Musings on Filth and Fumes- One Writer’s Expanded Resume by Ilona Rapp

subway passengers NewYork City

New York City Subway scene

My daughter landed in New York this week.  To my delight, she asked about my favorite haunts in Manhattan.  My memories, surprisingly, are almost as old as she is, and from a time when I was exactly her age.  That coincidental juxtaposition of place and time inspired a review of who I am now, who I was then, and the obscure roots of my development as a writer.
As a newly forming adult, the sights, the sound and the smells of the city were exhilarating.  I felt I belonged to that great clamoring mass of culture.  I felt like it was all mine, the many languages, the accents, the tones of voice and the idioms in some way belonged to me. because I too was immersed in the crucible.
An image of “my” city flashes in my mind,  an immense mural, identifiable as a single work only when viewed from afar.  The closer I examine the overall picture,  the more I realize that it is a mosaic, made up of countless still images, no less impressive than the whole.  Unlike a simple mural, it contains sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical and emotional sensations.  Its individual parts contain the histories of its inhabitants, enlivened through expressions, tones, gait and costume.  In this maelstrom of collective story, I wandered unwittingly on the path of my muse, too enthralled to acknowledge the developing writer within me.
Perception is bound by perspective, both in space and time.  My writer’s roots, quiescently enmeshed in my burgeoning world view, were grasping for sustenance.  My innate yearning to write, was born of gathered impressions.  Every thought, act and experience was filed safely in my writer’s trove.

Granted both space and time, I see that even then, I was unconsciously nurturing the writer I would become. I was experiencing the birth of communication, a writer’s art, loosed upon my physical body.  Without thought, I would raise a brow and catch the focus of a roaming gaze.  In response, my own pupils might dilate in sympathy, or my lip might raise to a half smile.  Sometimes I would release a full toothed wonder and for a moment receive one in kind  Briefly, I could understand the expressions, the nuances, the cultural depth of another wanderer, whose history was disparate from my own.  The image I hold of Manhattan, is stippled with encounters and connections. In my youth, every journey within the city was essentially a quest to gather these treasures.
Now back to my daughter, whose simple request inspired my wool gathering. Really I had meant to type her a list, and now I have a post.   My favorite places in New York?  Well of course I remember my favorite cafes, restaurants, bookstores and quirky stores, the parks and the museums.  There was always so much to see, yet once I had exhausted my memory and listed them all, I was dissatisfied.  I read over the list and realized that it failed to illustrate the core of my perceptions of the city.
The core! that’s what I loved most about the city, it’s core, it’s subterranean channels shuttling inhabitants from one end to the other.  New Yorkers rarely have space to retain cars, and even if they do, they have no desire to crawl through the city traffic.  The heart of New York City lies in its underground transportation  What I loved most of New York City, quite simply, was the subway.
The subway, where I could repeat the connections, over and over again, daydreaming the lives of those I could observe freely.  Because we were part of a whole, other than closing your eyes, in that scintillating swirl of humanity, you will always be looking at someone.  To avoid collision in body, you must collide and connect in sight  Even then, when the confidence and the yearning pull to write was not yet apparent, I bore witness, I valued and remembered those many glimpses into another perspective that were gifted to me.
So yes, the subway, filthy and reeking with its blend of humanity and exhaust fumes, lit with strangely flickering florescent lights, and tagged with the colors of defiance is what I miss most. Pushing and pulling, crowding and coming and going, stopping and starting and jerking, this was where I learned to feel alive.  This was where I discovered that there was no such thing as boredom, no such thing as knowing all there was to know, and no such thing as loneliness as long as you were willing to embrace its chaos.
I am looking again at my list of the many places and sights to be seen.  Some may even yet stand, though in a newer incarnation.  I will leave it as written to send to my daughter,  It will  be enough. As she races about from place to place, she will glimpse the base elements of my own evolution, both as her mother and as a writer.  I know this, because in her comings and goings, she too will immerse herself in the writhing throngs of humanity as she navigates the subways of New York.  She too will follow her muse.
To view the list on Tumblr click this link:

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