Here’s what they say in New York — Donald J. Trump is a grandstander, a showboat. Not doing his job. Totally incompetent. The White House has been in turmoil for months. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. So what are we talking about? Enough about him. Who needs an investigation? Guy is a total loser. Tell me something I don’t know.
It’s beautiful in New York now that spring has landed. Winter tries to hang on, like an old drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you and spits on your shoe but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva sweet love.”
I flew into New York from Dallas, where the cabdriver told me the airport is bigger than Manhattan, and he seemed quite proud of that. He’s right: DFW is almost 30 square miles, Manhattan less than 23. But it’s like saying, “My sofa is bigger than Joyce Carol Oates.” (Yes? And has your sofa written a novel lately?) DFW is concrete and fast food and miles of plastic chairs. It only goes to show how gorgeous 23 square miles can be, from the Staten Island Ferry terminal to the Trinity churchyard (R.I.P., Mr. Hamilton) to the Tenement Museum, the cast-iron buildings on Spring Street, the starry ceiling of Grand Central, the majestic reading rooms of the Public Library, the marquees of Broadway, the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History Museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — “When you’re tired of New York, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson did not say, but only because he never made it across the Atlantic nor into the 20th century.
When spring is here, or rumored to be near, the city opens its doors and spills out onto the sidewalks. Cafes retract their front walls and set up tables, benches come out, greenmarkets set their flowers out on wooden pallets, people sit on the steps of brownstones or lean against parked cars, and everybody is talking at once. On Sunday, I walked to 83rd Street to mail some letters and passed a little Victorian firehouse, one truck wide, wedged in the row of brownstones holding off the invasion of high-rise condos, a few of which tower on the horizon, like cat trees among rows of file cabinets. A truck double-parked on 83rd, with “Integrity General Contractors” written on the door.
An African man sat watching his wares on a card table, talking on a cellphone to someone in Africa. A papa stood on the corner, embracing one tall daughter, then the other. Skateboarders swooped along the bike lane, helmeted kids on scooters. Brisk walkers passing us amblers, dog people walking their livestock who strained to sniff the food on the cafe tables. The sun was out after a gray Saturday and there was good feeling everywhere you looked.
What made New York so great was many things, including the coastline and rivers and proximity of water, the mix of commercial and residential, the five-story blocks, five stories being how high our great-grandparents cared to climb in the pre-elevator days, leaving plenty of sunshine for pedestrians to bask in. And also the decision not to have alleys, so everything happens out on the street. People truck in the goods, truck out the garbage, you’re living on a loading dock, you have to deal with it.
Back where I’m from, in Grid City out on the flatlands, you say, “Oh, pardon me” if you come within two feet of someone. You’re always apologizing, sidestepping, backing away, excusing yourself. In New York, in the milling throng, you learn to speak up.
At 81st, I went down into the subway and the downtown train rolled in just as I reached the platform, one of those transformative moments — every little thing you’ve done all day up to that moment feels perfectly timed — and squeezed into the car without actually touching anyone. I hung on to the overhead bar, feet nicely spread, as we rumbled south, six complete strangers within a few inches of me, everyone in his or her own space, avoiding eye contact, thinking their own thoughts. Riding from 81st to 42nd is a good antidote to narcissism. Too bad that some people only ride in limos with police escorts and miss out on this essential and beneficial experience.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.