Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

The Return of Henry James

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On a quiet Sunday morning, walking downtown toward the Big Absence, New York is dulcet-gray. A fashionable mother pushes a fashionable pram with a Prada-clad baby inside. A drunk is rising fastidiously from a bed of newspaper in front of an art gallery. A diner on West Broadway that looks suspiciously like a real diner gives off the warm smell of bacon and pancakes. Gloria Swanson called frying bacon "the most optimistic smell in America." It is. On the horizon, lingering placidly in the near-drizzly sky, is a funnel of dust. As I get closer, families from the boroughs are making their way toward the funnel. They wear long tweed coats over church-going clothes and talk loudly in brassy New Yorkese with tints of Greek, Spanish and Russian. Closer to the dust, the walls begin bearing testimony. Faded pictures, dry flowers, illegible letters, faded American flags. We arrive to a wooden walkway leading to a police barrier beyond which lies the Big Absence. There are sounds of machinery inside the earth and cranes swinging slowly high above. A couple of NYPD's most photogenic chat patiently with the accent-tinted families. Some snap pics of the emptiness. Children ask questions that start with "why." Mothers shush them. Blessedly, no hawkers have risen yet, so there is no souvenir market. Since landing in New York I've looked impatiently for the towers to orient myself, forgetting every time that they aren't there. Without them, New York has gotten older. The Empire State Building has reclaimed its once-undisputed reign as the point of reference and, with it, black-and-white New York has come back. Berenice Abbott. Faye Wray. The 1950s, 1940s, 1930s. It's a palpable, scentable peeling back, a procession going slowly in reverse as far back as Whitman's walk. I expect to see ragged Victorians, drunk stevedores, silk capes, canes and top hats materialize slowly from under the brick sidewalks. Mr. Henry James by NYU. But if there is a new intimacy with the past, my friends don't mention it. Neither do they respond to jokes from outsiders. They live here. Always proudly insular, New Yorkers are even more so now. They have always loved strangers and despised tourists. The Big Absence at the core of the city affirms their stubbornness. Mickey was never welcome here. The cheery Disney New York of the '90s grated on their nerves. It's back to something regular. A call to reserve a table at the Union Square Cafe gets the cold shoulder: "Booked until Wednesday." But when we show up in person, the hostess asks, "You hungry?" I say, "No, not at all," and we get a table. It doesn't have to make sense, it's New York.

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