21 de enero de 2014

A night in New York (1)

To the reader:

I lived some years in New York, after finishing my studies in Spain. A friend of mine, who was born and lives in that city, studied Medicine in Madrid a little later. Whenever we meet, I remember my years in New York as probably the happiest of my life and so does my friend his years in Madrid. Another friend of mine, who lives now in Canada but studied in Paris, cannot refrain from making periodic ‘pilgrimages’ to the ville lumière. In fact, we all pursue and yearn for the same: the time bygone, our youth, when the whole life lay still ahead and seemed eternal.

After the Spaniards, the most numerous readers of my blog are from USA. For this reason, I would like to write this post in English. I will resume (again from the beginning) my short story A night in New York, which I started in a previous post, and will complete in two more posts in the next days. With my best wishes to my North-American readers.


Al lector:

Viví algunos años en Nueva York, recién terminada mi carrera en España. Un amigo mío, que nació y vive en esa ciudad, estudió Medicina en Madrid más o menos por la misma época. Cuando nos encontramos, yo recuerdo mis años de Nueva York como quizá los más felices de mi vida y él piensa lo mismo de sus años de Madrid. Otro amigo mío que vive ahora en Canadá, estudió Medicina en París y no puede evitar periódicas peregrinaciones a esa ciudad. En el fondo, todos perseguimos y añoramos lo mismo: el tiempo que se fue, nuestra juventud, cuando toda la vida estaba aún por delante y parecía eterna.

Tras los españoles, los lectores más numerosos de mi blog son de USA. Por esta razón, querría escribir esta entrada de mi blog en inglés. Continuaré (otra vez desde el principio) mi relato Una noche en Nueva York, que empecé en otra entrada anterior y terminaré en dos entradas más en los próximos días. Con mis mejores deseos para mis lectores norteamericanos.

A NIGHT IN NEW YORK (part 1 of 3)

It is such an amazing fantasy of stone, glass, and
iron, a fantasy constructed by crazy giants,
monsters longing after beauty, stormy souls full of
wild energy. All these Berlins, Parises, and other
"big" cities are trifle in comparison with New York.

(of a letter from Máxim Gorki to Leonid Andreev on his
first impressions of New York, April 11, 1906)

These were already years of apathy and boredom. He had come to New York as an obliged step in his rational approach to the problem, because he wanted to have all the data and with all possible accuracy. He did not come to this city as often as before but he had always thought that, faced with a life threatening and serious disease, he would like to rely on some other medical opinion, precisely here, taking advantage of the relative ease to come and the friends and connections that he still had. Then, once in the city, he had decided not to contact anyone until knowing the definitive results of the tests and medical examinations. But this was not planned, this was a last minute decision.

And there also was that other desire, large and turbidly caressed: that of coming here to die, disturbing no one, far from his reduced family and the old friends, in the city where he was so happy and where, in a certain sense, he had achieved everything. The city that he had nevertheless abandoned later. He had always experienced his return to Spain as a sort of betrayal to this New York in which his best dreams had become true. Why had he not remained here, why had he not spent his life here? Is that we know why we do the things we do?

Many a time he had imagined himself awaiting serenely his death at night, in some quiet place, isolated in the immense city, gazing once more at the fascinating spectacle of the nocturnal town that he had seen so many times coming to Manhattan, or returning, crossing some of the bridges that he normally transited, Queensboro or Brooklyn. New York is a city of light, of activity, of night and dreams. He still remembered his first trips on board the Staten Island ferry, in working days ¾ “there are more lights then”, he had been told¾, with the skyscrapers ablaze, alone or with some other friends, other foreigners like him, taking part in the tours organized by the club in which he inscribed himself just upon his arrival, located in the very center of Manhattan, the Midtown International Center.

In these tours the guide, a volunteer, a Jew of German background but born already here, would always pose questions, happy to be able to show for the first time so intense beauty to such heterogeneous groups: “What do you think, what does it remind you, what does it suggest to you?” ¡And so many different answers! All loaded with emotion, pointing all out the glorious show of the city flooded with light, exploding in light, like some inextinguishable fireworks, sprouting unstoppable from the waters, planted there by the effort of true titans, full of energy and life. It was a magic vision that evoked hidden and powerful giants, men capable of looking face to face to gods, men who were as worthy as gods, who perhaps were real gods and had forever stolen the sacred fire from the gods.

