But would I notice them every day? How many times have I walked by these and not noticed them? Do they tell me the true character of the building? Do they reveal or mask the likely lives of those that live in the building or those who pass by each day?
A few weeks ago I had a car service pick me up at the airport. It was the same service I use frequently. Yet, had I never used them before, my impression would have been that they weren't very good. The driver was late. He went to the wrong terminal. He complained. He drove without his seatbelt, the alarm buzzing seeming only to irritate me. It was the dirtiest limo I have ever been in. I told him to take the Queensboro to Westside Highway to Canal and the Holland Tunnel. He insisted he take the BQE to the Midtown Tunnel, across Midtown to the Lincoln. I rolled my eyes as we merged onto the BQE and I spied the worse mid-morning traffic jam I'd ever seen in New York.
But, he did know to get off the expressway and take city streets to get me to my destination on time. I saw a part of Queens I probably never would have been in. "What a different city than Manhattan" I thought. Later, after I arrived at my meeting (on time!) I marveled at his bizarre brilliance in taking a most unlikely route: through several sidestreets in Queens to 59th Street Bridge (for all of you readers over 45 who remember the tune....hum a few bars of the Simon & Garfunkle song and feel groovy), north a few blocks, then east to FDR, past drab Lower East side buildings and past the skyscrapers in the Financial District, south to the very end of Lower Manhattan, through funky Tribeca, and then north on West Side Highway.....to Canal and the Holland. The quickest LAG to NJ trip I've ever made! Sometimes the quickest route is not a straight line between two points.
So what do apartment-building statues that look like the offspring of gargoyles on the Gothic-styled cathedral around the corner, an old song from the 60's, and a dirty car/effective driver have to do with anything other than they all made me smile in a small way on the same day? And what does this have to do with books? (Yes, books... this is a quasi-book blog so this lazy blogger should talk about them sometime!) Well, they all seemed to fit with the book I was reading the same week -- Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
One gives nothing away to say that Invisible Cities is about Marco Polo explaining cities he has visited to Kubla Kahn. And one doesn't divulge a plot spoiler by saying that all of the cities described are the same place. Kubla Kahn knows Marco's deceit, and he plays along with the game, even describing his own cities, pointing out the obvious features that Marco has overlooked. It doesn't even matter that the city is Venice -- Venice, Italy, or Venice, California, or Venice, Florida, or some Venice that only exists in your mind. Or that it is in the 11th century, or the 16th, or some century yet to come.
The chapter titles bemuse and bewilder: "Cities and Memory", "Cities and Desire", "Cities and Signs". "Thin Cities". "Trading Cities". "Cities and Names". "Cities and Eyes". "Cities and the Dead". "Cities and the Sky". "Hidden cities". "Continuous cities" . . . . All describe a city that once existed, or never existed, or exists now and will exist in the future.
I can't tell you any more about the book without it sounding like a dry compendium of cities and their social ills. I can only tell you that it is a truthful description of a place that is familiar and people you know even if you've never met them. I can only tell you that it should bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. It might make you think that you'll pay closer attention to your city the next time you take a walk, or drive, or hurry somewhere. It might make you look for the city that was and the city that is and the city that might be, if only on maps in your imagination.