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2008-08-17 19:19

The essay collection Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, published after a lecture series at the New York Public Library, includes “Shadow Cities” by André Aciman. An excerpt follows.

¶ And, indeed, there was something physically central about Straus Park. This, after all, was where Broadway and West End Avenue intersected, and the park seemed almost like a raised hub on West 106th Street, leading to Riverside Park on one side and to Central Park on the other. Straus Park was not on one street but at the intersection of four. Suddenly, before I knew why, I felt quite at home. I was in one place that had at least four addresses.

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¶ Here you could come, sit, and let your mind drift in four different directions: Broadway, which at this height had an unspecified Northern European cast;

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West End, decidedly Londonish;

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107th, very quiet, very narrow, tucked away around the corner, reminded me of those deceptively humble alleys where one finds stately homes along the canals of Amsterdam.

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And 106th, as it descended toward Central Park, looked like the main alley of a small town on the Italian Riviera,

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where, after much trundling in the blinding light at noon as you take in the stagnant odor of fuel from the train station where you just got off, you finally approach a sort of cove, which you can’t make out yet but which you know is there, hidden behind a thick row of Mediterranean pines,

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over which, if you really strain your eyes, you’ll catch sight of the tops of striped beach umbrellas jutting beyond the trees, and beyond these, if you could just take a few steps closer, the sudden, spectacular blue of the sea.

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¶ To the west of Straus Park, however, the slice of Riverside and 106th had acquired a character that was strikingly Parisian,

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and with the fresh breeze which seems to swell and subside all afternoon long, you sensed that behind the trees of Riverside Park,

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serene and silent flowed an elusive Seine,

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and beyond it, past the bridges that were to take you across, though you couldn’t see any of it yet, was not the Hudson, not New Jersey, but the Left Bank—

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not the end of Manhattan, but the beginning of a whole bustling city waiting beyond the trees—as it waited so many decades ago when, as a boy, dreaming of Paris, I would go to the window, look out to the sea at night, and think that this was not North Africa at all, but the Ile de la Cité. Perhaps what lay beyond the trees was not the end of Manhattan, or even Paris, but the beginnings of another, unknown city, the real city, the one that always beckons, the one we invent each time and may never see and fear we’ve begun to forget.

¶ There were moments when, despite the buses and the trucks and the noise of people with boom boxes, the traffic light would change and everything came to a standstill and people weren’t speaking, and the unrelenting sun beat strong on the pavement, and I would almost swear this was an early summer afternoon in Italy, and that what lay behind Riverside Park was not just my imaginery Seine, but the Tiber as well. What made me think of Rome was that everything here reminded me of the kind of place all tourists know well: that tiny, empty piazza with a little fountain, where, thirsty and tired with too much walking all day, you douse your face, then unbuckle your sandals, sit on the scalding marble edge of a Baroque fountain, and simply let your feet rest a while in what is always exquisitely clear, non-drinkable water.

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¶ Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four or five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn’t avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York. I would return to Straus Park every day, because returning was itself now part of the ritual of remembering the shadow cities hidden there—so that I, who had put myself there, the way squatters put themselves somewhere and start to build on nothing, with nothing, would return for no reason other than perhaps to run into my own footprints. This became my habit, and ultimately my habitat. Sometimes finding that you are lost where you were lost last year can be oddly reassuring, almost familiar. You may never find yourself; but you do remember looking for yourself. That too can be reassuring, comforting.

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¶ How uncannily appropriate, therefore, to find out fifteen years later that the statue that helped me step back in time was not that of a nymph, but of Memory herself.

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In Greek, her name is Mnemosyne, Zeus’s mistress, mother of the Muses. I had, without knowing it, been coming to the right place after all. This is why I was so disturbed by the imminent demolition of the park: my house of memories would become a ghost park. If part of the city goes, part of us dies as well.