Greenwich Village, my home, is the best place on Earth.
You may love a place more. I love the beauty of raw nature, untouched by human hands, that New York City no longer offers. But I love people and the art, music, culture, and community we create too and I’ve never seen the equal of the West Village.
After living abroad and visiting amazing growth, ancient cultures, new cultures, and new ways of seeing, I wondered how coming home would feel. Coming out of the subway to my home, seeing my neighbors, the neighborhood, the buildings, the restaurants, the people of the Village, and whatever visitors are here overwhelmed me with its diversity and vibrancy.
I write prose on life and leadership, not creative writing. I presume you come here for that, but I hope you’ll indulge me writing out of my element on a different subject than usual.
Getting off the plane in Newark, I got nervous. A summer in Shanghai meant meeting a lot of Americans who had decided America was past its prime and China the rising land of opportunity. If China is doing one thing well now, it’s building great infrastructure. America’s airports, train stations, and trains are in disrepair, like the U.S. government’s statement on infrastructure is a big fuck you to its citizens: “If we didn’t build it before thirty years ago”, our government says, “we don’t care about it, and anything more than minimal maintenance is more than enough.” Meanwhile you could almost eat off the floor of many of China’s train stations. Its subway stations are air-conditioned. Its airports shiny, new, and clean. My friend there said seven years ago, when he arrived, Shanghai had two subway lines. Now they have thirteen, with more under construction. New York City acts proud to add a fraction of a new line, taking decades — decades!! — to do it.
And Americans’ fatness never cease to amaze me. Each time I think I’m ready to see it on my return, they astound me with their fat. More people are fat than I expect. And each one is fatter than I expect. China has some fat people, but nothing like this. Vietnam, forget about it — the average person there would be ripped by American standards. I remember putting my arm around the waist of a girl I met there and feeling only lithe, lean muscle under the skin — no fat — and she just seemed like an average person, not someone who would go to the gym. What have we done with our advertising, our subsidies, our sloth — anything but a passion for fitness, for eating healthy foods in healthy quantities, our enjoyment of our bodies?
So commuting home from the flight I wondered if I was going to become another American who started to like overseas.
Then I got back to the West Village.
I felt it coming out of the PATH station on 9th Street and crossed Sixth Avenue. What do I love? The scale of the buildings and street, the pace of people walking, the life on the streets, the expressions and life on people’s faces, the styles of clothes, the diversity… I think the diversity most of all. The diversity I see in other places is the diversity from country to country and city to city. Vietnam differs from China; North Korea differs from everywhere. But within each community, the diversity fell off. The diversity in the village is within the community. You have everything here — we accept and celebrate it.
Partly I loved that it’s home, and that’s only special to me, not this place. My doorman’s first words were “Welcome back.” The first neighbor I saw in my building said “Hi. Weren’t you in China? How was that?” She saw me and knew me and remembered me and took the time to remark. How good does it feel when the first two people you see welcome you home and ask how your trip was?
The weather didn’t hurt — cool for August, the sun beginning to set about 8pm or so. I couldn’t resist going for a run. I ran down to the Hudson and down toward Battery Park.
In the run what I love most about the Village hit me. I could almost hear Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Woody Allen, and George Gershwin singing the beauty, vitality, vibrancy, and diversity of the streets, the architecture, and the people — the restaurants, new and old, patrons spilling onto the sidewalks and the street, the shops … the people partying on boats on the water and the pretty young girls in tight skirts waiting to get on … the Hasids, the gays holding hands, the skin colors and clothing styles from every place on Earth … the man playing sax on a park bench facing the setting sun, young men practicing parcour on park furniture, the Stuyvesant cheerleading squad practicing on the grass, people playing volleyball, pool, skateboarding, rollerblading, jogging — hundreds of runners, biking, walking, and talking, throwing frisbees … the intellectuals, the babies, the old people and young … the tourists, the natives …
And most of all the feeling of welcome, of acceptance, of celebration of people and what they say and do. Not just for me feeling welcomed home, though I reveled in being welcomed back to my home of more than a dozen years, but for everyone to drink it in, to participate, to give, to take as much as they want, to experience, to share, to open up, to be who you want how you want, knowing without question you will find a community to support you here. No matter what.
China, Vietnam, North Korea, Boracay, Manila, South Korea… these places I’ve visited and lived in recently taught me a lot. My distant years in Paris and Philadelphia. I love many things about them. Maybe if I spoke the languages or lived there longer I’d love them more. But being away from the Village only makes me love it more.
I don’t know how long ago I read On The Road — what non-pre-med/pre-law Columbia student couldn’t? — but I remember Kerouac’s passion for life, music, people, and meeting them deeply I so rarely saw expressed so finely and ecstatically, but that Rhapsody in Blue sings from the first wailing note, and the opening minutes of Woody Allen’s Manhattan show and he narrates.
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn
for life is holy and every moment is precious.
Or Broadway Boogie Woogie — the crowing masterpiece of a great once-European master, which is of New York and could only be of New York — of the life on its streets and its music.
I could never have imagined someone making such a statement as Broadway Boogie Woogie, and once made — so brightly, colorfully, rhythmically, synchopatedly, animatedly, richly, complexly — how could it be said about anything but New York?
Yes, I’m conflating all of New York with the Village, but you can’t have one without the other.
On to Woody…
Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over.
Chapter One: He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. Ah, corny, too corny for, you know, my taste. Let me, let me try and make it more profound.
Chapter One: He adored New York City. To him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams in – no, it’s gonna be too preachy, I mean, you know, let’s face it, I wanna sell some books here.
Chapter One: He adored New York City. Although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage – too angry. I don’t want to be angry.
Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be.
I don’t get poetry like some do, so I think I miss the full greatness a poet could get from Whitman, but I catch him enough to realize regular prose doesn’t capture the spirit of New York City as part of America, perhaps today past its prime, but alive in Greenwich Village:
More and more too, the old name absorbs into me Mannahatta, ‘the place encircled by many swift tides and sparkling waters.’ How fit a name for America’s great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! how aboriginal! how it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphere, vista and action?
There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.
Lo! body and soul!–this land! Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and The sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships; The varied and ample land,–the South And the North in the light–Ohio’s shores, and flashing Missouri, And ever the far-spreading prairies, covered with grass and corn.
Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.
Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.
I feel weird to say it, but the feeling brought tears to my eyes on the return from my run, walking by the brownstones on 10th Street near West 4th, and now again writing these words.
Work will bring me back abroad in a week and I’m open to new experiences and new places, but it’s hard to imaging loving a place more than the West Village.
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