Here is New York by E. B. White

“No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

That may be one of my very favorite explanations of New York City. In particular, the part about being “willing.” Life is almost entirely about luck, and one’s particular path defined by her responses to it.

Over the years, I have read E. B. White’s classic essay Here is New York countless times. It is a warm companion on a snowy Sunday evening—quick and musical and smart—the perfect nightcap after lazy hours of red wine and jazz. It’s particularly enticing if you can glance out your very own window to see the city glowing back at you. I suppose my scenario is a bit contrary considering White’s 1948 snapshot of New York occurs during the swelter of the summertime. Nevertheless, a snowy, drunken Sunday is when it calls to me, mostly because of the first line: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Indeed, I am a person who appreciates the “gift” of both those qualities, and perhaps that is why New York has always appealed to me.

In Roger Angell’s “Introduction,” however, he questions the notion that present-day New York still offers those gifts. But I do not pause along with him. All it takes to find the loneliness and privacy is an aimless, pensive walk avenue after avenue amidst a sea of strangers. There’s nothing quite like it. I moved to New York at the age of eighteen to attend college, and I was, as White claims, the New Yorker “who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.” According to White, it is this particular breed that “accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.” But as a college student, what I unwittingly sought was experience. The only way to learn about the world is to be in it, which one must calibrate to her personal degree of activity or passivity. There’s nothing more intellectually, creatively, and personally stifling than homogeneity. And for someone whose natural inclination is that of homebody, I needed home to hit me in the face with worldliness—New York, forever “a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

White takes us on a tour of city—giving us a brief, yesteryear overview of the neighborhoods, the lifestyle, the diverse inhabitants, and the ways in which it is both “changeless and changing.” While we may feel 1948 was another time, in truth, it was and it wasn’t. In his “Foreword,” White keeps his essay evergreen with the simple recognition that “the reader will find certain observations no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum.” What year is it again? I particularly love his dated description of my favorite neighborhood: “In Greenwich Village the light is thinning: big apartments have come in, bordering the Square, and the bars are mirrored and chromed. But there are still in the Village the lingering traces of poesy, Mexican glass, hammered brass, batik, lamps made of whisky bottles, first novels made of fresh memories…”

It is only in the last six weeks that I have bid it farewell to New York after a decade-plus. The glow outside my old apartment window had long-since burned out. I was feeling “the normal frustrations of modern life…multiplied and amplified.” Yet rereading this essay from a distance, nostalgia is already working its magic. I am beginning to remember the romance of it all, recalling it through the eyes of that eighteen-year-old girl. As White says, “The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive dose of a supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.” Ah, yes. That’s right. Mighty and unparalleled. It’s lovely to have that feeling again, to look back with fondness and pride. And wherever I go in this world, New York assuredly comes too.

-JF, 2012

Citation: White, E. B. Here is New York. 1949. New York, The Little Bookroom, 1999. Print.

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