Magazine | October 4, 2010, Issue

And All That Mighty Heart Is Lying Still

The Brookhisers stroll an empty metropolis

Sunday of a three-day weekend and the city was empty. How empty was it? When we turned out the front door of our apartment building, there was hardly a soul on the street. No doormen or porters, even to hose down the sidewalk; no nannies or parents at the tots’ school; no kids at the high school. No poor at the welfare office, no sick at the dialysis unit, no drunks at the rib place. Anyone and Anything had gone Elsewhere. The only person was a young bum, sitting on the sidewalk, pounding an upturned plastic pail. Thoreau heard a different drummer. Here was that drummer, playing merrily away. No one stepped to his music, and he did not care one bit.

We had breakfast at a sidewalk table of a restaurant with a ringside view of the park across the street. Here was some traffic afoot, and some people to watch, but the volume was much reduced. How reduced was it? There were no farmers with their trucks and produce, peaches giving way to apples, and so no flocking shoppers. Home-leaving college kids took a day off; the ark-like SUVs of their anxious parents were otherwise engaged; the grey plastic carts ferrying furniture and stuff into dorms had a break. No audience for street musicians; the kitchen-sink bluegrass ensemble was not foot-stomping today. There were as many dogs as people. Fashion in ugly dogs is poised between Frenchies and pugs; both have bug eyes and bandy legs; the issue will hinge on what is uglier, and therefore more appealing, wrinkled snouts or pointy ears?

We decided to go to midtown to the museum, the acid test of urban emptiness. There was a show, devoted to a crucial period in the career of a great painter, which was so special you had to reserve a time slot to see it. We got a ticket on a walk-in, that’s how empty it was. The painter, in this period, was feeling self-conscious, absorbing influences, thinking of his art. Curators say that it was a fruitful lull, but the paintings he produced were uncharacteristically off. There was a child, straight out of The Bad Seed, playing a piano, and a quartet of bathers, who looked like a smudgy sketch for the cover of some pulp paperback: Women in Prison, or Girls’ Gym Class. Love saved the day, as it always did with this painter: Fruit, gourds, and women’s faces brought him back to his gifts. He ran off with theory, but he returned to earth.

I began to feel as if I were returning to earth myself, more roughly. Even on a slowish day at the museum, many of the people in the exhibit had their ears glued to pre-recorded cicerones. I don’t like to read labels, and I’m sure I miss a lot thereby; if I were with a knowledgeable friend, I might listen to him; I certainly don’t want to march to the drum of a hand-held pseudo-friend. Worse yet, a museum-goer — or was it more than one — made a call on his cellphone. I doubt it was about the painter. Can we do anything without talking to someone distant? Can we be anywhere, rather than everywhere?

#page#The museum, by the way, had a big do-over recently, and is ugliness itself. It looks like a convention center, or an urban mall. People ride escalators up and down, through unplanned, characterless hallways, like the lost or the damned. A screaming child was testing the acoustics (maybe the piano player had escaped his canvas). The museum’s sculpture garden, once its glory, has been ruined too — made bigger, like an airline terminal; all it needed was televisions turned to CNN.

Outside, the streets were livelier. A dozen blocks had been given over to celebrating a large Third World country. The country has 200 million people; a dozen blocks of midtown seemed like the proper hat-tip. A warm-up band on a sound stage sent deafening music up into the late morning; vendors sold the same old fried food.

We went to one of the downtown shopping districts, where it was not so empty anymore. Eavesdropping on passersby, I understood why: When natives flee, replace them with foreigners. Shopping is work that both Americans and aliens will do. We heard Hebrew and Russian, Italian and German. The visitors consulted fold-out colored maps; I thought sympathetically of possible pitfalls — Broadway vs. West Broadway, which changes for no reason to LaGuardia Place. They all seemed to be doing fine. We walked.

