The Past and Present (Christmas) of New York

The view from the 38th floor of an apartment building in downtown Manhattan strikes two very different chords with me – one of disappointment and one of great hope.

I’ll start with the former so I can end on a positive note (always a good policy, but also the way I hope things turn out). I was born in 1987, so I was never really aware of life before the mid-1990s. However, I read a lot, so this may have translated into a life-long battle between contemplative nostalgia and the excitement of progress.

When I arrived in New York City for the holidays, I had three very important stereotypes I wanted to fulfill: Christmas shopping at THE Macy’s, chess with my father in Union Square, and ice skating with my mother in Rockefeller Plaza. Rockefeller Plaza best exemplifies what I mean to say.

While I know and regrettably accept that the world of the 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street” has ebbed before the wave of technology and modernism, I couldn’t help but hope for a similar picture of black and white Christmas simplicity. I envision Christmas in New York to be the stuff of olde, gentle white powder drifting through the skyscrapers to alight on the furred or feathered hats of pedestrians laden with bags of gifts, genially smiling at each other as they hurry home to their own personalized scene from a Dickens novel.

Aside from the lack of snow (high 40’s all week! Nuts), the picture I described is largely unchanged to a casual observer. People bustle about the city, bags on each arm, calling out to each other as they pass on their way home. However, as I slow down to enjoy the scene, I am pushed to the side by a passerby into a bar of scaffolding, and differences become apparent quickly.

The bags people carry are either designer adorned with recent purchases, or trash bags filled with empty cans and scraps of food. The shouts aren’t greetings, but calls for spare change for an empty cup or wares being hawked by sign/pamphlet carriers. The Dickens novel has become a blog on celebrity lifestyles, or a magazine decrying the most recent political brouhaha. It’s deeply, incredibly sad.

Turning the corner into Rockefeller Plaza, I am elated to see the Christmas I imagined. Towering lighted trees, silver pillars supporting waving flags, and an ice rink filled with couples and families over-watched by Apollo . Yet, again, differences creep into my sight. The entire plaza is jam-packed with people. Moving a foot or two in any direction leads to elbows or backs or fronts of a bustling crowd. There’s no room to enjoy the sight. This pulsing mass moves in every which way, yet the majority form some semblance of a line, all the way to the other side of the ice rink, and funneling to a point – the entrance to the line for ice skating.

This picture of Christmas cheer becomes the blueprint of a machine, a pipeline chugging oil down into a clogged and sputtering cog made up of slowly circling skaters. It would be hours of shuffling, inches at a time, through the throng of people to experience more shuffling on the ice, sardines in a chilly can of half-hearted enjoyment. Thousands of people have come from all over the world (myself included) for a taste of what Christmas in NYC used to be, and in doing so wrecked what makes it so appealing: the feeling of a personal, unique experience.

When I think about the differences between 1947 and nigh 2012, what jumps out at me is a sense of world-weariness. The atmosphere of great possibility has become one of probability, of hedging bets and hunkering down to survive as long as possible, keeping warm in the cold winds of the unfamiliar.

Indulge me in this metaphor: If everyone in the world was a gray crayon, all one would have to do is become red, and he would stand out immediately. Uniformity is easy to fight. This overwhelming feeling of being lost, useless, or irrelevant comes not from being a gray crayon, but from being one bright color amongst billions. We can stand on the nearest chair and scream at the top of our lungs what we think is important, only to look around and realize no one is listening because they’re all too busy screaming from their own chairs, drawing in their own bright color, as it were. This feeling of being one more lost voice in a crowd comes from complete and total over stimulation.

When considering the future, Huxley was far closer to the mark than Orwell. As a species, we know exactly how to react when someone says “No.” We fight them. We find ways through or around whatever barriers are placed in our paths until the objective is reached. We become a bright red crayon. When there is no opposition, however, when the answer is “Yes.” to everything, we are at a total loss. The internet has given us access to everything we could conceive, a limitless fountain of information on any topic imaginable. Suddenly, everyone is an artist, or an author (hey now…), or an intellectual. We can learn skills, buy wares, have groceries delivered to us if we feel like it. We’ve taken the words “surplus” and “trash” to new levels, simultaneously. Therein lies a major problem. Once everyone can have something, it becomes fairly worthless. Rockefeller plaza was a perfect example. What was once an iconic holiday image of joy and beauty has become a grueling trudge through lines and mobs in fruitless pursuit of Christmas past.

