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I repeatedly asked a lady wearing Apple headphones to pick up a plastic bag she dropped while exiting the subway train. She heard me, picked up the bag, left the train, and threw it on the platform instead.
A man sitting in front of me chided me sarcastically. “Welcome to New York,” he said. “It is dirty. How does it matter if the bag is on the train or the platform?”
I am new to the city, so people give me advice all the time.
“Naman, do not touch that,” screamed a friend as I leaned over to grab the handrail on the escalator at a subway station. “Do not touch it! It is New York.”
Advice was welcome. When I moved here, I needed to orient myself to the do’s and don’ts of this strange and exciting new city. And so, after stumbling on a quote from the book, I began reading E. B. White’s Here Is New York (1948). White is famous for numerous books and essays, many of which share a theme: close observation of the world around him, from the streets of Manhattan to a pig fattening in his barn. For decades, White appeared regularly in the New Yorker. He wrote the children’s classics Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952), and his book on writing, The Elements of Style (1959), an update on William Strunk Jr.’s 1918 guide, has gone into multiple editions and is almost required for every student starting college.
But Here Is New York is less well-known. Originally written for Holiday magazine in the summer of 1948, it was published as a book in 1949. In this slim volume, White reflects on coming to New York in the 1920s after growing up in North Brooklin, Maine, and attending Cornell University. Revisiting and remembering his New York, and his days as a young writer in a very different, pre-World War II city, White ponders all the things that have been lost and that have changed. At the same time, he reconstructs the essence of his New York.
I read Here Is New York everywhere: on the train, in the library, on a park bench, while waiting for friends to arrive. I read it when I was happy and when I was sad. And White helped me understand what about New York, a city I share with millions of others, is uniquely mine.
“What is it?,” I kept asking myself. Is it, as White put it, “the gift of loneliness and gift of privacy”? Is it the feeling of hope and hopelessness that New York offers, feelings that exist simultaneously in my mind?
I don’t know. White admits that he cannot answer these questions. Instead, each of us needs to listen to how the city speaks—individually, uniquely—to us.
And the city does speak, in its own way. As White writes, you can “feel the vibrations of the past in New York.” Each block, each street, each avenue, and every step make me not just conscious of the present but also take me back in time. New construction, restaurants opening where the pandemic gutted old ones, and even workers spraying dirt off the sidewalks encourage my mind to embrace the future.
The city gives us a lot, but it’s a healthy exchange. We newcomers bring ourselves to New York; what we are looking for determines how the city speaks to each of us. For White, this meant being blocks away from the publishing office where Ernest Hemingway punched radical writer Max Eastman in the nose.
I, on the other hand, hear the song Kuch Tho Hua Hai, from the Indian film Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) starring Shahrukh Khan, every time I walk near Union Square because the exterior of the subway station there is featured in the song. Every time I am near NYU’s School of Law, I think about my undergraduate professor Upendra Baxi, who taught there many decades ago. When I walk near The New School’s buildings on 12th Street, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Frankel, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom taught at The New School, call to me.
On some days I think about an even earlier time, when horse-drawn carriages, men in tall silk hats, and women in elaborate gowns walked down the avenues. On other days, I think about the struggles of young writers and artists like White, who came to the city inspired to make a living with their words.
As I walk, I wonder: What did this city do to those who inhabited it? Did it make them happy or sad? Did it fulfill their dreams or crush them? Did it make them depressed or fill them with love? Did they find a community or feel isolated and lonely? People move to New York from elsewhere in a “quest for something.” But although that thing may elude them, the city throws new opportunities and struggles in their path.
To come to New York is to gamble for your life in a casino. The city puts each pilgrim on the edge of a cliff: scary and daunting, but with the best possible views.
White ends his essay by saying New York is a “lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway.” In those words, I could not help but think about the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001, a catastrophe that shook the city and changed its landscape forever. And were White here today, he might wonder if New York—his New York—was still here.
It isn’t—and it is: I’m not sure. But what do I know? When I look for my New York, it is always here.
Naman Vakharia is a first-year student of politics at the New School for Social Research. He is interested in South Asian politics and loves walking in NYC.