Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Inspirational City


"I don't have any reasons, I left them all behind. I'm in a New York state of mind."
-Billy Joel

Once, twice, sometimes even three times a week, I find myself commuting to New York City, a ride that sometimes takes 40 minutes and sometimes runs me over 2 hours, depending on traffic, weather conditions, and number of passengers who wait along with me or at further stops along my route. I sometimes choose to fill my time with a good book or an email answering fest, but more often than not I find myself staring out the window at the world that I have been born into- suburbia at its finest. It's beautiful from a distance, but while it stirs my soul, it doesn't wake me up. And I wonder sometimes why I can't seem to settle into the life that I have in New Jersey, and be content to just stay put.

But then we cross a bridge, or wisk through a tunnel, and the stirring turns into a rise. I have arrived- I am awake, alive. The artist in me, the one who sullenly slumbers through my day job, my responsibilities, and my general routine... She's ready to go. She takes over, and I feel wonder pouring from the world into my being, and the commute is forgotten. I've never left.

My City obsession started in a corner or Brooklyn off the Q train, a residential section near New Kirk Avenue that sports a whine store and a coffee shop that makes me want to stop what I'm doing, settle at a table, and write the next great novel. For a long time, I was content with my literary appetite- documenting the human experience seemed like as good a cause as any, and Brooklyn is a haven for writers who are just starting.  It was enough.

But like any addiction, I needed to see more. I needed to explore the crevices of Coney Island. I needed to see the graffiti in the east village, and the parks on the west. An obsession with union square found it's way back into my life, and a Harlem shopping adventure called my name. They weren't linear experiences, no, they had no rhyme or reason. But they beckoned to me anyway, enclosing my senses in the grasp. Suddenly, it wasn't just writing that I needed to embrace. It was music, movement, pictures I needed to hold, moments I needed to live again and again. I'd found true love in the arms of the gridlocked streets, the multi-storied sky scrapers, the tiny shops interspersed in all the big. I heard my calling- the beauty that lies on the bridges and everything they connect. And I had to share it.

Last night, walking through saint marks place, I found myself thinking about the future and what it will hold. My life cannot be in this fairy tale land forever- there is too much I haven't yet seen. But still, the skeptical side is a great inquisitor, asking the artist questions she doesn't want to answer- why the obsession? Will she wake one day to find that these tattoo shops and sunglasses stands have lost their magic? That this utopia of the human experience is no more than a few streets, some shops and their owners, waiting to make a few dollars on chachkees and knick-knacks, and that these shoppers are no more than suits by day, or servers, or other commoners? It depresses the artist to hear these questions, so I pushed the skeptic aside for the moment. Magic is to rare for practicality.

But tonight, after standing on an outdoor subway station in Brighton Beach in the happy haze that New York gives me, I realize that the true magic is not the locations at all, but the people in them. It's the writer who called Brooklyn home before my time that allows me to know that this place is inspiring. Its the graffiti artists, the people who planted the  parks, the owners of those small scattered stores that make this place great. It's the friends who have leant me their couches and beds, who have spent the holidays with me in celebration, who have opened me with welcome arms when nothing was right, and have cried on my shoulder in their own rough patches. The soul of the city touches mine because it is filled with people that only an artist could understand- and I love them all, not just for the inspiration, but for the value they remind me I hold.

The commute home is harder- I stare out the window at the same world I passed coming in, but I can see it in all it's wonder. I hang on to the artist as best I can, but she yawns and goes back to sleep, and the practical skeptical realistic me returns, ready for my life to resume. I am two people, torn between where I live and where I am most alive. I anticipate my next adventure like a bird who finishes its journey to the south in the cold- ready to settle in for a time until I must return.

No wonder I am never content to stay put.

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