Home from London.

Corner of 104th and Narnia

March 1, 1996

We’ve been here for a while now.  All the pictures are hung, all the boxes unpacked.  We’ve had a couple of dinner parties.  And another change of season is not far off.

When we were planning our move back, we decided to try to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, if we could afford it.  We’d had a different New York experience when we lived here before — two versions of Brooklyn; a transitional neighborhood (where Ann got mugged on our stoop one sunny Saturday around lunch time) and a yuppie ghetto full of precious children and lovely brownstones.  We enjoyed Brooklyn, but it was a long subway ride from Ann’s work; still longer to Lincoln Center, the theater district, the museums, and much of what we like most about the city.

We (mostly I, since Ann was working) went through the usual process of looking and gagging and raising the maximum amount we said we’d pay and still not being happy.  But finally we reached a happy outcome.

I called about an ad, and a nice real estate lady from Kazakhstan who seemed to favor strongly the beautiful mosaic idea over the melting pot took me to a hovelette that was dangerous, dirty, and noisy.  Cheap, though — only $2000 a month plus her standard fee of 15% of a year’s rent.  I asked to see someplace a little nicer — one that wouldn’t require us to wear hazmat suits indoors and Kevlar vests out.  She took me to a building at 104th Street and Riverside Drive overlooking Riverside Park and the Hudson.

It was late afternoon on a November day.  I ascended to a high floor in a slow elevator and emerged into a nondescript hallway in the company of a ceremonial escort.  On one side was the Kazakh rental agent; on the other, an off-duty doorman, a short, happy Hispanic who learned in doorman school how to sound like José Jiménez.  I think they were elves, because on the 11th floor, a magical thing happen.

The entry was on the east side of the apartment, and most of the windows looked west over the Hudson.  The setting sun bounced pink and orange off the white walls and hardwood floors, transforming an otherwise ordinary 1100-1200 square-foot cube into something to gladden the heart.  The way it opened out into the western sky and the river below made entering that space as much exit as entrance.  The dense, crowded, confinement of the city stayed behind somewhere.  For a moment, I was with Lucy and the other children when they went through the wardrobe into another world in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  To be able to look all the way to the horizon and still be in Gotham City was most agreeable.  It gave a sense of freedom that the city often begrudges.  We moved in as quickly as we could arrangements.

Besides the sense of opening, the view downward provides an ever changing show.  I’ve wondered sometimes why Monet painted the cathedral at Rouen over and over.  Why repeat the same subject so many times?  Now I know.  It wasn’t the same subject.  If you look away from the Hudson for a moment, when you turn back, it’s a different river.

In this winter of dramatic storms, the world outside the window has been especially interesting.  Last week we had strong wind — gusts to 60 mph — and the river was not merely whitecapping, it had waves that looked a little like the open sea.  During the coldest periods I checked intermittently to see if the ice from our shore was ever going to join that from the New Jersey side that I guessed to be half a mile away.  People who have lived here a long time talk about driving cars out to the Statue of Liberty.

It takes a lot of cold  to freeze the Hudson solid, though.  It’s salty, it has a strong current, and it’s tidal.  When partially frozen, the tide and current are quite apparent in the movement of the ice floes.  On one side, the ice moves downstream on the current.  On the other, it goes upstream on the tide.  Brightly painted tugs and barges and small tankers work their way up and down at midstream.

I enjoyed the better part of one windy afternoon watching a tug try to control a rather large, shiny red vessel of some sort.  I first spotted it over by the Jersey shore — rather perilously close to it, I thought.  Then the tug moved it out into midstream, and they put out an anchor from the bow of the ship.  It promptly did a 180-degree turn on its anchor, and drifted toward our bank.  If you stand back from the windows, you don’t see Riverside Park, which lies between the building and the river.  You don’t see anything that’s on land.  You just see water.  It’s like being on the deck of a ship.  So when the distressed vessel started my way, I thought it might be coming right into the bedroom.  I warned Peewee the cat to be ready to man the life boats.

The battle of ship against elements was ongoing when I turned away to start preparing supper.  At bedtime, I found it was still there bouncing up and down on its tether but slightly upstream toward the George Washington bridge.  It had enough lights on so that I could see figures moving about on the deck from time to time.  I hoped they were dressed warmly, because the wind was howling, and it was very cold.

During the night, normal street sounds almost disappeared, and the unnatural quiet woke me.  It’s one of the most welcome effects of a good snowstorm.  As the snow began to fall more heavily, the light changed to match the quiet.  Normally there is quite a lot of light all over Manhattan, but falling snow acts like a dimmer switch, softening everything.  As the force of the storm built, it became more difficult to see objects below.  Even lightly falling snow will erase New Jersey, but a lot of snow will take out the tree tops on our side.  Sometimes even the lamplights in the park.

For most of the night, the view we had been enchanted by that first November afternoon was lost to us.  I got out of bed a couple of times to peer out and enjoy the unnaturalness of that, then savored the winter’s-night pleasure of getting back under the warm covers.  Next morning as I drank coffee and read the paper, the storm left New York and took its drama out over the Atlantic.  I was glad to see my red boat was still afloat.  After a bit, the tug got its power up, and the two of them moved downstream toward lower Manhattan, and the snow began to melt as it always does — except in Narnia.


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