By Christopher Cudworth
The last time I was in New York City was at the tender age of 21, but the purpose was not so tender.
My job was to lug 140 lbs. of audio visual equipment up from Philadelphia by train to set up for a presentation at the Chemical Bank building to be given that day by the late Robert Van Kampen, the brains and drive behind the Van Kampen Investments firm he later sold for about $400M to Xerox. Mr. Van Kampen passed away years ago from a condition that hardens the muscles in your body, including your heart, until you die. Which always struck me as a rather ironic event to happen to a devout Christian like Mr. Van Kampen.
But back in 1981 Mr. Van Kampen was at the height of his creative financial powers, and while I am not entirely sure what the mission was that day at Chemical Bank in New York, I believe it was successful. Mr. Van Kampen was successful at many things in life.
I thought about Mr. Van Kampen while strolling past the Manhattan offices of BNY Mellon, where my son Evan Cudworth pointed out that the firm now manages something like 43 trillion dollars in assets. Mind boggling wealth is just part of the everyday scene in NYC.
Then my son shared that the middle class in New York City begins at an income of about $274,000. Facts like that can make you wonder what you’re doing there at all. But they should not slow you down. We all have a right to experience what New York City has to offer.
OWS and 9/11
My son and I also walked by the stone park where Occupy Wall Street set up shop a few years back to protest the actions of bankers and the effects of their fiscal dalliances on the rest of us. It seems that the banksters felt free to run up a few debts and pass along the pain to the taxpayers to bail them out. OWS had problems with that and other exploitative issues, if you recall. But protest is one of the most difficult things in the world to sustain, and the plaza was now empty with the exception of a few folks with cardboard signs with messages scrawled with Sharpie markers. Whether OWS had an impact we will never really know.
But what we do know is that another form of protestor objecting to the actions of financial and political forces in the United States turned two giant skyscrapers into another form of plaza just a few blocks away. Which is why the 9/11 Memorial is now necessary to commemorate the day that Osama bin Laden ordered his minions to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center in the financial district of Manhattan.
A perfect tribute to something lost
The 9/11 memorial is a perfection of sorts. The water flowing into an abyss that follows the footprint of the former World Trade Center is a living testament to the lives that were taken that day. As the water in the lower pool drops down the granite walls into a space where you cannot see the bottom, your heart sinks a little with it. Yet the constant flow of falling water on all sides of the two square chasms soothes your soul.
The memorial reminds one not only of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but of the personal, sinking feeling we can all get in the aftermath of tragedy, and from everyday life. And in that way, the 9/11 memorial is as touching and profound as the Washington, D.C. Vietnam Memorial with its black face cut from the landscape. It is understated, and all the more powerful as a result.
Of course some people are more blessed than others to avoid that black granite feeling and emotions pouring down into the pit of our souls. But there is one serious truth at work in the 9/11 Memorial, because concerns over conspiracy theories are at least temporarily washed away in those moments. All those lives were sucked out of the soul of New York City, which in truth is a really grand and forgiving place if you try at all to bridge the gap between its massive infrastructure to the humanity moving through those spaces.
As we prepared to leave, there was one white rose placed in the name of one of the victims of 9/11. The simple flower calls to mind the need to investigate the pain caused by the event, but also the need to move on. If facts ever do emerge that point to any truth of conspiracy, then our whole nation must be held to account. But we shall see what unfurls, however innocently or not.
Other Messages From New York
The next morning while running across the Williamsburg bridge there was a small bit of graffiti scrawled on the running path. It said: “Forgive the negative people, they learned to (sic) many lies.”
“Okay,” I thought, while stopping on my morning run to regard the message, “that’s a whole cycle of thoughts packed into one bit of graffiti.”
Because what does it mean?
If you’re negative, then you’ve learned too many lies? What, the truth can’t do the same thing?
That’s seems to be the whole argument on the World Trade Center bombings. Have we actually gotten to the truth on those events or not? (or JFK, the NSA, or MLK…the list goes on…)
And if we do not have the truth, then what lies have we learned, and accepted? Then, what forgiveness do we need if that is indeed the case? Are we going along with a massive narrative that is not good for us?
Another bridge to truth
A little further up the bike path another writer stopped to express his thoughts. His words read:
“And I bike. Bike so I can understand cuz I understand better when I feel the wind, the sun, the moon. And I know there’s a destination waiting for me abut at this moment I have no destination. And I like it. I like the unknown future, cuz I can feel the present. Feel it with my whole body. So I bike and I observe. And only then. I don’t observ my brain by my heart. In the present. It comes to me, the clarity of the moment.
