New York at Night

I take the subway late at night, everything on and working, at this hour it’s just for me.  Get on at Atlantic Avenue, get off at 33rd and Lex, climb out of the underground, lights are on but the shutters are down.  I’m smiling, I can’t get rid of this smile. No people, I love it, there are no people.  I’m attracted to these places that are empty.  It’s all mine!

It’s 1am Wednesday morning; I grab a Voice (it’s free, everything that matters at 1am is free), slowly read it while walking.  I look at things I don’t get a chance to look at during the day, when there are so many people hurrying me along, caught up like a two by four in a sudden torrent.  Now I can take my time and look, a livery cab passes me, then a yellow, and then another yellow.

There are so many things to see!  What’s open?  Who cares?  Where to walk…. Go north, wait.  South!  Because I always end up going downtown.

At this hour I own this place but have no designs, no plans.  I’m a Dutchman 300 years ago wandering north into farmland.  I’m the Chief of Police, it’s 1896, and I’m Teddy Roosevelt walking around looking for violators.

I walk south, over my right shoulder the top of the Empire is lit up white.  The light continues where the building can’t.  There’s a low overhang of clouds, the bright light goes up and it too stops.  It’s beautiful, wherever I walk tonight I’ll be able to turn around and see it.

The Chrysler makes a softer, vague spotlight upwards.

In fact the low clouds make a giant ceiling of varying light intensities.

I’m on the top of Murray Hill, I cross 32nd Street and look left.  I can see the placid East River and several tall-mast ships berthed.  There’s a forest of wood and rope and people working.  Beyond a glimpse of the hamlet of Greenpoint, all farms.

I look right and see the North River, the Hudson.  The wide river is still too, it never seems to rise or fall.

A cruise ship of the White Star line passes; maybe it’s the Olympic.  I can feel the energy of the people in their straw boaters waiting for their loved ones, their usual frantic pace but with the pause button set, waiting.

I like that there are no people here in reality but I populate the town with my thoughts.  And I’m energetic, I never stop thinking.

I take Lex down to 23rd, where it stops.

I hang a right because I’ve got to see my building.  I cross Park.  I cross Madison.  I look into Madison Square Park, lit by gas lamps.  I see the hand of the Statue of Liberty holding a torch, patiently waiting for the assembly of pedestal funds and its own assembly somewhere out in the Harbor, maybe on that little island out there.

There are horse drawn carriages going quickly back and forth up 23rd Street, Ladies Mile.  But there is no smell of the horses anywhere.

A few years quickly pass, crossing into the 20th Century (and 23rd Street itself), I look up and see my building being constructed.  It has a steel skeleton and is shaped like a book standing on its spine, slightly open.  The 23rdSkidoo is about to be born, a wind vortex that would blow up 1920’s era dresses as ladies passed the Flatiron Building.

It's 1876.

It’s 1876.

I stop at Madison Park to swing on the swings and watch the Flatiron rise and fall, rise and fall.  I’m hungry.  I dismount.

I’ve gotta eat, but what’s open?  This time I care.  I walk along the left side of the Flatiron and down Broadway.  I see more people but I ignore them.  I’ve learned to ignore them, maybe that’s what New Yorkers are always doing, living in their heads like me, dreaming of the past, imagining the future.  A future when now will become the dreamy past.

I cross 20th and I’m Roosevelt one more time passing near my place of birth.  I glance down there, it’s dark.  As Teddy I’m a Dutchman and the quintessential New Yorker, doing everything all the time and hyper before that was even a word.

Walk walk walk, quickly I cross 14th.  They’re building a subway here finally, getting all those dangerous trolleys off the streets.  The cut and cover construction runs in all directions.  After that I don’t pay much attention or think too much because this area is also my day life, NYU, 8th Street.  And there are too many people to shut out.

Cross over to Odessa or straight to Cozy’s?  At either place I always get the same thing but there are always people in the LES and I have a goal now.  I’m going to arrow straight down to Castle Clinton.  Cozy’s is on the way.

I eat fast.  I get up, stretch my legs, pay and leave.  I’ve got stuff to do and see.  Straight down Broadway, watching out for street gangs like the Dead Rabbits or the Plug Uglies.  They like to creep in from the east side of Broadway and relieve people of the watch fobs and sometimes even their horses.

I’m thinking this way again because as I make my way into SOHO the streets are getting empty.  I can again take ownership.

Walking past the old prefabbed iron buildings I am a black man looking for a place to hide during the Draft Riots; a time when New York went crazy and turned on itself.  Years later I duck down into Walt Whitman’s Poets hangout.

Spring Broome Grand Howard, Christo’s place, light on upstairs, probably drawing, surround by his wife’s cigarette smoke.

Chuck Close and Andy Warhol are around here too, we’re all artists sharing the same big space.

