Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Ferment

We just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City. The opportunity to stay in an apartment in Midtown Manhattan was just too tempting to pass up. While there, we took the liberty to experience some of the unique possibilities only available in this City Of All Cities.

If I could describe our time there in just a few words, the first things that pop into my mind are very sensory-based: rusty, noisy, filthy, stinky. If you have a soft spot in your heart for NYC you might be offended by this estimation, and I apologize if I have touched a nerve. My point here is not to offend, but simply to report my honest human perception of the place.

Peeling Paint in 53rd Street Station
© 2012, Bill Brockmeier
But this is clearly not all of what the city holds. If that were the case, it would not be possible for a landlord to rent out a fifth-floor, walk-up, single bedroom, spartanly appointed flat of only 360 square feet for a few thousand dollars per month (as is the case for the apartment we called our home-base for four days). There are literally millions, maybe tens of millions or even hundreds of millions, of people who would love for the chance to live in this city. There must be something more here than the visceral description I used above.

I was amazed at the incongruity that seemed to present itself around every turn. Walking along a street in Midtown, we passed under an overhead bridge that was constructed who-knows-when, and covered in thick rust that was busily exfoliating onto the street and sidewalks and pedestrians below. Talk about infrastructure that needs more than a face-lift! And just turning the corner we would be treated to the astounding sculptural sight of an architectural wonder rising majestically high above us.

Then, we used the extensive subway system to make our way to a new location in the city and were frequently treated to a barrage of olfactory overloads. Though the puddles of urine and deposits of feces were invisible to the eyes, they were plainly "visible" to the nose! After arriving at our stop, we hurriedly walked up the stairs to the street above, while a finely appointed young woman rushed down the stairs next to us, trailing in her wake wisps of the incredible fragrance of the lavish perfume she was wearing.

One World Trade Center Under Construction
© 2012, Bill Brockmeier
These contrasts were jarring and continual. Living far out in the Texas Hill Country had not adequately prepared me for the roller-coaster ride of the senses that awaited me in Manhattan.

All of this reminds me of something that my Dad said to me not long ago. I was having lunch with him and my Mom and as we sat down to eat he said "Would you like some of this cheese? It's pretty good!" I asked what it was and he said that it was a really nice Liederkranz, similar in some respects to the German Limburger. I respectfully declined, and he said to me "Ohhhh, just get beyond the fragrance of it, and the taste is just wonderful!" He finally talked me into it, yet even after tasting it, the smell was still too much for me. But he sure was enjoying it.

I recently finished writing an extensive essay titled "God of the Compost" which features the bewildering ways that decay, rot, and decomposition can ultimately give rise to a host of marvelous products. Probably the single best word to use for these sorts of highly useful processes is "fermentation." I think this is at least part of what is at work in New York City, and why so many are willing to put up with the assault on their sensitivities. The smell of decay is certainly not appealing, but the resulting mature wine can be a feast for the palate!

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Note: if there is enough interest in the essay I mentioned above (please leave a comment here) I may publish it somewhere on this blog...Thanks!

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