Do you know that Johnny Cash song? I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere: Milwaukee, Chicago, Laguna Beach, San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris, Barcelona, Prague, Berlin. I've moved across the country twice--from the Midwest to the West coast, then to the Deep South--and after college, I backpacked around Europe with money my Grandma left me when she died (enough for a plane ticket and a Eurorail pass). But I had never been to the one place I'd dreamed of visiting since I was a kid: New York City. That is, until last November.
Yes, I finally chomped into the Big Apple, and I loved it as much as I thought it would. It was fall, so the weather was crisp (but not too cold yet) and I was staying at the YMCA right by Central Park, where the leaves were sprinkling like snowflakes, the trees a riot of fall color. Ohhhh, THIS is why they write songs about this place! The hustle and bustle was exciting; having lived in San Francisco, crowded sidewalks and busy downtown streets didn't bother me too much--the trick is to go with the flow (don't stop and gawk, even if that IS the Empire State Building above you!).
I walked from one end of the city to the other, making sure to visit my own personal list of hotspots as well as a few in the guidebooks. My pilgrimmage to Macy's was in honor of Auntie Mame and Miracle on 34th Street, and I waited forever to get to the top of the Empire State just like in An Affair to Remember. Sigh. I love old movies.
I was in town primarily for a Poets' Forum, three days of readings, presentations, parties, and walking tours given by and focusing on poets. Many of the illuminaries of my field were on the dais:
Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Sharon Olds, Lyn Hejinian...and it was really cool to hear them read and discuss their craft. But I ended up feeling closer to the original New York poet than any of them: good ol' Walt Whitman.
My walking tour of Whitman's New York was fascinating not only in imagining the streets and bars and hospitals as he once saw them, but to hear his words about the scenes we viewed while standing on the very street corners he wrote about. One hundred and fifty years later, I was feeling Uncle Walt's presence rising from the cobblestones, his voice echoing above and through the cabdrivers' honking. I pictured him sashaying from one cafe to another in his women's pants, his long beard flowing, as he eyed the handsome young men--and, perhaps, the curious young women, too. Dare I insert myself into that scene?
In many of his poems, Whitman speaks directly to the reader, acknowledging that time and distance might separate him from me--yet also aware that through the words, we are connected, beyond time and space. Standing on his corner in his city, I listened to New York, so changed and yet so the same.