That wonder finished slowly and not completely every night, but one had the certainty of its daily and eternal renewal. And the same thing when crossing the innumerable bridges or climbing the Empire State or going to the delightful bar at the top floor of 666 Fifth Avenue. It would truly be a privilege to have that image in front of the eyes while bidding farewell to the world, to have it in the retina when everything were over.

In the hospital they had given him definitive results that very morning and they were practically the same as those of Madrid. There was little hope and the treatment would be prolonged and hard. He refused to be treated and the doctor tried to convince him but did not insist much once he saw the patient’s determination. “If you change your mind, Mr. Villar, please, call this number. If you are going to start, it is convenient to do it at once. Think it over, you still have 10-15 % chances of recovery”, he said while writing on a card with the name Mr. Arturo Villar: Duly informed, the patient declined treatment.

He left the hospital and started walking on Fifth Avenue. He saw himself forty years back, driving a car in the same street. He was then 25 years old, had arrived to New York a few months earlier to work as a civil engineer and had adapted himself quickly. He had been born in a small village in the South of Spain and did not have a car there, although he had obtained a driving license. The car was almost new and the woman who had sold it to him, when she realized how little experience he had at driving, insisted, calling him by his first name, as almost everyone did at that time: “Arturo, be very careful, please; promise me that you’ll be very careful”. As if she were an old friend, sincerely worried about him. She was young too; all were young then.

He returned to the hotel ¾he had fancied to lodge at the Waldorf Astoria, in Park Avenue¾, had just a snack in one of the bars and went to his room for a rest. Around 6 p.m. he dressed up with a care unusual in the latter times, left a letter addressed to the Hotel Director, put on a light blue cashmere overcoat with a mild yellow foulard and took a cab to Katz’s, on Houston St. It had been a long time that he had not gone there. He saw once again at the entrance pictures of Presidents of the United States who had eaten some time at the popular and famous delicatessen. He had a pastrami sandwich on rye bread and amused himself looking at the array of clients that crowded the tables of the self-service: people of all races and conditions, some in family groups, not excessively noisy.

When he left the restaurant it was almost dark. He took another cab to Battery Park, to the terminal of the Staten Island ferry and embarked on the first one available. Most of the travelers were people returning home after a tiring workday in Manhattan. He saw again the illuminated city skyline as he had seen it so many times when he was living here, without the World Trade Center towers that were not built then and had been destroyed now. The mystery and charm of that infinite Babel flooded again his heart: “Nueva York, ¿qué ángel llevas oculto en la mejilla?”*. Even García Lorca, who arrived at the city in 1929, tormented by a terrible personal crisis, who was utterly unhappy in this country and wrote in those months some of the saddest and most lonesome verses in the history of poetry, came at some moment to perceive this something angelic and glorious that has here the landscape. This feeling of unlimited confidence in life, of exciting harvest of hopes. “Por el East River y el Bronx / los muchachos cantaban enseñando sus cinturas”*, chanted Federico in his Ode to Walt Whitman.

Returning to Manhattan, while he approached the multicolor mountain, to the left stood the Statue of Liberty, this gigantic and laic goddess who dazzled so many and to whom the man with the blue coat thought he had honored and offered sacrifices more than to any other. Some time ago, when an enormous blackout had extinguished the lights of the New York city, the statue had remained illuminated as a symbol of what cannot be ever destroyed: the longing for freedom. Life, you told yourself, as you looked the statue, can be happy or disgraceful, fulfilled or miserable, but if it is not free it is not properly a life. And you remembered how moved you were when you visited her, just arrived in the city and the poem inscribed on the bronze plaque of the pedestal: Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door

You learned later that these emotive verses had been written by a woman, Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew belonging to one of the oldest Jewish families in town. The statue, “Freedom lighting up the world”, was erected in 1886 but did not have by her Emma’s words till 1901, when Emma had already died, aged only 38. At the inauguration in 1886, President Grover Cleveland had asked for “her light, the light of freedom, may pierce the darkness of human ignorance and oppression”.

