The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Here Is New York”


Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

New York is one of the most evocative of cities. You could fill a library with works addressing its particular charms/annoyances/character. Like Paris, it exists as a symbol, as well as an actual landscape on the planet earth – and the symbol and the reality do battle, and anyone who lives here knows what that feels like (especially the transplants, those who came here from somewhere else). You either dream about New York or you don’t. If you do, then you understand. There is a ton of great writing about New York, and I hesitate to play favorites, but for me there are two essays which capture New York’s essence (and how it operates in its citizens) – one is Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That,” which is so powerful I have only read it in its entirety maybe 4 times. I still can recite some sections of it by heart. It is definitely the perspective of a transplant to New York. Those who grew up here would not have the same relationship to a city, but “Goodbye to All That” is the apotheosis of the transplant’s expression of love/dismay/heartbreak in relationship to her chosen city.

The second high watermark of New York essay writing is the following, from E.B. White. He, too, was a transplant. And he also kept one foot out of New York, by living on a farm in Maine, after years of New York living. Sometimes it is the “outsider” who can see more clearly what a landscape provides, what it IS. Some of my Irish friends read some of my writings on my trip to Dublin in 2006, at the height of the so-called Celtic Tiger (which then crashed and burned, horribly) – and they said to me that they hadn’t realized just how crazy it had all gotten, and just how much Dublin had changed until they read some of my writing on it. I had hesitated to even put that writing out there. Nothing more obnoxious than an outsider saying, “Wow. What the hell is going on here.” But I’ve been to Ireland enough. I could sense something was very very different, and I called it out. I didn’t mean it as criticism. It was observation. What was happening was a speculative-bubble type financial boom which has since collapsed – and many Irish people saw it coming, but many didn’t, because that is the nature of unreal financial booms. You can’t see it while you’re in it. Visiting Dublin in 2006 was like visiting New York in 1986. Or like visiting the office of a dot-com startup in 1998 (I worked for one of those dot-com startups, so I know of which I speak! Complete Fantasy-Land.)

So E.B. White, despite his years-long residence in New York, was still “not from there,” and in “Here Is New York,” he sets out to explain the city. Its attractions, its quirks. The piece was written in 1949. A lot has changed, but also nothing has changed. New York is eternal. There are some observations here that are so on the money that I want to pass out excerpts of it, in order to explain to people who don’t get it – THIS is what New York is all about.

I have always maintained that New York, despite its reputation for rudeness, is a city positively obsessed with good manners. There are just too many of us, and we all need to work together. For example, just try to cut in line at a bank in New York. You will be reprimanded sharply and immediately by multiple people, the same way a family reprimands a misbehaving toddler. There are certain things that are sacred in New York and maintaining the integrity of the line is one of them. I wrote an entire essay about the experience of standing in line in Manhattan and what it says about New York life. I have lived in many cities and New York is unique in its collective sense that we are all in this together, so don’t cut in line, don’t cut people off, if you try to push to the front, we WILL correct you. It “reads” as rudeness to those who don’t understand the code, to those who are used to passive-aggressiveness. There are many many more examples. One of my favorite examples is: ask a New Yorker for directions. They will go out of their way to give you the best directions possible (if they stop when you ask them, that is. Sometimes they are too busy and will blow on by you.) I have been that person OVER-explaining how to get to the A train and how to transfer at West 4th. By the end, the poor tourist is like, “Okay, okay, please stop giving me a dissertation. I got it.” But New Yorkers LOVE being helpful about their home town.

E.B. White nails that in a far more concise way than I just did. He also nails the neighborhood-quality of New York life, something that will totally not be apparent to someone visiting New York for the first time, or as a tourist. New York is grouped into hundreds of small neighborhoods. Everything you need is in a 3-block radius. And it is because of this that New York, despite its cosmopolitan reputation, is one of the most provincial of cities. New Yorkers don’t like to travel. There was a whole Sex and the City episode where Miranda moved to Brooklyn and everyone treated it as though she was being deployed to Afghanistan. Hilarious and silly, but so true. I live in New Jersey, just over the river, and it is 10 minutes with no traffic to Times Square. TEN MINUTES. Way less than a trip to Brooklyn. But just try to get a New Yorker to come visit you “in Jersey.” It feels like the dark side of the moon. It’s very strange, but one of its funny quirks. If you live on the Upper East Side, you may as well live in Connecticut. If you live in Queens, you may as well live in Iowa. Easily reachable by multiple trains, but the perception is that it is far far far away, and that is because of the neighborhood setup of Manhattan. People stick to their neighborhoods.

After 9/11, this essay was pulled out and quoted all the time, because of a prophetic couple of paragraphs near the end, where E.B. White gets a sense of the city’s vulnerability from the air, especially with these brand new skyscrapers and the Empire State Building rising like targets to be taken down by a “perverted dreamer”:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

It’s downright eerie.

