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City Desk

And All That Mighty Heart Is Lying Still

by Richard Brookhiser

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?

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.

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