Sunday, March 25, 2018

347. Wonder: Can We Find It in New York?

In the Offing

This new feature will announce things to come, starting next week.


What they've said about New York:

"When I saw Manhattan, I wanted it." -- Quentin Crisp, the self-styled Stately Homo of England

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding." -- John Updike

"Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself." -- John Lennon

"New York is appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire."  --  Henry James

Also: Martin Shkreli -- yet again!

Yes, just when we thought he'd been packed off to Durance Vile for a seven-year sentence for fraud, he reappears.  No, he's still locked up, but journalist James B. Stewart, in an article entitled "Deceit and Demeanor" in the Business Day section of the New York Times of March 23, 2018, contrasts his fate with that of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the Silicon Valley blood-testing start-up Theranos, who was recently accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of massive fraud.  It seems that she deceived investors into believing that Theranos could perform comprehensive tests on a single drop of blood -- a claim that the SEC insists was false -- and also misrepresented the company's financial condition.  Result: Ms. Holmes, an attractive young woman with long blond hair, settled with the SEC without having to admit guilt.  She is barred for ten years from being an officer or director of any public company and paid a fine of $500,000, but is still CEO of Theranos, a private company.  Published with the article is gimmicked photo showing Mr. Shkreli, with a mischievous smirk, behind bars, while Ms.  Holmes, with flowing blond hair, well lipsticked and garbed sveltely in black, stands at liberty in front of the bars.  In court Ms. Holmes appeared appropriately subdued, drawing no attention to herself, whereas Mr. Shkreli, to his attorney's despair, showed not a hint of humility or contrition, smirking and rolling his eyes throughout the proceedings.  Mr. Shkreli, one must remember, was convicted not of arrogance or pharmaceutical misdeeds, but of fraud, and the extent of his fraud was far less than hers.  His attorney believes that his behavior added years to his sentence. Admittedly, many of us cheered at the news of his conviction, but we were cheering his punishment for youthful arrogance and greed far more than fraud; we wanted him to be taken down, and he was.  But few of us were even aware of Ms. Holmes's misdeeds and the modest price she paid for them.  So it goes in these United States.


         Wonder: we need it; without it, our lives are bleak and bare.  But what is it?  According to the dictionary, “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”  To which I might add, “and a feeling of joy.”  But can we experience it in New York?  The night sky with its myriad stars provokes wonder, but it isn’t easily seen in the city.  But we can find wonder here, and must.  Einstein, who was not conventionally religious, memorably observed, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead -- his eyes are closed.”  His “mysterious” is surely the same as wonder, or close to it.  So here is where I have found wonder in New York.

         First of all, Lower Manhattan at night, when seen from Brooklyn or the air.  That fantastic panorama of high-rises ablaze with lights, as well as the bridges and waterfront.  Every time I see it I am overwhelmed.  Though familiar, it is wondrously beautiful and reminds me why I love New York.  A friend recently told me of a sign on the old Chemical Bank building at South Ferry: “New York is New York.  Is there anywhere else?”  Indeed, is there?  The world has many magical and strikingly beautiful cities, but they aren’t New York.

all sizes
Use this file
on the web
Use this file
on a wiki
Email a link
to this file
about reusing
File:Lower Manhattan from Governors Island August 2017 panorama.jpg
King of Hearts

         Next, for a similar effect I’ll mention Lincoln Center at night, preferably in mild weather, with all the buildings and the fountain lit up.  Magnificent.

          And the George Washington Bridge, that marvelous span across the Hudson, with its twin towers and harplike chords of steel, leaping gracefully and majestically across the river far below.  Walking across it, as I have done many times, you forget the noise of the traffic and find yourself immersed in air and light, close to sky and far from solid land and the water below.

File:George Washington Bridge from New Jersey-edit.jpg
John O'Connell

         But these are familiar sights, you may object, beautiful but not surprising, given the marvels of modern technology.  All right, let’s try something else.  Across the Hudson, the looming gray-basalt cliff face of the Palisades, almost vertical, 400 and 500 feet high.  I have hiked there many times.  Taking the shore path down near the river, one comes to the Giant Stairs, a jumble of boulders that have cracked off from the cliffs and tumbled down there to create this strange lunar landscape whose great chunks of rock often wobble as you scramble zigzag over them.  And below those boulders, in dark caverns and recesses that never see the light of day, lurk lizards, foxes, raccoons, small rodents, and venomous cottonmouths that you will never see, since they hug the shadows when they hear you coming.  This landscape humbles me, for it hints of great natural forces at work over eons of time, shaping and reshaping the land we profess to own and control.  That those forces are still at work became clear in May 2012, when they broke off a huge face of the cliffs and sent it crashing down to the edge of the river, sweeping with it into the river a whole stand of trees.  Since the slide occurred in the evening, no hikers were injured, but the warning of danger resonated and that stretch of the shore path had to be closed.

File:Palisades cliff.jpg
The Palisades, looking south toward New York City.

         Maybe you will tell me that the Palisades and their Giant Stairs inspire a feeling of awe that isn’t quite the same as wonder, so I’ll try something else.  How about buds opening in April, and the miracle of life?  

