Chapter 1-12th Street
Every time I climb these dingy stairs at the 12th Street station I hold my breath. It’s a ritual-something to prepare me for the switch from my underground reality to the delightful landscape waiting above. The 1/2/3 line of the New York City subway can take a girl many places, but there is no place it can take her to like the West Village. The sound of my heels as they clip up the steps transforms into a single thought, then bifurcates into opposing eras. The first branch stands firm in the present tense-it’s absurd of any woman to walk up the subway stairs in high heeled shoes when she’s five months pregnant. The second leans into the past to transform the cacophony to bygone horses hooves on cobblestone paths. This is still Childe Hassam’s New York-so uneroded it’s easy to imagine I’m one of the women in his paintings.
At the turn of the last century, he painted Manhattan residents as they braved the elements with nothing but bustles and parasols for defence. As I near the top step, his images flood to mind: streets so slick with rain I pause to steady my own two feet; wind kicked up so high I gather my jacket closer to me; women so rigid, yet so elongated any good yoga teacher would tuck her tailbone, knit her ribs together and be thankful she doesn’t have to wear a corset. Hassam depicted the sheer will of urbanization as it fought against nature. The former has triumphed-so far, but not in the West Village. Somehow it’s escaped the slippery, ephemeral grasp of the rest of this town. The gas street lamps are still here. The narrow roads haven’t expanded. The slender brick houses still stand.
Of course, the Village changes, but for a city whose most consistent characteristic is inconsistency-plans for highways and highrises are continually thwarted here. Most of the original Dutch architecture is gone, but there are still examples of single-family homes preserved on these tiny streets. Someone protects them. The privilege as I step into a world where so much took place before I came along, is the knowledge that in a hundred years some other overly romantic lover of history will wander this village with a similar sense of awe. They’ll want to know who walked before them, what they wore, how they travelled. They’ll express quiet gratitude to Mr Hassam for his momentary glimpse. While they ruminate over the countless people who traversed this path throughout history, the privilege is to know I am one of them. So, I always hold my breath before I step into the West Village.
While we were underground the cobblestones were lacquered with rain. As we emerge, my first breath is the scent of fresh rainwater on warm pavement. There’s a word for that smell. While I’ll never forget it now, it takes me back to a time before Google-a time, not so long ago, when the bridge between life as I knew it to life in the Information Age was not yet complete. Now, in 2009, it’s official-we live in the age of information. In my fifteen short years in New York, I’ve grown old enough to have witnessed several sets of “Befores and Afters.”
Pre-Millennium and Post-Millennium
The Clinton Era and the Bush Era
Pre-911 and Post-911
Life before the Information Age and life in it.
We were in Las Vegas not too long ago. In fact, it was only two years ago when Jack, Martin, Poppy and I walked down a desert road just after it rained. Rain in Las Vegas, it was disconcerting, but not enough for us to miss the smell.
“I love that smell,” I had said to Jack, “There’s a word for it I can’t think of.”
“It’s on the tip of my tongue,” Jack had smiled.
No one had an iPhone yet, except me. Jack bought me the very first model with the titanium back after he’d won a round of blackjack at the casino. I loved it. I loved it more than a human being should ever love an inanimate object. I’d stare at it when I woke up and say, “Good morning. How’s my shiny new friend today?”
“We’ll look up the word when we get back to the hotel room,” Jack had offered.
My new phone sat in my pocket, secretly giddy about the power it was about to unleash on the world. It hadn’t occurred to me I could just take it out and Google the answer for us. The reflex wasn’t there yet. Imagine.
“Petrichor,” Martin had said in that way Martin says things, “It’s petrichor.”
How lovely to smell petrichor now, here in New York City as Jack and I make our way to Martin’s apartment. So much can change in two years: Martin and Poppy are divorced, I’m pregnant, Google’s a verb, but we will always have petrichor.
image: Rain Storm, Union Square, by Childe Hassam-fineartamerica.com
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