Before we left Austin, a friend asked where we were going to leave our cars when we moved to New York. He was dumbfounded that we weren’t taking them with us.
Like most Texans of our generation, my husband and I have both been driving since we were 14. (Our friend Brenda, from an even smaller West Texas town, was 13 when she started driving.) Growing up in Texas, you did everything in cars — and if you think I don’t mean everything, then you haven’t seen or read “The Last Picture Show.” There’s nothing like the wild, exhilarating freedom of driving fast on empty highways with music blasting your eardrums till they bleed and the wind rushing in through the windows.
But that was then. At the age we are now, life without a car is pure, intoxicating freedom. In New York, we can walk. Walk to nearby Thai, Italian, Chinese-Peruvian, Japanese, French, Middle Eastern restaurants. Walk to the grocery store, the wine store, the cleaners. Walk to a yoga class, where a bossy teacher tells her students to, “Face to the right — toward Columbus. Then to the left, toward Amsterdam.” Walk along West 84th Street at twilight and almost bump into a rat that’s enormous and quick-moving and bears a marked resemblance to Karl Rove.
I’m amazed to hear that, since it’s August, “nobody” is in New York. Seems pretty crowded and vibrant to me, no matter what month it is. Two days ago, I sat in Verdi Park and watched a homeless man root through his plastic bag of belongings. A couple of feet away, an intense young man shut out the rest of the world as he read Proust.
Nearby, an elderly woman scattered birdseed to an appreciative flock of pigeons. There’s one of those in every town, so I didn’t pay much heed. What I did notice was the park maintenance guy who showed up after she and her birdseed disappeared. He stood, very still, with his right forefinger extended a few inches from his face. Pigeons gathered around, fluttering close to him. Finally, one landed on his forefinger, another took up residence on his right elbow, and a third hovered dangerously above his head. This, clearly, was his moment of triumph. The pigeons flew away and he returned to stabbing trash with his stick.
My husband says we’ll never be confused as Upper West Siders unless we have a dog to walk. But I’m inclined to think I need to be pregnant or, at the very least, be pushing a baby carriage full of multiple infants. (Does anybody bear single babies these days?)
I’ve always been convinced that the world is rich, no matter where you are. You simply have to observe what’s around you and watch and learn as it unfolds. Still, it’s striking to be from a place where the horizon is flat and endless and empty — and find yourself in a world that teems with such an immense, loud, concentrated energy of humanity and wildlife. I know we’re supposed to go to the cultural centers — and, of course, we will. But to me, the city itself is the endlessly fascinating attraction, the greatest teacher.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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