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My First New York

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Colum McCann soon after moving to his apartment on East 35th Street.   

By Colum McCann
Arrived: 1984


Drunk and sober, high and low, off and on, up and down, lost and found, New York has been my city for sixteen years now. It’s a vast mystery to me, like it is to most New Yorkers, how this ugly lovely town became my lovely ugly town, this gorgeous rubbish heap of a place, this city of the timeless Now, with little of the style of Paris, little of the beauty of Rome, little of the history of London, and not even much of the dear dirty dereliction of my hometown, Dublin.

New York is a fiction of sorts, a construct, a story, into which you can walk at any moment and at any angle and end up blindsided, turned upside down, changed.

There are dozens of moments I can recall from the early days, when I first got to the city as a naïve young Dubliner, in 1982. I was 17 years old and visiting for the summer. I ran the midtown streets as a gopher for Universal Press Syndicate. I rushed for sandwiches, answered phones, delivered parcels. My ears popped in the Time-Life elevators. On a July afternoon, I lay down in the middle of Sixth Avenue and looked up at the skyscrapers. I laughed as people stepped over and around me. Later, I sat in the back of the Lion’s Head pub and dreamed myself into writing days. I bluffed my way into Limelight. On the D train, I nursed a cocaine itch back to Brighton Beach, where I rented a cockroached room. It was all a fantastic fever dream: Even now, the moments collide into each other and my memory is decorated by a series of mirrors flashing light into chambers of sound and color, graffiti and roar. I left it after a few months, back to Dublin, enchanted and dazzled.

But I truly fell in love with the city many years later, on my second stint, when I wasn’t quite sure if I was meant to be here at all, and it was a quiet moment that did it for me, one of those little glancing shoulder-rubs that New York can deal out at any time of the day, in any season, in any weather, in any place—even on the fiercely unfashionable Upper East Side.

It had snowed in the city. Two feet of it over the course of the night. It was the sort of snow that made the city temporarily magical, before all the horn-blowing and slush puddles and piles of dog crap crowning the melt. A very thin little path had been cleared on 82nd Street between Lexington and Third, just wide enough for two able-bodied people to squeeze through. The snow was piled high on either side. A small canyon, really, in the middle of the footpath. On the street—a quiet street at the best of times, if anything can be quiet in New York—the cars were buried under drifts. The telegraph wires sagged. The underside of the tree branches appeared like brushstrokes on the air. Nothing moved. The brownstones looked small against so much white. In the distance sounded a siren, but that was all, making the silence more complete.

I saw her from a distance halfway down the block. She was already bent into the day. She wore a headscarf. Her coat was old enough to have once been fashionable. She was pushing along a silver frame. Her walk was crude, slow, laborious. With her frame, she took the whole width of the alley. There was no space to pass her.

There is always a part of New York that must keep moving—as if breath itself depends on being frantic, hectic, overwhelmed. I thought to myself that I should just clamber over the snowbank and walk down the other side of the street. But I waited and watched. Snow still fell on the shoveled walkway. Her silver frame slipped and slid. She looked up, caught my eye, gazed down again. There was the quality of the immigrant about her: something dutiful, sad, brave, a certain saudade, a longing for another place.

As she got closer, I noticed her gloves were beautifully stenciled with little jewels. Her headscarf was pulled tight around her lined face. She shoved the silver frame over a small ridge of ice, walked the final few feet, and stopped in front of me.

The silence of strangers.

But then she leaned forward and said in a whisper: “Shall we dance?”

She took off one glove and reached her hand out, and with the silver frame between us, we met on the pavement. Then she let go of my hand. I bent to one knee and bowed slightly to her. She grinned and put her glove back on, said nothing more, took a hold of her silver frame, and moved on, a little quicker now, along the corridor of snow and around the corner.

I knew nothing of her, nothing at all, and yet she had made the day unforgettable.

She was my New York.

Still is.


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