Despite these musings, I cannot help but be impressed with the city. As a 24-year-old man from Nashville, New York is a wide, wondrous world to me, in spite of what I’ve written above. I walk outside and within ten seconds I’ve seen a full spectrum of color looking at people’s shoes alone. In the space of one block there’s a gyro truck, a pizza parlor, two coffee shops, and a few bars. Walking down the road yesterday I passed a violin shop, shells and strings littering a workbench as a man crafted stunning works of art. The very next store sold wigs of all colors and styles. On every side, I am surrounded by buildings so tall I fall over looking for the tops, while below I am grounded by the rumbling power of subways and trains moving beneath the sidewalks.

The very existence of a city like New York moves something inside of me, an itch that is only scratched by moving forward. I address this by writing, or thinking or reading books that take me outside of my comfort zone and challenge me to think differently.

Three years ago, I would never have been bothered to read a book about the great American capitalists of the late 1800’s. Now, I’m halfway through one such book and am captivated  by it. The great strides these men took towards progress, limited only by their imaginations what could be the future of mankind. It was in the minds of such men and women that New York was first built.

Above all the strife and hardship in the streets, the buildings that stand tall and proud and strong are what make the most powerful impression on me. We have such incredible potential and being in a place like this demands that I think and work harder to make my mark and push the limit of what’s possible just a little bit further. That path begins with not giving up when your plans hit a snag.

After the failure at Rockefeller Plaza, my family and I walked down the street to Bryant Park, where an ice rink of comparable size lay in the brilliant blue glory of a well-lit Christmas tree. We managed to get in without much trouble, and one of my three stereotypes was checked off the list. Skating with Mom (Dad documented the event with the camera from the sidelines in comfort) was everything I wanted, and served as a further reminder of what is great about this city: in the midst of this hustle and bustle, bright lights and honking horns, shuffling masses and maniac bicyclists, there is still room for a guy to dance with his mother (albeit it clumsily on slick ice in skates fit for a podiatric torture chamber).

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

~John (Ken) McEwen, 12:51am, Christmas Eve in New York City

4 Responses to “The Past and Present (Christmas) of New York”
  1. Bob says:

    This is wonderful, Ken! One of your very best. Really gives readers much more than a glimpse into New York at Christmastime, through a prism that illuminates much more than just the city.

  2. Karen says:

    As I finish reading this beautiful blog, the tears run down my cheeks; dancing with you on the ice will always live in my mind as a highlight of my life. I sit here looking out the window on a crystal clear Christmas eve morning, looking way into New Jersey and back into our tiny apartment where you still sleep and dad sips his morning coffee. I am so blessed that God gave me you, your laughter, your love, your wit, your sensitivity, your clear thinking, your fresh outlook, your balance, your love of family, your knowing, your caring, your knowledge, your love of learning, your way of seeing life in proper balance. I am proud, humbled and always grateful to have you in my life. Thank you for sharing this beautiful glimpse into the soul of an amazing man. Merry Christmas, my son! Love always and forever, Mom xoxoxox

  3. Jax says:

    Ken, you are amazing. Merry Christmas and I miss you!

  4. daevski says:

    Now this is excellent writing. From “indulge me in this metaphor…,” all the way up through the end I actually found myself in awe of your writing style.

    Reaching a big smile during the crayon metaphor, I started to compare you to a couple (published) writers that had a way of capturing my mind and pushing it through to sensation and it really started to make the read quite enjoyable.

    At “Suddenly, everyone is … an author (hey now…),” I gave a geuine laugh and started to realize the fun I was having.

    This is one of your best articles and deserves a re-visit if you ever wonder what it is to bring a reader along with you!

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