File:Sycamore - Stages of opening leaf buds (1) - - 768239.jpg
Evelyn Simak

We take it so for granted, our being here for a certain stretch of time, as if this wasn't the most unlikely and miraculous of events.   At least we can utter a two-line poem that I encountered in a high school English class long ago:


         Too philosophical?  Too abstract?  Then I’ll trot out my memory of a huge sycamore tree that thrusts its mottled trunk skyward at a certain spot in Van Cortland Park.  It is the largest sycamore, and one of the most massive trees, that I have ever seen, its trunk measuring at least six feet across.  Like all sycamores, its brown bark flakes off in jagged pieces, exposing the yellow and white underbark beneath.  And right near it, in the shadows under some smaller trees, grow the umbrella-like clusters of small white flowers and the delicate fernlike leaves of poison hemlock, whose juices conveyed Socrates from ancient Athens to the hereafter.  (Don’t try it, anyone contemplating suicide.  Plato makes it sound calm and peaceful, but other sources say that hemlock poisoning is very unpleasant indeed.)

File:Pinchot Sycamore - sycamore tree in Simsbury, Connecticut, May 2015.jpg
Not my tree, whose trunk is not this thick.  But this gives an idea...

         In Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, wonder has come to me with a sudden flapping of two hundred snow geese that I have startled into flight.  Or when I walked softly on a gravel path, one September morning, into a flock of several hundred migrating tree swallows that rose from the ground ahead of me and flew over me, and around me on either side, to land on the path behind me.  For a few marvelous moments I was completely surrounded by swallows.  Never had this happened to me before, and never has it happened since.

File:Snow geese flying at Sacramento wildlife refugee.jpg
Snow geese in startled flight.
Brocken Inaglory

File:Tree swallows resting top of cliff pirates cove (14291013994).jpg
Tree swallows in migration.
         A hidden treasure probably known only to me grows in the rotten wood of an old Hudson River pier under the new pier at the end of Christopher Street.  The rotten wood has tiny pockets of soil, and there every October, if I look over the sides of the pier (which no one else bothers to do), I see here and there a stalk with thick, fleshy leaves and a clublike cluster of tiny yellow flowers: seaside goldenrod, the last of the goldenrods to bloom.  There’s no sea here, but the Hudson has salt water and that’s all that seaside goldenrod needs.  For me, it is indeed a wonder that a seed of the plant should find a tiny bit of soil in the rotten wood of an old pier under a new pier, suck nourishment there, and bloom.  Which it does, faithfully, every year.

File:Seaside Goldenrod - Flickr - treegrow.jpg
Seaside goldenrod.
Katja Schulz

         There’s plenty of wonder in the city’s museums.  In the South Asia hall of the Met, a statue of a Hindu dancer stands frozen in movement, her arms and legs broken off, but enticingly sensual: wonder.  And in that same hall a dancing Shiva, poised on one leg while raising the other one, renders the dance of life … and death: wonder.  And in close proximity to these dancers, Buddhas sit gracefully, radiating spirituality: wonder again.

File:1 dancing Hindu god Shiva Nataraja Tanjore, India.jpg
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

         And four Kandinsky paintings, totally abstract, featuring swirls of color with lines and dots and curlicues that seem to pulse with the energy of life.  Since I have seen them in both MOMA and the Guggenheim Museum,  I’m not sure where their permanent home is, but they are probably the only abstract paintings that totally and absolutely grab me: wonder yet again.

         Even lines of poetry, often at the close of a poem, can induce in me a sense of wonder. Do you recognize any of these?  (The answers follow below.)  These work for me; they may not work for others.

2.    … plus vaste que nos lyres …
3.    … with the absolute heart of the poem butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years. 
4.    For every thing that lives is holy. 
5.    The still, sad music of humanity …
6.    … lacrimae rerum …
7.    Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea. 

1.    The triumphant closing line of Christopher Smart’s A Song to David, 1763.
2.    Arthur Rimbaud, "Bateau ivre."
3.    The last lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
4.    William Blake, last line of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
5.    William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey.
6.    “tears for things,” in Virgil’s Aeneid.
7.    Last lines of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

         Finally, I’ll come back to architecture.  Many of the high-rises built in the last few decades in Manhattan are just big clunky boxes, totally without inspiration.  But there are exceptions, as for instance the supertall tower designed by Jean Nouvel and going up right next to MOMA on West 53rd Street.  Once named the Tower Verre, and since rechristened more banally 53W53, its glass-clad exterior tapers to a glass pinnacle immersed in light.  Luxury housing, to be sure, but strikingly, wondrously unique.

         One may well accuse these soaring high-rises of mindless folly and presumption, of going where no buildings have ever gone before: much commented-on Towers of Babble that somehow risk the downfall of their Biblical predecessor.  But our architects are wondrously in love with height, with skinny steel-reinforced, glass-encased towers soaring heavenward.  No matter what it costs us, we shall stab the sky.

File:Long Island City New York May 2015 panorama 3.jpg
High-rises in Long Island City, Queens.
King of Hearts

         Wonder redeems us from the trivial, the daily, the routine.  We  treasure it, glorify it.  Of all the wonders about us in this striving, striding city, these high-rises seem almost frighteningly appropriate for a ruthless, enterprising, wildly creative, and fiercely conquering nation.  But maybe quiet wonders – a green sprout here, a bird call there, a few lines from a poem – best satisfy our needs.  They cost nothing, do no harm, don’t risk the wrath of the gods.    


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

                *                 *                 *                  *

Coming soon:  Maybe what it's like to live in a supertall Manhattan high-rise.

©   2018   Clifford Browder