Unfortunately, there is not any paradise on this earth of ours. The poet Leon Felipe wrote: “Sabemos que no hay tierra / ni estrellas prometidas”**. The United States is not either. But there is something, however, derived directly from the Founding Fathers, that is pregnant of longing for freedom and justice. In spite of everything, it is beautiful to erect statues to ideas and finally there are not so many. The fact that reality always falls short of the professed ideals does not justify scorning them. America is a good country for those who come to her and bring a dream. Not everyone fulfills it, obviously, but you still think, now that you are about to leave everything, that here it is probably easier that elsewhere in the world. Although now, that you make this trip for the last time, you also understand that almost all human ambitions are mad desires. You are having the temptation of finishing your trip here, not because any circumstantial whim or sudden weakness but because you know that this city has been forged with illusions and keeps the value to which you have dedicated more vigorously your life: freedom. But for the moment you want to reach again Manhattan’s tip and ramble a last time through the old paths, when your heart took you from one place to another, fluttering and zigzagging as a young bird learning to fly.

Once landed, the man in blue coat took a cab: “I want to make a tour of about two hours, have you the time?”, he asked the driver. “Yes”, answered he, after having studied briefly the man to gauge whether he could pay for the service. “We will then go to Union Square and from there, by Broadway, to 72nd street. Then we will drive by the West Side Highway, southbound. I want to cross the Brooklyn bridge and reach later Verrazano Bridge. We will stop somewhere”.

It was already late and there were few people in the streets. Only arriving at 42nd street, in Times Square, there were crowds and nocturnal life. When they arrived at 72nd street, the man asked the driver to wait and, before he said anything, gave him a 100-dollar bill. “Wait for me a moment, please”. He walked a little, looking for the number of a house. When he found it he looked at the building and was amazed to realize that he was unable to recognize anything, neither the door, nor the windows nor any other detail of the house. He had gone there so many times and now he could not remember a single feature of the building. He became sad. Why memory is also destroyed, of what fragile and poor material are made our memories? But it persists, and you can trace it, the happiness associated with remembrances, you answered yourself. Something remains forever. And you saw yourself in those eternal summer evenings, savoring deeply life with Susan and then returning to Brooklyn by the route that you were to partially take now, reaching the tip of Manhattan island, leaving always to your left that enchanted and secret forest, of changing lights, into which the city turned itself at night.

With the cab they followed now the same itinerary and they headed for Brooklyn, crossing Brooklyn Bridge. In nothing had diminished the beauty of the scenery, although he understood that now other human beings would be called to enjoy the plenitude of the days, as he and Susan had done so many years ago, and could not avoid even the feeling of being coercing almost fraudulently reality, trying to rip from it something that it did not belong to him in strict justice. He remembered, as he did so often, the companion of so many years so atrociously absent. Immersed in so much nostalgia, he, nevertheless, did not fail to perceive that life was still there, intact, powerful, inextinguishable and vibrant, albeit it was now for others. And that memories brought to him, in spite of everything, the gift of a balmy and calm happiness. After some time they crossed Brooklyn and arrived at Verrazano bridge. The bridge had been inaugurated exactly the year when the Spanish engineer arrived in America, in 1964. It was built by another engineer, born in Switzerland, Othmar H. Ammann, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 25 years, because he had the implacable dream of building bridges and thought that this country was the most appropriated to accomplish that dream. At that time it was the longest suspended bridge in the world. It took its name from the first European who explored what is today New York harbor, Giovanni da Verrazano, in 1524. The suspension towers are not exactly parallel because they must adapt to earth’s sphericity, so they are four centimeters further apart in their upper poles that in their bases. The contractions and expansions of its metallic structures cause the bridge to be four meters lower in summer than in winter. Ammann had also worked on Quennsboro Bridge as a helper of Gustav Lindenthal, an Austrian who emigrated to the United States aged 24 years, surely haunted by unpostponable designs.

It was almost 3 a.m. and he asked the driver to turn around to come back to Manhattan and leave him on Bowery Street. The driver asked him sharp but politely: “Are you sure, Sir, that you want to be left there?”, surprised by the proposed destination and the man answered without hesitation: “Yes, it is there where I want to go. Do not worry”. When they arrived, the man paid him and gave him a good tip. The driver could not help offering a last recommendation: “Take good care, Sir, you are not in the best part of New York”. “I know, thank you”, he answered. This is precisely what I am looking for, he thought.

* New York, what angel do you keep hidden in your chick?
* By the East River and Bronx the youths chanted showing their waists.
** We know that there are not promised land or stars.