Further down now, way over and back behind City Hall sits the Collect Pond.  People throw furniture and dead animals and everything into it.  It’s filthy and should be filled in and it will be in 1813 or so.  They’ll build a notorious place called “Five Points” and a jail called “The Tombs” on the filled in part.  I cross over a graveyard of freed blacks and slaves that I don’t know is there because it hasn’t been rediscovered and uncovered yet.

This is the lowland part of Manhattan; I’m just a few feet above the rivers, but still safe.  I look all the way back and can still see the Empire State Building lighting its own ceiling.

I look to the right and see the also well lit but incongruously still new looking World Trade Center.  I block it out, it doesn’t fit, instead it’s the 1960s and I’m surrounded by television and radio retailers.

I don’t know yet but years later on another late night walk the WTC will replace Radio Row in my imaginings.

Now the Financial District, my favorite part.  Dark, nobody here, and I mean no one.  I’m rich now, I walk around passing my banks, Rockefeller, Carnegie, it’s the same here as it always was, solid, permanent.  Tall buildings and very narrow streets.

Narrow streets remind me, I’ve gotta splinter off here and take a left at Beaver Street.  Delmonico’s, I’m Boss Tweed, no wait, I’m Abe Lincoln sitting here eating before a big speech at the Cooper Union uptown.

I walk to Stone Street, here I don’t even have to imagine, it’s all old, small buildings.   They look like the huddled masses in front of newer skyscrapers. I’m a Navajo, perched high, helping to construct them.

I backtrack to Bowling Green.  I’m mad, I’m part of a mob, I help take down the statue of King George.  Rebels have to melt it down for their musket balls.

There’s also a fort here filled with Dutchmen, they’re afraid of the Indians north of the canal.  There used to be another older fort further south, and the Indians were, back then, where I’m now standing.  Now there’s the National Museum of the American Indian and no people, no Indians.

Heading up State Street, alongside The Battery, I wave to Robert Fulton in front of his house.  It’s a bright afternoon and the Steamboat Clermont passes in the distance.  As I continue I pass one of New York’s hundreds of oyster stands.

All the tall buildings are behind me now, I feel like they’re trying to crowd me out and push me off the edge. I  can’t see the Empire State Building anymore, but only a faint illumination.

I’m at the Battery; I step off the end of the Island, off the end of New York, hovering over the water for a moment til my feet land on a causeway.  Now it’s all water and a bridge. I walk up the causeway to Castle Clinton, it’s a fort built IN the harbor designed to keep away the marauding British.  Then it becomes a small zoo and the causeway is getting shorter.

Manhattan is spreading south, coming up to meet me.  Manhattan is taking over where there was only water.

I look ahead at the empty harbor, empty except for a stumpy pedestal just built on that little island.

Then I’m surrounded, there’s land all around me and around Castle Clinton, the causeway long gone.  I walk around the old fort and there’s more Battery, it’s a park now.  The City has invented itself here, it holds sway over the rivers.  I lean over the railing at the end and look out at the Statue of Liberty, all lit up.  It’s the present and it’s getting a little light out.   The City has grown larger.  The City always grows.  Soon I’ll have to go but I can’t stop smiling.

4 replies
  1. Constant Reader
    Constant Reader says:

    This is an amazing glide through time and place, like an written tour that shows like a display of the “Ken Burns Effect” on photos. Very well written and presented history of the changes and growth of New York.

    Bill, what changes do you think are in store for New York if the climate change keeps battering this great city?

  2. Bill Hardesty
    Bill Hardesty says:

    Some protection like they have built for other low lying northern European cities. But NY likes to get the most out of the least so they may settle for now, for a higher retaining wall at the Battery. People are really worried about all this now but it’ll get taken over by (any) other news. Then hopefully enough energy will be left to make a wall at the foot the island, all the way around the edge. And they should please not forget to do the same for Staten Island.

  3. joe
    joe says:

    really magical little stroll down the island, my friend.

    in my mind’s eye, i imagine you being a bit like the character of Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams” taking a late night stroll through the shadows, trenchcoat on, umbrella in hand, coif properly hatted, sticking to the shadowy part of the street, but not unpleasant to the passersby.

    NYC, late at night, rambling through the tangle of the West Village and into Tribeca. I like to say a little hello to the wayward wharf mouse zipping across the street to a safer grate. For me, that’s the perfect NYC experience. perfectly anonymous, perfectly absorbed in the ghosts of this place, and having no idea nor any care what the next day’s toils will bring.


  4. kathcom
    kathcom says:

    Wow. From the first sentence, your love of the city is palpable. I can’t help but smile, too. Suddenly, you’re taking me on a journey, reminding me of its place in history and my own in walking its streets. I hate to admit that there are so many things about NYC that I’ve never known or bothered to learn. Thank you for bringing me along.


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