Recalling New York at 4 a.m.

September 11, 2006|By Lia Purpura

In the summers during college, I sold coffee from a cart at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, across the street from Trinity Church, just blocks from the World Trade Center. I'd get up at 4 a.m., unlatch the five deadbolts and walk from the tiny apartment I shared with friends on Avenue C to my station.

New York at 4 a.m. (I had to be at the cart by 5) was cool and blue and, strangely, finally, at rest. Everything, even in August, seemed breezy and fresh-washed that early. The junkies were quiet, and the Bowery was almost beautiful after the merciless streetsweeper scraped it raw with brushes and disinfectant.

Better than any momentary beauty, though, the city sank deeply into its history at that hour. The old guard was out, as it had always been - the bakery trucks, the newspaper delivery vans, the taxis. At 4, I could see cornerstones and cornices lost in crowds during the day, a strip of cobbles wearing through some sheer blacktop, an iron boot-cleaner still bolted - miraculously - to the side of a front stoop. That early, peeling black fire escapes were ghosted with hot sleepers.

I'm reading again, this month, Vladimir Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory, a brilliant salvage operation whose mission it is to hold and illuminate both the Russia from which he and his family were exiled and the childhood that abandoned him. He realizes he can appreciate certain particularly potent memories "only after the things and beings that I most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart."

After the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, I feel, too, the urgency to summon that which I thought I knew, that which resided so comfortably in a presumed intimacy of detail. Nabokov writes too, in a rare direct reference to his exile, "I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche."

My corner does not exist as it did then. Its microclimate has been forever altered; the global temperature burned it up. I do not offer my loss of atmosphere, the odd safety of the early morning, that unbidden and historically charged peace, as a measure of trauma. I do not rest my loss anywhere near what my friends and others directly exposed to that horror experienced. I only mean to say that now, five years later, I am keenly aware of History and Events as sudden and comprehensive forces in ways I was not aware of before.

As a native New Yorker, I see the way I assumed, in my provincial New York way, the city's constancy. As Nabokov must have assumed, as a child, the solidity of his good father's estates. One believes intellectually, politically - morally, of course - in the fragility, the sheerness of the present. But one comes to it most truthfully, bodily and geographically, at a remove. By way of a pang riding a streak of light. Unfolding an old subway map grimed with coffee and seeing stops that no longer exist. Refolding the 20-year-old vendor's license - imprinted with the Lower Manhattan skyline, my district - and fitting it back in its drawer.

Now, considering the early, soft blue of New York at 4 a.m., reaching for it, trying out words for that time of day, that era, I hope for a form of attention alert enough to receive, with precision, as Nabokov said, "those distant times whose long light finds so many ingenious ways to reach me."

Lia Purpura is writer-in-residence at Loyola College in Baltimore. Her collection of essays, "On Looking," was just published.

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