But that’s a small section of a larger whole. The essay should be read in its entirety, of course, but here’s an excerpt about New York’s hidden neighborhood setup.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “Here Is New York”

To an outlander a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom. Tourists make for New York, particularly in summertime – they swarm all over the Statue of Liberty (where man a resident of the town has never set foot), they invade the Automat, visit radio studios, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and they window shop. Mostly they have a pretty good time. But sometimes in New York you run across the disillusioned – a young couple who are obviously visitors, newlyweds perhaps, for whom the bright dream has vanished. The place has been too much for them; they sit languishing in a cheap restaurant over a speechless meal.

The oft-quoted thumbnail sketch of New York is, of course, “It’s a wonderful place, but I’d hate to live there.” I have an idea that people from villages and small towns, people accustomed to the convenience and friendliness of neighborhood over-the-fence living, are unaware that life in New York follows the neighborhood pattern. The city is literally a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units. There are, of course, the big districts and big units: Chelsea and Murray Hill and Gramercy (which are residential units), Harlem (a racial unit), Greenwich Village (a unit dedicated to the arts and other matters), and there is Radio City (a commercial development), Peter Cooper Village (a housing unit), the Medical Center (a sickness unit) and many other sections each of which has some distinguishing characteristic. But the curious thing about New York is that each large geographical unit is composed of countless small neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is virtually self-sufficient. Usually it is no more than two or three blocks long and a couple of blocks wide. Each area is a city within a city within a city. Thus, no matter where you live in New York you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar (where you write your order on a pad outside as you walk by), a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop. Every block or two, in most residential sections of New York, is a little main street. A man starts for work in the morning and before he has gone two hundred yards he has completed half a dozen missions: bought a paper, left a pair of shoes to be soled, picked up a pack of cigarettes, ordered a bottle of whiskey to be dispatched in the opposite direction against his home-coming, writing a message to the unseen forces of the wood cellar, and notified the dry cleaner that a pair of trousers awaits call. Homeward-bound eight hours later, he buys a bunch of pussy willows, a Mazda bulb, a drink, a shine – all between the corner where he steps off the bus and his apartment. So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village. Let him walk two blocks from his corner and he is in a strange land and will feel uneasy till he gets back.

Storekeepers are particularly conscious of neighborhood boundary lines. A woman friend of mine moved recently from one apartment to another, a distance of three blocks. When she turned up, the day after the move, at the same grocer’s that she had patronized for years, the proprietor was in ecstasy – almost in tears – at seeing her. “I was afraid,” he said, “now that you’ve moved away I wouldn’t be seeing you anymore.” To him, away was three blocks, or about 750 feet.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Here Is New York”

  1. Kent says:

    I miss New York. Always loved every single second spent there. Haven’t been there in a long long time. I also know from reports (and your photos) that most of the New York I miss hasn’t been there in a long long time as well. Even Ron Gallela moved away. The Jackie O Rolls Royce isn’t parked 24/7 on 5th. If you asked the doorman about the car, he would tell you: “Mrs. Kennedy does not have a garage in the building.” hmmm. Interesting info. Not Mrs. Onassis or Mrs. O? Or Mrs. K? Mrs. Kennedy. No garage? New York is weird like that. Round two: “Why no garage? She can afford one!”. Smirky brat. “Mrs. Kennedy has three garages, the building has none.” At that, a chilling dismissal and the immediate knowledge that I will never receive another answer from the doorman as long as I live. And the Roller will never move, except in the winter, before the first snow.

    • sheila says:

      // Not Mrs. Onassis or Mrs. O? Or Mrs. K? Mrs. Kennedy. No garage? //

      Ha!! Kent, I love this story about your interactions with the doorman. Hilarious.

      Yes, New York is much changed. Times Square is basically Disney World now. I avoid it as much as possible.

  2. Kent says:

    My earliest memories of Times Square and 42nd Street, in the 1970s, are of all the guys with small folding tables doing card tricks and playing shell games, hustling tourists. VERY exciting, almost as exciting as triple bill X-rated movies! Old debbil gentrification wipes the stink off the streets and puts the shell games in corporate boardrooms and bedrooms. The game hasn’t changed, only the buy in and stakes. Fortunately, the Temple of Dendur is eternal.

  3. Martin says:

    On the subject of good New York essays, have you read Jonathan Franzen’s “Interview with New York State?” The Guardian has it here:

    It’s witty but heartfelt, in spite of a hint of that Franzen-ish whining tone, and cleverly encapsulates contemporary NYC–or at least the way I feel about contemporary NYC, being a midwesterner who’s spent a total of two weeks there, the rest of the time maintaining a long distance love-hatred via books and movies, and essays like this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.