We came to a snug little neighborhood, once ethnic, now hipster. How not-empty was it? Shops and restaurants were packed, the sidewalks were conga lines of pilgrims shuffling from one to the other. To make matters worse, one of the main sidewalks was double-parked with stalls of arts and crafts. I did not have the heart to look, even to look down. A kind of clang in the air sounded like a brass band. The heart of the neighborhood is an old Catholic church, formerly the city’s cathedral. It sits in its own graveyard, surrounded by dead faithful. One of them was a black ex-slave from Santo Domingo, now on the road to sainthood. In a somewhat bureaucratic move, he was dug up and reinterred under the current cathedral once his cause got going. A wedding was breaking up; the porch, yard, sidewalk, and street were filled with guests. The brass players were identifiable by Italian tricolored caps. We watched a bit for bride and groom, but they did not appear. Too crowded out there, maybe.

Time to go home, but where the hell were the cabs? The nearest busy intersection was devoured by construction; concrete walls pushed traffic along and penned in pedestrians like the Three Gorges Dam. We took a breather in a jewelry store and were spared a trek only when some tourists left their cab at the door.

And that’s how empty it was.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Beyond Sanctions

The U.S.-led financial-sanctions campaign currently under way against Iran is biting, but it isn’t enough. To change the Iranian regime’s nuclear calculus, the administration and the international community need to ...
Politics & Policy

Dim Idea

Arriving late one night into Tokyo, I checked into my hotel room to discover the world’s most complicated toilet. There were hoses and nozzles where hoses and nozzles probably shouldn’t be, ...

Features

Politics & Policy

The Great U-Turn

Admirers and detractors of the United States agree on one point: This country is unusually resistant to the social consensus and set of structures broadly known as “social democracy” or ...
Politics & Policy

Obama’s U.N. Record

Barack Obama will make his second address as president to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, and engage in the customary ceremonies, social events, and ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Moot Causes

Where did the idea come from that, if a black student studies hard in school, he is “acting white”? Stuart Buck — a Harvard Law graduate who is currently a ...
Politics & Policy

Laws of Thought

On entering the Catholic Church earlier this year, Hadley Arkes explained that he had become convinced that the Church was fundamentally a truth-telling institution. He arrived at this judgment after ...
Politics & Policy

Film: Total Immersion

At times, it can feel as though television’s auteurs are making the movie industry irrelevant. Fifty years after phrases like “idiot box” and “vast wasteland” entered the American vocabulary, the ...
Politics & Policy

Bliss Was It . . .

The 1924 presidential election was, on the face of it, a snoozer. The major-party candidates were Calvin Coolidge (Republican) and John W. Davis (Democrat). Both were conservative — sensationally so ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Soon the Republicans may be able to claim the first nonwhite Speaker of the House. ‐ President Obama’s long-stated view is that his predecessor’s tax cuts for the middle class ...
The Bent Pin

Fed Up

Optimists don’t mind if you eavesdrop on them. They welcome it, in fact, because it helps them spread their fiendish gospel. Here is what the one behind me in the ...
The Long View

“How We Can Help Improve Your Image”

Notes to a PowerPoint presentation to: The Islamic Faith By ImageSpinners, LLC Slide 1: Photo of the Planet Earth from space morphing into ImageSpinners logo. “Who We Are” ImageSpinners, LLC, is a New York–based public-relations ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

GREAT LAKE WINTER A crack in ice will join as well as rend. In every ear that thinks it’s safe from harm, The snap can clearly cause, or not, alarm. But those who hear ...
Athwart

The Teat Eternal

The New York Times Sunday magazine is where you find nice glossy ads for expensive consumer goods alongside 10,000-word stories on why expensive consumer goods do not make us happy. ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Ayn Rand, Christian Soldier? “The Greatly Ghastly Rand” (August 30), by Jason Lee Steorts, analyzes Ayn Rand and her writings accurately and not altogether without sympathy. Allow me to add my ...

Most Popular

U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More