New York, for all the chaos and poverty that surround and permeate it, is still, at its center, a magical city—a diamond as big as the Ritz—incalculably seductive to spirits of sufficient sanguinity or innocence or arrogance. There was, to take an example, a certain day in September, not long after the War. The morning sky as one crossed in an open car from Long Island through Brooklyn to Manhattan was the color of lemon. Turning and slowly climbing, the road left the edge of the harbor which it had followed for miles and became an elevated highway, broad and white (though not so broad as it has since become). The highway floated through the slums of Brooklyn, between paralled rows of wooden tenements, nearly at the level of their roof tops, burying the Irish and Italian dock-workers who lived down below in a sunless hell of noise and dirt. But in the open car it was really splendid. The radio played Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, the leather seats were still damp from the Atlantic morning and through the haze, in the brightening day, one saw the sparkling river and across it the great buildings.
It turned out to be one of those days that drift in the memory, a confirmation of dreams that had been shaped by the movies of childhood, or, as one could not have known at the time, still another refraction of that ancient scene in which Satan, staring proudly at the towers of Pandemonium, sets out to make his desperate war on heaven. At the time, one’s conquest of New York seemed inevitable: less a challenge than a natural right and one never expected to grow old.
It did not take long to learn, however, that behind the glamorous appearance there lived a hard and sullen reality. Money was everything or everything, just beneath its surface, was money. The city was a balance sheet, a monstrously living, endlessly voracious organism of profits and losses. Everything was for sale, including, of course, the people and oneself among them. The buildings and streets, whole neighborhoods with all their inhabitants, were likely to vanish, quite in defiance of one’s preferences, to satisfy some calculation or other that had nothing to do with sentiment. You would leave the city for a month or two and return to find that a revolution or bombardment had taken place: a favorite view had been dismantled and carried away, a particular street, nearly as old as the city itself, that wound like a trench through the stone abutments of the Brooklyn Bridge had disappeared and with it a tenement once shared with a family of Poles who on cold Sunday mornings, would come by to offer a plate of fish, scavanged from the nearby Fulton market. In winter one looked at the snow and rubble and thought of East Berlin.
For Proust it was time that ruined everything, made love and friendship impossible. In Manhattan, if somewhat less …