Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

The City, from Afar

The road follows the right angles of everything out here, farms, townships, counties, states. On either side, fields showing stubble. Thick gnarly trees mark homesteads and cemeteries. Where the land is flat, or gently rolling, which it mostly is, the snow slips patiently over the shoulders, and overnight it has congealed into a hard shell. The sun is low and bright.

“So where do you live?” the driver asks the visitor.

Can it be a mystery? The city stalks the ether, proclaiming a million boasts about itself, melodious, energetic, compulsive, idiotic. It is money and magic, danger and dread. But seeing it, especially in guises so romantic or ludicrous, is not the same as living there. Try talking about the roads.

“We live on an avenue. There are a lot of hospitals in the neighborhood, so we’re always hearing sirens. I was doing a radio interview by phone once, and the host asked, ‘Is something going on?’” “Something” = a murder, the next 9/11. “‘No,’ I said, “‘that’s just normal background.’ I hadn’t ever heard it.”

A pickup, flying a warning flag from its antenna, approached, followed by a flatbed bearing an oversized roll of something, trailed by another pickup with a flag. “Lots of big loads out today,” the driver says.

Try again. “One of my friends was in town, complaining about the traffic. She said, ‘There are no lines on the roads.’ I said, ‘Of course there are, they’re painted right on.’ She said, ‘But nobody stays in them.’ I said,Oh, stays in them!’”

The smallest towns have the most hifalutin names: That one was an Asiatic capital; that other one an African country. Where two state roads cross there is a knot of commercialism, a fast-food place, a Harley distributor. Churches wear peeling coats of white paint. In the big towns mid-century courthouses sport bulbous mansarded cupolas. (That is mid-century as in Abraham Lincoln, not Lucille Ball.) There are also Civil War memorials, with many, many names.

Try history: Inferno Lost. “When I moved to the city, it was in rough shape. You didn’t want to cross the park in the daytime, not because it was dangerous, but because it was seedy. The transformation has been unimaginable. People who’ve moved there in the last 20 years can’t believe it was ever any other way.”

This gets a rise. “Do you ride the subway?”

Protestations. “Sure, it’s so convenient.” Short history of broken-windows policing. “That was where the first progress was made, bringing crime down. When they arrested turnstile jumpers, they caught a lot of guys with guns.” But the image of people formerly jumping turnstiles with guns somehow undercuts the fact that fewer do so now. We pass a deer pole, with half a dozen carcasses hanging.

Try personal history. “My father” — dead three years now — “grew up upstate. But his father worked for the New York Central, so he could travel for free. He would go into the city to see the Yankees. The first time he went, his older sister said, ‘Stop looking up at the buildings, people will think you’re a rube!’”

“I took my son to Connecticut once,” came the answer, “and he wanted to go to Yankee Stadium. But we didn’t. I guess there’s ways of getting there easily.” The allure was insufficient to subdue the uncertainty? My father saw Gehrig, my brother asked Mantle to sign a ball, I saw Jeter’s last single on YouTube.

Try stereotypes. “I know a man who advises construction companies on safety. Once he had a job in Queens, with a lot of young Italian-American guys on the site. One of them said he knew John Gotti, and my friend mentioned it to the senior union guy. He asked, serious of all of a sudden, ‘Who said that name?’ My friend told him, and he said, ‘Thank you for that information.’ Next morning a car drives up with two guys in suits. They beckon the kid over and drive off.” The abrupt ending sounds melodramatic, or coy. “I assume they were just intimidating him.” Try another ending. “The mob is something else that was cleaned up over the last 20 years.” The night before I had seen the mayor who did the cleansing on television; he now advertises a personal security system.

A sleeping NASCAR stadium passes, huge as a pyramid or the Parthenon. Then a series of small lakes and the amusements of an earlier time: Petrified Forest, Funland.

“I grew up in” — the driver names a suburb of the city we are heading toward. “You could leave your doors unlocked, keep keys in the car. There were still farms. But I moved out here five years before my son was born.” The big city in this state was never cleansed. Refugee sociology: “The population is just not educated. Only 20 percent even finish high school.”

Travel narrows the mind. You travel to see sights, relax, or perform; then you go home. But unless you have old friends at your destination, or linger long enough to make new ones, all you come back with is a collection of glimpses, like a deck of cards. The road widens into a highway, fields sink under condos. We end up talking about movies: the musical fairy tale, the trek of discovery. I barely go to movies, it’s a struggle to keep up.

Weather is always discussable. All week the Internet has been screaming about the storms of the century, trampling the city like King Kong. I spent one night on the way out in an airport hotel, traveling early to avoid one blizzard, and I will spend another in the same hotel, grounded by the next. That is travel without even the benefit of glimpses. An atrium with glass elevators rising like carbonation, a lobby restaurant with wooden menus and entrees, scrolling on the flat-screen TV through Nickelodeon, ESPN, Sleepy Hollow. From the outside, America and you can look insane and worthless. You have to be somewhere to be.

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

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