Most of my side of my block has been under scaffolding for as long as I have lived here; for stretches of months half the other side of the street was, too. Walking home last night it struck me that I wouldn’t know what it looked like without scaffolding, that a clean and finished version of the place where I live would be unrecognizable to me.
The ship of Theseus is one of those well-worn freshman-level thought experiments, like the trolley problem: If every plank and beam of Theseus’ ship is replaced as the ship is rebuilt, is it still Theseus’ ship? How much of something we can rewrite and still have that something exist? In an essay about New York that people used to talk about too much and now nobody talks about enough, Luc Sante quotes Rem Koolhaus saying “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city.” Koolhaus meant this as a utopian exhortation, imagining the space-age city of the future, but today, and even in Sante’s essay, it reads as a warning and a threat. The place we think we know is disappearing in the moment we can name it. However, like most sweeping statements about New York, the observation is not applicable only to this place. That’s all cities, all places, all lives. All of us are structures in scaffolding, in the process of being replaced with another structure, ships piece by piece, plank by plank and beam by beam being replaced with a new ship.
This is the time of year to love New York if you are going to love it. Springtime in this city is a cheat code, an overripe and irresistible metaphor. The light is all at once kind, the afternoons that float into evening are longer, carrying in their slow blue hours the memory of every past springtime that brought this same collection of streets and stairs and corners back to life. Days arrive like color flooding into black and white movies. The avenues announce themselves in old-fashioned photographic splendor, lined up in the patterns of classical art, beauty easy to find.
It is not that it is more beautiful here than anywhere else at this time of year. It is beautiful, generally, in the world, in the spring. If I lived somewhere else, I would think that springtime there was the most beautiful thing each time it happened. It would renew my belief that this location, wherever it was, still had something hopeful and generative and particular to offer. Finding beauty in New York, or anywhere, is a survival mechanism. We focus on the shiny parts in order to convince ourselves that the difficulties are worth it. Beauty is always one kind of propaganda or another.
Some of the question of Theseus’ ship is a question of ownership, of possession. The ship is identified by the name of the king to whom it belongs, or belonged. The question as traditionally posed does not ask whether it is the same ship -- it asks whether it still belongs to Theseus. People being sentimental about New York (or about anywhere) like to quote something Didion said about California: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
I understand and appreciate Didion’s point, and her sentence has at times appealed to me, too. It is perfectly digestible and well-plated; it is easy to love, and easy to believe in if you do not scratch too hard at the word “belongs.” New York City may belong, in some poetic or spiritual or cultural sense to the people who claim it hardest and remember it most obsessively, but each piece of New York City - the buildings, the sidewalks, the skyline, the parks, the view from a high-up window, the avenues down which the sunset paints illuminated canvases at the turn of the year into spring, the bar where you stayed until last call and the restaurant you and someone you loved closed down fighting or kissing, and the very apartment where you live - does actually belong to someone already. Its owner can be named, and most likely isn’t you. Theseus’s ship, rebuilt over years of living in scaffolding, may very well no longer be Theseus’ ship, but it is also not yours. The places in which your life takes place, the places you love so radically, belong to wealthy corporations, to a tiny handful of families with unthinkably old money, to the Sacklers and their industry of death, to the Catholic Church, to NYU, to Google, to Donald Trump. We are borrowing our lives from people who disdain those lives, to whom we are at absolute best an inconvenience. Each inch of sidewalk, each welcoming shadow of a grand building, the air itself as it softens around you and turns siren-like and loving in spring, all of these are possessions; someone owns them, but it isn’t you.
To live in a city is to carve a very small story out of someone else’s much larger one, burrowing our skinless and unimportant daily events, our losses, our triumphs, our jokes and heartbreaks and errands and arguments, cancelled plans and chance reunions, forgivenesses and grudges, bargains and failures, into someone else’s massive narrative of wealth. One comfort is that this is the way it has always been, the skyscrapers versus the ground. This paradox of an essentially rented life may actually be the thing that gives a city meaning, but it is also the thing against which the city struggles. How possible is it to live in the quiet story, and how long until those lives become largely untenable, until the loud story is all that is left?
Last Saturday it was like summer, the air thick and welcoming. Thomas and I had all sorts of plans but we didn’t make it outside until early evening, when dusk was already gathering, bunching up green in the trees and spreading shadows out from the park where the planted street-lamps pooled their syrupy light, turning the place into a stage set. We bought cold bodega coffees at 9pm and sat on a park bench across from the grand cliff-face facades on Central Park West, here and there lit up yellow and inaccessible, windows cut out like fake stars planted in a child’s bedroom ceiling. Most love is amoral at best, heedless of political realities, social truths, or a larger perspective. Love’s natural tendency is an isolating one, narrowing the world down to a tight focus. How I feel about this city is no different; its absolute irrationality forever seeks a justification for itself, but the whole point of love is that these things are false. I love this place because I love it; it impedes my good politics and my rational choices. Saying that I love New York is opening my heart to a host of sick and guilty things, crowding in and demanding pardons or collaboration. Long love exists as a habit to challenge in oneself, as the part of ourselves we do best to begin by questioning, the thing that tips our hand.
We sat and talked about staying, which has lately replaced our conversations about leaving. It seems as strange, as difficult, as much of a big stupid adventure, to choose to be the weirdos who get old in New York, to admit that we are stuck here, neither organized nor motivated enough to pick up our lives from this place in which we have rooted them. Love is that, too, always a form of settling, a kind of giving-up, an admitted failure. It is the place where we end up when we decide we are ready to sit down and stop playing the game.
The night never gets exactly dark here, but up in our neighborhood, under the large shade of the park trees, it’s closer than it might be elsewhere. We live in an old people neighborhood that is also a family neighborhood, a thing I forget until the good weather cuts open a seam out of which pour teenagers, invisible until the temperature sets them free, and suddenly the place is populated with groups of kids on warm nights, shuffling in groups into and out of the park, making out or fighting or gossiping on benches outside the larger buildings, stealing citibikes, leaving beer cans and candy wrappers on the ground and talking about each other in serious close-faced huddles, set free from school and from family apartments, their small lives new and populous and hopeful, New York just the place where their family happens to live.
Growing up, I hoarded every story of New York anyone would tell me. I imagined that I would get here, and get to be a certain age, and everything would have worked itself out. I envisioned my parents’ stories and their friends’ stories, burnished to a high polish in the telling, as snapshots of lives where everything worked and all the edges matched. But I realize lately that this is it; I’m here, I’ve arrived. Those lives about which I hoarded stories were no more perfect than my own is right now, crowded days and strained friendships, excuses and deadlines, constant worry about money and unjustified love of a gluttonous and uncaring city with a few good angles at the right time of day. They were just as borrowed, as temporary, as unjustifiable. Theseus’ ship is neither what it was when it set out, nor some whole and new creation. The ship exists as the process of revision, the ongoing work of replacing each thing with each other thing. If we can love anything about this place that none of us own, it is in that maelstrom of constant rebuilding, in the string of losses and forgetting and justifications that make up a life. It is not the place but the fact of its rebuilding, its ongoing and ever-present change, the scaffolding and not the building.
hi friends. I realize I missed last week, and I’ll try to send a second subscriber letter to make up for that later this week or over the weekend. xo