Here Is New York by E. B. White

E. B. White was a longtime writer for The New Yorker, although he is probably better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He was also a co-author of that little book we were told to buy in school, The Elements of Style, often referred to as “Strunk and White”. In 1948, White wrote a long essay about New York City for Holiday magazine. Even with an introduction by White’s son-in-law, the writer Roger Angell, it makes for a very short book. Today, a more accurate title for Here Is New York would be That Was Manhattan.

As White points out, Manhattan never stands still, so particular places White describes are no longer there. I didn’t think the writing was as astonishingly good as some have said, but White gets the feeling of Manhattan, even today, exactly right. I won’t offer a summary. I’ll just quote one line: “It is a miracle that New York works at all”.

A Trip to a Very, Very Sandy Beach

If you were a pigeon and you lived at Grand Central Station in New York City, you’d only have to fly 20 miles south to get to a great New Jersey beach. Most of your flight would be over Brooklyn, but the last 5 miles would be over water. When you got to the beach, you’d be at the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Pretty cool, right?


Sandy Hook has been through some changes over the years. It was “discovered” by Henry Hudson in 1609. A lighthouse was constructed in 1764, which the British tried but failed to destroy in 1776. It’s the oldest working lighthouse in the United States. The army used the Sandy Hook Proving Ground to test weapons and munitions between 1876 and 1919. Now, the fort that sits at the tip of the peninsula belongs to the National Park Service and is mostly abandoned. But there are several nice beaches open to the public, including one that’s clothing-optional (obviously, the Republicans in Congress haven’t heard about it).

Anyway, the only reason I’m writing about this is that a friend and I visited Sandy Hook last week, before the summer crowds showed up. When we parked the car and made our way to the beach, I was amazed. It was the widest beach I’ve ever seen. We could hardly see the water. The few people who had crossed the burning sands before us were almost invisible. So I was moved to take this picture:

IMG_20150429_134012237If you look closely, you can see New York City off in the distance, on the other side of the bay, and a few tiny little people at the water’s edge. Considering that we were standing in the vicinity of 20 million other people who live in the New York-Newark-Jersey City Metropolitan Statistical Area, it was pretty darn lonely. And, quite appropriately, very, very sandy.

Kitty Genovese Was Raped and Killed 50 Years Ago, But…

Everybody who was around in 1964 knows the story of Kitty Genovese. She’s the young woman who was stabbed to death on a street in New York City while 38 witnesses supposedly did nothing to help.

The lesson we all learned back then was that society was falling apart. People would listen to somebody screaming outside their window and do nothing because “they didn’t want to get involved”, especially a bunch of self-centered, cowardly, unfeeling big-city types. I was only 12 at the time, living on the other side of the continent, but it was easy for me and everyone else to form a mental image of what happened that night: a woman repeatedly crying for help in a narrow street or alley as onlookers looked down from their windows or sat on their fire escapes doing nothing.

An article in the New York Post (by the way, one of the most unreliable newspapers in America) tells a very different story, based on a new book called Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.

It was 3 a.m. Somebody called the police immediately after Genovese was stabbed on the street (although the police didn’t show up, not realizing the nature of the incident). She was able to walk home but collapsed in her apartment building’s vestibule, not outside where people could hear her. Her killer was initially scared away by a witness, but then followed her into the building and attacked her again. That’s where she died as one of her neighbors held her in her arms.

According to the article, there were two witnesses who were certainly blameworthy. One of them even said “he didn’t want to get involved”. But if you believe the Post article, this is another case in which a story got told and retold because it confirmed something people already believed: people who live in big cities aren’t real Americans and don’t care enough about anyone else to bother calling the cops when a young woman is being raped and murdered. Which, if you’ve ever spent much time in New York City, where you tend to rub shoulders with lots of different people every day, you know isn’t true at all.

On a related note, does living in a city like New York make you more or less accepting of people who don’t look or sound like you? You see people whose families came from everywhere in the world going about their daily business, sitting next to you on the subway, or waiting in line at the deli. Familiarity breeds contempt sometimes, or a bad experience does the same, but I think that sharing space with a wide variety of people all behaving in similar ways tends to make city-dwellers more favorable toward democracy and social programs. Maybe it’s easier to be a liberal, less fearful or disdainful of those “other” people, if you see all manner of human beings up close, following the rules, doing the same things you do every day. 

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Speedboat isn’t really a novel. It’s more like a collection of extremely short short stories, some featuring the narrator — a New York journalist/academic — and her social circle, and some describing random events that represent the modern world, circa 1975. You could say it’s a kaleidoscopic array of vignettes. It’s enjoyable but not very involving. 

Even though it was written some time ago, it’s remarkable how current the book is. There isn’t much missing, except for the Internet and cell phones. (And a plot.)  (4/8/13)