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On the High Line and Various Lights

August 7, 2009
NYC's new High Line Park—Taken by Ed Yourdon

NYC's new High Line Park—Taken by Ed Yourdon

This afternoon I took a summer Friday from work and, after the jostling and peace-shattering commute back into the city on the hated New Jersey Transit Bus, I took the subway down to 23rd Street, from where I walked west to 10th Avenue and then south to 20th Street, where the new High Line park begins.

The High Line, for those of you who don’t live in the city (in which case I’m not sure how you would not have heard of it) is an old, disused elevated train tracks that was recently, after much rallying and activism on the part of far West Village residents, including a number of celebrities, transformed into a park.

It’s a lovely thing, the High Line.  It’s been open for most of the summer, but I only just now got over to it.  I guess I was waiting on a girl to go with, but I got tired of waiting.  (As Jay-Z said, “I’m impatient / and I hate waitin’.”)  To get into it you ascend a zig-zag staircase, like a fire escape on steroids, at the top of which lets off into a beautifully landscaped, long path along the old, rusted-brown train tracks.  On either side are all manner of wildflowers, sunflowers, and plants, purples and blues and goldens and greens.  It evokes the prettiest bend of old railroad in the country that you’ve ever seen.

The place is filled with people but, at least on this Friday afternoon, not unpleasantly so.  I had heard, earlier in the summer, that there were lines to get into the High Line, which I scoffed at.  (I’m not a big fan of waiting on lines, which is a chief New York pastime.  There were lines to get into the new Trader Joe’s grocery store on 14th Street when it opened a couple of years ago, which struck me as the height of absurdity.)

The park is long and thin, studded here and there with graceful, slim wooden benches that swoop up out of the pebbled gray pathway.  The park’s denizens, too, are long and thin, studded here and there with golden jewelry and strappy sandals, of the gladiatorial variety that have been popular on women here in the city for the past couple of summers.  If you like looking at women, as I do, the High Line park is pretty much the ne plus ultra of women-watching.  Imagine you are the most avid comic-book reader ever, and you attend the greatest comic-book convention ever.  That’s what it’s like for women-watching.

Veering here and there, the park passes different little sections, with views of the Hudson River off to the right (if you are, as I was, walking south).  A particularly inventive bit are the deck lounger chairs with wheels on the bottom that are fitted into the old train tracks, and which can be slid left or right to join with other loungers.  All of these were occupied.  I sat on a bench for a while and then, when a lounger was vacated, I snapped it up.  I sat and, in between watching, read the second part of a lengthy New Yorker travelogue by Ian Frazier, about his time crossing Siberia with two Russians by way of a used van that had previously been used for sour cream deliveries.  The van is very much a character in the piece, and it breaks down often.  When Frazier, after another jury-rigged fix of the van has improvised by his traveling companions, asks the impromptu mechanic what is wrong with the van, the man—Volodya—“thought for a while and then said that what was wrong with the car could not be said in words.”  I laughed out loud at that.

I sat and thought and read and women-watched.  I texted S. regarding the women of the High Line, and he told me, twice, to talk to one.  I did not.  I got hot and neared the end of the many-thousand-word Siberia piece.  I wanted to finish it on the train on the way home, so I moved on.

The park passes through a couple of buildings, one of which is a new hotel called the Standard.  The other building I didn’t know what it was, but on one side of the airy passageway through it is a mural of differently colored panes of (I think) glass.  The glass is all different shades of yellow, blue, green, gray, and black.  The colors come from—and this is pretty amazing—pictures of the Hudson River, taken at different times of day and different times of the year; the mural is literally river-colored.

In the Siberia story, at the end—they traveled east, from St. Petersburg—the group arrives at a village on the Pacific, and Frazier describes how the sea light begins to manifest itself: “Overhead, the sky got bluer and lighter simultaneously in an ever-brightening expansiveness that could only be a reflection of the Pacific just beyond.”  Frazier describes a similar effect in another, earlier town: “Many of Krasnoyarsk’s streets end at the water and route its amplified daylight into the city; I recalled a similar effect on the streets of older Mississippi River towns.”

This is one thing that people don’t realize about traveling and about other places: The light is different.  Angles of incidence to the sun (aka latitude) and natural features such as mountains or plains or lakes or rivers or buildings all contribute to the differing quality of light in different places.  The quality of light is not static, obviously, due to the changing of seasons.  One of my favorite memories just now—because I am always looking forward—is the light in fall in New York.  Something about it becomes coppery and cooler, and the city appears gilded and somewhat worn, with age—but not in a bad way.  Rather more like the way in which a very beautiful woman is refined and made even more beautiful by the passing years, the roundness and softness of youth sharpened somewhat.

Other great lights I have known: The winter light in Oxford, where when the sun is setting early in the afternoon (as it does in those latitudes in winter, roundabouts 4pm or so at its earliest, if memory serves) and the light seems almost mixed in mid-air by a darker substance, like coffee being poured into milk.

The light in Stockholm in late summer, when it stays bright out until very late, but the brightness and shock of the afternoon light is leavened by an almost imperceptibly descending evening.  Dusk is drawn out in a fairy-tale sort of way.

And then there are lights that I hate.  Mid-afternoon pretty much anywhere, for instance, but especially in the South in the summer, when the air and the city feel almost worn-out and sucked dry by overmuch sunshine, sapped of strength.  And I was about to say the light in Antarctica in summer, a great white beast of a thing that is like a noiseless noise, canceling out thought and contemplation.  Afternoon always, everywhere.

But, thinking again about it, even that light wasn’t terrible—It was just, terribly, Other.  It was an inhuman light, an alien light that didn’t seem to have comprehension of humanity.  Which, when you were in town (McMurdo Station), seemed malevolent, in a way.  However, getting outside of town, climbing Observation Hill and getting on top of it and looking out over the frozen McMurdo Sound and the great silence and whiteness of the place—It felt different, sort of comforting in a final way.  Which reminds me of these lines, from a poem I love and have posted here before, called “To an Antarctic Traveller,” by Katha Pollitt:

They named a mountain after you down there.
Blank and shining, unclimbable,
no different from a hundred nameless others,
it did not change as you called to it from the helicopter
it was your name that changed
spinning away from you round and around and around
as children repeat a word
endlessly until at last it comes up pure
nonsense, hilarious.  It smashed
and lay, a shattered mirror
smiling meaninglessly up at you from the unmarked snow.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2009 1:13 am

    Awesome, bro. I remember the late afternoon light in Ireland turning to dusk very patiently, like an old person taking their time to sit down.

    I guess Maynooth would be latitudinally close to Oxford, as well.

  2. August 8, 2009 1:14 am

    Also, I dig the new layout.

  3. August 11, 2009 11:31 am

    I like the new skins, Hunter! Great pic too. Antarctica?

    The High Line sounds very cool.

    Couldn’t agree more about your take on light. The light IS different. And this line, ” … the light seems almost mixed in mid-air by a darker substance, like coffee being poured into milk.” So true.

    To me, that’s a perfect description of dusk at that latitude. In January, in Tallinn, we had a total of six hours of daylight per day with the the sun setting about 3pm. Of all the things I miss about Estonia, that is not one of them.

    Oh, and NYC in the fall … love it, even the smell of it.

  4. Emily permalink
    August 15, 2009 4:48 pm

    Whenever anyone mentions girl-watching, I think of this song (and also the song “I’m a Girlwatcher,”by the Okaysions):

    This song is so inappropriate and creepy now, it’s great. I know it because I apparently grew up in the 50s. I have to go help Mr. Pitt win a radio contest now.

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