So I keep biking to make sure I’m right. And then I don’t bike any more. I just am with my whole body and soul. I just know and I want to scream so everybody could hear me, or maybe I want to hear myself so I could always remember…So I bike. Love. (heart sign)”
It must have taken him some time to write all that down on the path, so he or she had obviously been thinking about it. But true profundity is hard. You have to begin somehow with the basics.
We can try to grasp what the cyclist who wrote those words is saying, yet they seems to as many questions as answers given.
The first question a cyclist like me wants to ask it this: “Okay, what kind of bike do you like to ride?”
I know, it shouldn’t matter, yet bikes in New York City seem to answer a whole lot of questions, all on their own.
There is bike diversity, you see. You have people riding every conceivable type of bike. There are plenty of classy old Schwinns tooling around, of course. They are steel, sturdy and not as theft-worthy. Old bikes are a fine art form, although some seemed to have evolved into abstractions, and left to the elements and activities of New York, they become unridable, unwanted and cast off. Just like some of the people of New York. It’s a common phenomenon. The power of evolution, actually.
There are also slick Colnagos and Pinarellos, as well as people outfitted in full-on cycling kits and people in short shorts, low cut blouses
and tattoos. All ride essentially the same route up and over the Williamsburg bridge toward the New York City skyline and the Empire State Building, anchor of everything New York as far as I’m concerned, as it still juts up proudly from the beauty of Uptown Manhattan.
So you can analyze all you want, but in the end you need to let the bikes people choose to ride answer some questions for you.
The bikes people ride define not who they are, of course, but what they are doing, and why. In the moment. That’s all you can really ask, and expect to get an answer.There’s a lot of city here, you see, and 9 million people minding their own business.
But it is certainly not an unfriendly place as I once imagined. Not by a long stretch.
New York State of mind
Didn’t you imagine it too? That New Yorkers were somehow gruff, confrontational and off-putting. It’s all wrong.
Into this great flow my son has gone to grow. From a small town in Illinois he matriculated through the University of Chicago and now works and lives in New York City. Where he’s always wanted to go. And live.
The path to existence in New York City has had as big an arc as you can imagine for him. The last year for our family was like crossing a Williamsburg bridge built on steroids, with a massive hump of uphill climbing and a bit of difficulty putting the brakes on as things came to a conclusion with my wife’s passing from ovarian cancer.
Running downhill is not easy
You do know that running downhill can be just as difficult and painful as running uphill, do you not? If you don’t, then you haven’t done it with sufficient speed or need. But your thighs and knees can begin to ache, and you just want to lay down for a minute and gather yourself before continuing. And sometimes you do, and it’s hard to get back up and run knowing that the horrid downhill pain still awaits.
I’ve done that run a few times over the years. The Downhill Blues. It’s supposed to be easier, given you’re not climbing any more. But it’s not easier. It’s harder precisely because everyone else thinks it should be easier, made worse by the fact that others might go running past looking as if their actually enjoying themselves running down the back side of a bridge across a big river toward home, whatever you call that.
Citi and New York City Bikes
So my son and I took a ride over that bridge together here in New York City. We rented Citi Bikes which are built for Everyman and Everywoman. They’re neither fast or slow or heavy or light. They just are. With that kind of transportation under your butt, and in a pretty blue color, the road and path and streets and bridges all look inviting. You don’t need a helmet. You don’t need cycling shoes. It’s just you and your butt and legs moving along.
We crossed over into Williamsburg to visit Hipsterland. Had margaritas and tacos at Cafe de la Esquina and then rode home to a nap.
This was New York. Neither Sinatra or Bill Joel sang about any of this stuff, because it is ours, and ours alone. It’s a city that’s about minding your own business and having enough heart to mind someone else’s as well, when the occasion occurs. And that’s pretty often.
On the path across the Williamsburg Bridge I noticed something with subtle significance. It was a set of colorful tarsnakes laced across half the length of the entire bridge. And I thought: “That’s New York in a snippet. Color tarsnakes of existence.”
A Sense of Belonging
I’m glad he’s here. He’s a great son and a good man. I hope he continues to find friendship and love and himself. This big improvisational city is brimming with wealth and dreams, but you have to define that on your own terms. Some people write it on the bike path. Others write it on the sky.
We wrote our connections in the moments we looked into each other’s eyes. New York, New York.