Summer has come back to the city and I thank the God I don’t believe in. It arrives with the reliability of a Swiss train, pulling in each year at precisely the same time and swipes way the grey depression that hung in the air, handing us the promise of weekend’s in the Country or by the Ocean. Or we are left in the empty City and search on Google for restaurants with outdoor seating where we can drink Rose and pretend we are in Provence.
It’s a hot, equatorial, swampy, luxurious heat which burns both down on us from the cloudless sky and upwards from the blistering sidewalks, there is no relief even at home in blackened apartments we resort finally to the clatter and hum of Air Conditioners, cheating perhaps but essential. The city slows and slumps, a mountain of empty water bottles fill trash cans. Evenings where local TV news broadcasters draw straws and the loser, laughing with resignation, drives up to Harlem or the Bronx in search of local characters to film as they fry an egg on the hood of a car. The other slow news story, in my mind an annual event although I now think I may be wrong, describes days before Air Conditioning where residents of tenement apartments would walk to Central Park with a bed sheet and pillow to sleep on the warm grass hoping for a wisp of wind rising up from the slow Atlantic or down through the Catskill hills.
I imagine those nights in a dark and mysterious light. Young people are walking around the park under pale starlight, delirious from the African warmth and damp still from submersion in the fountain or the lake to cool off. Mosquitos now brushing against their skin and the latent scent of flowers from Hackberry tree’s in the Ramble, wet underwear, walking as tenderly as ghosts; a Rousseau painting comes alive. Others, older unwitting parents perhaps, lying on the grass and breathing heavily, sweat rivulets finding their way blindly on a journey’s through folds of skin.
Those not so brave will stay at home sitting at their windows, unable to sleep and looking into neighboring apartments, idly watching the nonsense of blue light flickering on ceilings from television sets and the occasional shadow of movements; humans awake and irritable in the unrelenting heat.
Despite this we are happy, and a big part of this is the relief from winter in New York City which is bleak, really bleak and as never ending as death. Evenings listening to NPR with weather forecasts presented by the impeccably empathetic, describing dark snow bearing clouds moving up from Florida or the Carolina’s, somewhere that feels like it is on another Planet let alone continent, and will be with us tomorrow! How is it even possible? Boots are placed by the front door.
And when Summer ends it’s also a relief, as it too feels never ending, and is heralded by the first cool wind, predictable and sought after, a precious luminous blue sky, humidity free, crisp weak sun and dry gentle wind with a nip, a cold scent as if it has passed recently over a very icy place which will always whisper 9/11 to those of us who were there and watched the towers fall.
But in the summer itself, the city is a playground. Of course we look at the girls which is unavoidable and almost rude not to, some of whom are beautiful but they do not care to flirt or make eye contact, men are looked upon with contempt, a lower species as if someone told them the greatest lie, pure misinformation, that we are attracted by this detachment. The signal they were sending is that they were gorgeous but unavailable, setting themselves up for competition with the subtlety of a fake rabbit leading a pack of greyhounds; short, slight dresses, designed by the devil to raise upwards on a slight breeze to reveal legs and skimpy underwear and if caught witnessing the scene, prepare to receive a sharp visceral stare, as if it is somehow your fault that they almost naked on the streets of Manhattan. They may be sexily dressed but are profoundly un-sexual, choosing to wear an attitude in place of clothes, but no matter how pathetic it sounds we still have to look.
The rich leave, the poor stay, and the really poor really stay in classical abandonment. I love the promiscuousness of the poor and homeless who take ownership of the grimy streets and treat is as if it was their living room, shirts and shoes off, arms extended deep in slumber. Here a naked foot by Michelangelo, there a pair of hands clasped furiously like Francisco de Zurbaran’s painting of St Francis or one outstretched recalling Manet’s Beggar in a cloak. At dinner I showed Mary a photograph just taken of a large guy shirtless and I was reminded of Caravaggio but she immediately went for her smart phone and showed me David’s Death of Marais and it was the same scene, as if it were painted yesterday on the Streets of New York, and you have to be blind not to be absorbed by the agelessness of these poses. I wonder if I’m the only one who has a grudging sense of envy to those who are at absolute peace with themselves letting the sun warm their blood and oblivious to everything around them, a transcendental space, and I suspect somewhere a deep connection to their very roots. So what if alcohol plays a minor role in this drama? I would exchange my blood pressure chart for theirs any day.
In the Hampton the rich can look like skeletons and the poor, their “help”, can be as voluptuous as a Renoir. The class divisions are apparent before we leave Penn Station, watches sparkle and gleam in the train carriage, men’s shoes are worn without socks. We become different people by the Sea. It’s vulgar and fake but if you search hard enough, you can find extraordinary beauty in this shoreline. The Hamptons for us is Southampton and our close friend Carol, whose modestly gorgeous house sits primly on the bay like a Wyeth or Alex Katz painting. The House is assured, proper and simple, it could have been drawn by a child, the yard which extends to the bay is sun dappled and a little wild, simplicity that can only be achieved through excellent taste, it frowns on the larger McMansions across the bay; the crassness of new money. The lapping of water, thunderous flapping of bird’s wings, a slow lethargic walk to the Ocean with envious scrutiny of the few remaining shabby houses (once an affordable purchase) regret fills the air around us, sand is in our shoes, wine or improbable cocktails flow through our veins, macho guys are shirtless, pretend fishermen in precarious boats, more children’s games we think to ourselves. We see nature; Oyster Catchers scuttle along the sand, Sandpipers, Herring Gulls and sometimes the urgency of a Belted Kingfisher. There are frowns on the beach when a dog is off its leash or if music is played too loudly. New Yorkers who rarely drive cars do so now badly, tranquil lanes are full of mid-life crisis sports cars or SUV’s creating traffic jams, it’s a buttoned up place.
Carol is the mother we wish we had, when in her twenties she was apportioned between California, Scotland, Italy, we never cease to be surprised by the richness of her knowledge and experience or the depth of her kindness. She is still a fearless risk taker in her own way, gay but not overwhelmingly so, a liberal activist, a writer and reader, a lawyer! a connoisseur of hysterically politically incorrect movies, not to mention a real estate genius and that is why we are here and how we know her. In the rare moments when I think of the goodness of the USA, I think of people like Carol. Mary and I love everything about the weekends there, starting with her old Ford that would be left unlocked at the Southampton station (the key under the mat) and which would fire up at the first turn of the ignition. Stopping to pick up live Lobsters and a few more bottles of wine as we drove down the familiar roads to her place, the engine still chattering and squabbling, a new rattle and our eyes meet, could it be terminal?
Upstate is something else entirely. Vast and unruly, real estate is cheap and often abandoned. But there is a clear distinction based round the Hudson River. To the East, which is serviced by a train service which hugs the river is more prosperous, German and Japanese cars meet the train. To the West you will see pickup trucks and real, authentic poverty, predictably there are “Make America Great Again” signs and “Trump” adorning the most run down and disheveled homes . Houses with clothes piled up against the windows acting like curtains, a confederate flag, handwritten signs offering to cut up the deer you have just shot. Town centers are quiet, houses anesthetized, some formally proud and elaborate in any other place they would be fought over but here they are a victim of their location, the isolation, here there are no good options to shop, play, and eat. Instead you are left to the unruly and unpredictable landscape walks which may or may not have signs of a bear’s presence, a snake’s tale disappearing into undergrowth or worse, an unseen tiny danger which requires examination of legs, arms once home.
And then it ends, its September already, the City in busy and we are already looking forward to the new gallery openings, a new wave of students have arrived, it is re-birth in a way, New York style, and we too are normally happy to be back.