The City Breathes


They tell you all sorts of things about New York City. Maybe that it never sleeps, which seems to be true; perhaps that the people are hard-nosed and rude, which certainly isn’t. Sometimes people will even tell you that it is alive.

Nobody ever told me that it breathes.

I arrived in New York City in unspectacular style via the grey-brown steel and concrete mishmash of the New Jersey Turnpike. The Megabus ride from Washington D.C. had been unhurried, plush and none too arduous, while my vantage point at the front of the top deck afforded me unadulterated panoramas of the approaching Manhattan skyline. The view acted as a perfect salve to the sleep-deprived haze that had engulfed me since my departure from a hurriedly arranged New Year’s party the night before.

After a dive below ground at the Weehawken helix and the customary halting journey through the Lincoln Tunnel, we erupted out into mid-town Manhattan. As a rank newcomer to New York – both city and state – I was stunned by the sheer magnitude of the metropolis that I had emerged into. This effect was magnified to bewildering proportions when our bus unceremoniously disgorged its passengers onto the side-walk by the corner of 7th and 28th. Noise, bustle and looming buildings engulfed me in their encompassing embrace. Fortunately I would not be left long in this daze – out of the crowds emerged my unofficial New York City guide.

Molly and I had met on-line some 7 years previous in the rarefied air of DeviantArt, brought together by our mutual affection for photography and bizarre, rambling conversations sprawled out across the web. A Maryland native, she had swapped state to begin her undergraduate studies at NYU and had been captured by the city that had charmed her father many years before.

For my part, the sudden dissolution of a 5-year relationship had sent me out West to spend time with family in Virginia. Contemplating travel on my own for a time, I had jumped at the chance to see the big city and finally meet an old friend. Hastily booked Megabus tickets and a generous offer of a place to stay from Molly’s partner Michael had sealed the deal.

Our meeting was characteristic of those between friends who have never directly laid eyes upon each other before – nearly walking past each other, then hesitant, before rapidly shifting to warm and conversational. This served to buoy my sleep-deprived self through a montage of unfamiliar experiences: strolling up streets, jaywalking across avenues, tumbling down steps to subways then bounding up stairs to tramways.

After a noisy jumble of such events, I was settled in on Roosevelt Island and the sun was quickly making itself scarce. With us both being night owls this didn’t mean an end to the day; there were simply more light-sources and fewer people to get in the way of them. We armoured ourselves up against the bitter January winds, grabbed our camera kit and set loose on the streets for our first-ever collaborative photo mission.

What follows is a short piece of prose that I was inspired to write after processing the events of that evening.

The City Breathes

Standing there on the waterfront with the East River before me and Molly beside me, I am struck instantly by the sheer magnitude of Manhattan. Buildings loom tall and span out wider to either side than I could possibly stretch out my arms to encompass.

The sun has long since set and the light of day is rapid fading, usurped and supplanted in kind by the ever-present glow of artificial illumination.  All along the opposing waterfront are suspended stars strung out in yellow, silver and gold: sodium, halogen and tungsten.  Their reflections swim out to meet them in the shifting surface of the East River, swirling and shimmering on the water.  The tallest buildings stand out as vast bright beacons against a swiftly darkening sky.

Manhattan By Night

As truly wondrous as that sight remains, it was not the recipient of my awe. That was reserved for the sound.

Being a small-town boy with rural leanings I was never initially one for the noise of cities; for me, the hubbub drowns out thought and sense and good-nature alike.  Cacophonies of car horns, bus brakes and bicycle bells jangle and clatter inside my head and leave me feeling hollow.

Years in the mid-sized Northern city of Sheffield have immured me to this sensation but lent me no love for it, and so I found it to be in Manhattan when I arrived. Sights, smells and sounds excited and overwhelmed all at once, before gradually they faded away under a blanket of learned tolerance.

But right there in that singular moment on Roosevelt Island, I suddenly became aware that my ears had been filled with a subtle and constant pressure that was bearing down upon them like the ubiquitous sensation of gravity; I knew instantly that it had existed all along and yet only conscious introspection had caused me to feel the weight.

And so it was that I heard the voice of the city, its deep and soulful song.  It lies beneath the howl of the wind, below even the swish-swash susurration of the highway.  It is a sound the likes of which I have never before heard.

Science will tell you that as the jumbled symphony of Manhattan reflects and reverberates out over the East river, it is robbed of energy and pitch by attenuation and blended together a thousand times through interference and amplification.

I can tell you that those sounds are bound together as one and come barrelling forth across the water to meet you in a singular, immense, awesome roar.

All together it inhales.

All at once it exhales.

All of a sudden it was upon me and I know now that it breathes.