New York, but I do love the space here. I guess what I miss about New York are all those possibilities for an actress. Thanks for the story, I feel like i was on the visit.

  4. Rose Enyeart says:

    Great visit to one of my favorite cities. I felt like I went with you. Subways at night are interesting and scary to me. Good on you for taking the trip!!

  5. Ellen Troyer says:

    Thanks for another great Friday morning column. From the comments above, it seems this one brought back great memories for those of us who once lived in New York.

  6. Libby says:

    Much enjoyed vicarious travels! Some of my family members sought homes and thrive in mega cities, treasuring “anonymity” while celebrating various neighborhood opportunities. Another truly lovely essay, Kathryn!

  7. tobi says:

    As a native New “Yawka”” I can relate to the description of “internal” and “external” privacy that Kathryn so beautifully illustrates. After 30 yrs in Colorado I can visit NYC and still be totally at home in that giant mileau. Having strangers watch me on the subway, stealing brief glances as I steal a few myself, or listening to conversations in so many melodic languages over dinner in tiny neighborhood eateries only enhances the experience and my memories of a wonderful and unique city.

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