December 25, 2016

The Manhattan Chronicle: Part I

With excerpts from O'Henry's  short story, 'The Making of a New Yorker' that chronicles the experiences of Raggles, a penniless poet, who understood the soul of cities, and arrived in the city of Manhattan one day, trying to decipher it, and break it down into words.

She landed from a ferry boat one morning and walked into the core of the town with the blasé air of a cosmopolite.




She was dressed with care to play the role of the 'unidentified woman'. She tried to fit in. Scarves- large, wooly and bright-seemed to be the order of the season. She walked into a store and bought an Amber-coloured one, to match the fall leaves that fluttered around the pavements. And a cap -yes, she must have a cap, with a jaunty bauble at the top - might raise her height by a few inches. And boots with heels - Or maybe not. Wouldn't they worsen her backache?

Yes, she had a NYC map- which she hid carefully in her new luxe Polo Assn bag, and peeked at it only in secluded corners - unless she absolutely had to. She had bought the map from a kindly Punjabi gentleman at one of those shops in the subway, ones that sold everything from chewing-gum to Playboy magazines - for a steep price of $8.

With some money - (unbefitting to a poet), but with the ardor of an astronomer discovering a new star in the milky way, she walked into the great city.



On Broadway Raggles, successful suitor of many cities, stood, bashful, like any country swain. For the first time he experienced the poignant humiliation of being ignored. And when he tried to reduce this brilliant, swiftly changing, ice-cold city to a formula he failed utterly. Poet though he was, it offered him no color similes, no points of comparison, no flaw in its polished facets, no handle by which he could hold it up and view its shape and structure, as he familiarly and often contemptuously had done with other towns. The houses were interminable ramparts loopholed for defense; the people were bright but bloodless spectres passing in sinister and selfish array.
The cold besieged her as soon as she strode out in Central Park, in the mid-morning sunshine.
People ran through the park, in their colourful Nikes. Cyclists sailed past. Dogs ran ahead, their owners not far behind, matching their stride. Nobody stopped and stared. 
She finally found the way to the reservoir she had been looking for. The map said it was right there, but she had not been able to find a way to get to it. 

And there it was. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Impossibly blue, reflecting the gorgeous Victorian architecture of midtown Manhattan, for many miles. She hurriedly unpacked her breakfast, which she had decided to have in the park. The pizza slice had gotten cold, and the hazelnut flavoured coffee was now sickly sweet and lukewarm, but she sipped it, nevertheless. There was nowhere to sit, so she balanced the pizza on the railing overlooking the reservoir, and tried to take in the beauty. 'This was not supposed to be like this', she thought to herself.
Runners ran past, getting their daily mileage in, as she munched on her cold, cheesy $1 pizza.



Other cities had been easier to fathom-but here was one cold, glittering, serene, impossible as a four carat diamond in a window is to a lover outside fingering damply in his pocket his ribbon counter salary.
The walled city of Manhattan gave her no clue. 
The thing that weighed heaviest on Raggles's soul was the spirit of absolute egotism that seemed to saturate the people as toys are saturated with paint. Each one that he considered appeared a monster of abominable and insolent conceit. Humanity was gone from them; they were toddling idols of stone and varnish, worshipping themselves and greedy for though oblivious of worship from their fellow graven images. Frozen, cruel, implacable, impervious, cut to an identical pattern, they hurried on their ways like statues brought by some miracles to motion, while soul and feeling lay unaroused in the reluctant marble.
Brisk waiters in restaurants - Subway station masters that cut you short when you asked them something- unresponsive metro-card-reader machines - Long ramps through the changing subway lines in the labyrinth that is the Manhattan Underground- People absorbed, in their phones and Kindles-  Kindly bartenders(only if she tipped them well) - ATM machines that refused to read her card-Handsome men that sought acquaintance from others around, who, like them, belonged - It seemed that her mask wasn't holding up very well.


She trudged along, with four bags that were twice her weight, while the streets of 33rd and Broadway hummed all around her. Miles around, neon shop signs as high as the sky, and glittering buildings above them, clouded  her mind, and engulfed her senses. Road crossings, subway stairs, and crowded escalators - She made her way through these, feeling a sense of utter discomfort and alienation that was impossible to describe. Dare she ask one of these people for help? She was not bashful - she had overcome her shyness many years ago- But those impenetrable faces, and the speed at which they walked past  - She thought almost caught a few, but realised after they walked past, that she hadn't. Had she imagined that microsecond of eye-contact? That tiny sliver of empathy that had peeked through? Well, she must have imagined it.


Raggles summoned his courage and sought alms from the populace. Unheeding, regardless, they passed on without the wink of an eyelash to testify that they were conscious of his existence. And then he said to himself that this fair but pitiless city of Manhattan was without a soul; that its inhabitants were manikins moved by wires and springs, and that he was alone in a great wilderness.





She had met places before. Some welcomed her into them, with a natural embrace. Some were intriguing, distant, but exciting nevertheless. And some, so huge, so magnificent, and sure of themselves, turned on her, entirely full of themselves. 

Well, the city did have a heart. She had seen it when she visited it, a long time ago. In the windows of west village. In a steaming hot cup of coffee. Hidden in the complements of an Italian shopkeeper. In the endless delicious layers of a Mexican bowl. 


It was not buried so deep within its glittering exterior, than it was shrouded in the clouds of her mind. She went on to find it as the days passed, and she stored up those memories, treasured, and put them in a bottle like a time capsule. And she will write about it someday, soon, too.


Until then, this is what she did go through, and we capture it in this chronicle, true as day.



Love,
Shubhi

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