A lambent light flickering in the sky as I emerge from the subway station on CPW and 86th. It is, peculiarly, not offset by the primal effulgence of the city that although familiar incurs a vestigial astonishment each and every time one glimpses it. It must, I think, be a plane gliding over this part of Upper Manhattan, towards what we New Yorkers, call "the rest of the world."
"That's a star dying, a supernova thing," a tony voice next to me echoes in a resolute manner. It belongs to a Graydon Carter doppelganger apparently returning from walking his dog, to his select condo building overlooking the park. We watch in silent communion as the moment passes, and the light evanesces. As we take our separate ways a small brightness ignites, within our reach. Fireflies -- and on the residential side of the street! My path back home is illuminated by the tiny sparks of these short-lived lightning bugs and of the light they lend these late summer days to those of us remaining in the city. I call them "The Firefly Days."
Time feels weightless and moments are born seemingly full of infinite possibility -- like the caption to the chalk painting on 91st and Third. "Infinite possibilities here, now, New York City." And it is exactly because of what this city uniquely is -- the 24-hour center of the world -- that this transient softening of life in it can occur these short summer days where sharpness, black ice, and dog-angst at even a moment's separation from their owner seems a forgotten thing of the past.
We listen to each others stories while waiting our turn to pay the young guy manning the vegetable and fruit stalls all along Broadway. Our life becomes more like a story as we have the breathing space and time to listen to it. Life has in these days become like those perfect dollhouse dioramas displayed by Apthorp Cleaners on Amsterdam and peopled with a munificently diverse range of Barbies and Kens.
The wine store on First, in the fifties, has an empty window display and a sign: "Too hot to display anything." The price of everything, from tomatoes at Fairways, to soft shell crabs at Citarella's and home-smoked sable at Zabars falls by day and block after the 90s on the west side.
In the West Harlem bus we chuckle when an aged lady devoutly perusing the New York Times opines vociferously ("Oy vey! Mishegoss!") on the story about the "2% waging war on the 1%" in the Hamptons, due to the noise pollution generated by the increasing number of helicopters transporting masters of the universe and even beings below that socio-economic demographic. By the time she disembarks around 100th, we have all -- devout Bible-thumping African American ladies, irate elderly men, harassed-looking young mothers, and Riverside pensioners alike, mishegoss-ing -- united in a kind of communion the social-inequality economist Thomas Piketty would probably herald.
On Amsterdam, a little before midnight on a muggy Saturday late in July, there is no traffic. At the corner of the street, in front of a building located between the old church and the MJE synagogue, divergent lives coincide: an aged, stately couple who have moments earlier emerged from the Belnord's stately entrance, stand still, hand in hand, relishing the waltz pouring out of an open window on the second floor of the building. The unfortunate, destitute, forsaken and mad(dened) who usually seek some nocturnal refuge on that corner, have also come out of the woodwork, drawn to the music. A spindly Hasid boy careening madly on his bicycle goes up and down the block, black coat-tails flying, as if dancing to the music, in defiance of traffic and other rules. When the tune ends, with a smile and a long nod, the aristocratic couple acknowledge the tattered men who in turn smile and nod too, almost formally. We, if for just a little, break out of the glass walls that need to be erected in New York life.
Iraq is out of control. Planes are downed and people die horribly. Libya seems spinning out of control. We now talk about ISIS and almost all the North African and Middle Eastern countries in the same breath. There is bombing and heavy artillery at Ukraine's borders. A new cold war with Russia seems to oscillate in the air. Conflict may be the unknowable catalyst for life and the best driving force in a story, but it seems far away from the sun setting to the west haloing the Statue of Liberty in a golden light as the train pushes off towards Sheepshead Bay.
In the B train, coming back from Brighton Beach one evening, we whizz over the bridge. The iconic Manhattan skyline emanates all we seek to emulate and sublimate in our individual lives.
Below the scrim of ordinary life running by rote, cracks open up in the indefatigable New York armor we all shroud ourselves in. An all-American "niceness" and wholesomeness seeps in, of the kind most New Yorkers would ordinarily exorcize as "cheesiness." All the small, self-contained worlds this city is made of, come together for a while.
We congregate outside the Lincoln Center, at the bistros in the Village, at Bed, Bath and Beyond. A horde of cheery Lithuanian Haredim storm Magnolia Bakery in the Upper West one balmy Tuesday night. They dive into the cupcakes with contagious zest. Paradoxically, more apartment windows are lit than during the winter, yet everyone remaining in the city has tumbled onto the streets staying there till way past midnight.
Those who have "arrived" in the New York sense have, in their exquisitely tanned and curated majority, long departed for exotic resorts around the world -- or at the very least, holiday homes in Westchester, Nantucket and the Hamptons. The rest of us, who do not belong to the 1 or even 2 percent, stay behind. Yet, necessity seems to engender a quality of emotion and connection that the more affluent who are the first to jettison the city's grime and dust as soon as they have even a day off, do not get a chance to experience.
Change is afoot though. The world is getting increasingly more unsettled, Shabbat candle lighting times come earlier, you need to wear a light jacket in the evenings and the glowing firefly lights in the community garden on 90th between Amsterdam and Columbus, are starting to lessen. The city's firefly days are gradually coming to an end, but while they last, they illuminate our lives with a light that may linger long after they are gone.