If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.
After days of rain and unusual warmth, the skies are now the soft deep blue that is the gift of an oblique sun. The air is cool but not yet dense enough to carry sound sharply. From the playing fields, the cries and shouts of children are carried upward, sometimes clearly, sometimes muted, like murmurs, and always eventually to disappear. These sounds inexplicably convey the colors of the children’s jerseys, which seen from the eleventh storey are only bright flecks on grass made so green by recent rains and cool nights that it looks like wet enamel.
Coming in the window, you might wonder who had left it open, for the apartment is empty, its silence, to a spirit, thundering like a heartbeat. Perhaps you would turn back to glance at the gulls bobbing in the reservoir, as white as confetti, or to see how the façades of Fifth Avenue across the park and over the trees are lit by the sun in white, ochre, and briefly flaring yellow.
The wind coming through the window, as you do, unseen, moves a shade to and fro as if gently breathing, its circular pull occasionally leaping up enough in contrary motion to tap against a pane as if it wants to speak. No one is in. In a breeze that enters and dies before it reaches the back rooms, you ride above particles of dust propelled across polished floors like snowflakes tumbling in a blizzard. In the air is a remnant of perfume, strongest by the door, as is often the case. The lights are off, the heat not yet been turned on, and the brass front-door lock silent and immobile, waiting to be turned and released.
In the room overlooking the park the bookshelves are full. Hanging above the fireplace is a Manet seascape with flags and pennants snapping in the wind; in a desk drawer beneath the telephone, a loaded pistol. And on an oval marble table in the entrance hall near the immobile lock and its expectant tumblers is a piece of card stock folded in half and standing like anA. Musical staffs are printed on the outside. Inside, sheltered as if deliberately from spirits, is a note waiting to be read by someone living. On the same smooth marble, splayed open but kept in a circle by its delicate gold chain, is a bracelet, waiting for a wrist.
And if you were a spirit, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then there you would wait for someone to return, and the story to unfold.
BOAT TO ST. GEORGE: MAY, 1946
If a New York doorman is not contemplative by nature he becomes so as he stands all day dressed like an Albanian general and doing mostly nothing. What little contact he has with the residents and visitors who pass by is so fleeting it emphasizes the silence and inactivity that is his portion and that he must learn to love. There is an echo to people’s passing, a wake in the air that says more about them than can be said in speech, a fragile signal that doormen learn to read as if everyone who disappears into the turbulence of the city is on a journey to the land of the dead.
The busy comings and goings of mornings and late afternoons are for doormen a superstimulation. And on a Friday morning one Harry Copeland, in a tan suit, white shirt, and blue tie, left the Turin, at 333 Central Park West. His formal name was Harris, and though it was his grandfather’s he didn’t like it, and didn’t like Harry much either. Harry was a name, as in Henry V, or Childe Harold, that, sounding unlike Yiddish, Hebrew, or any Eastern European language, was appropriated on a mass scale by Jewish immigrants and thus became the name of tailors, wholesalers, rabbis, and doctors. Harry was one’s uncle. Harry could get it at a reduced price. Harry had made it into the Ivy League, sometimes. Harry could be found at Pimlico and Hialeah, or cutting diamonds, or making movies in Hollywood, or most anywhere in America where there were either palm trees or pastrami—not so much leading armies at Agincourt, although that was not out of the question, and there was redemption too in that the president was named Harry and had been in the clothing business.
The doorman at 333 had been charged with looking after the young son of one of the laundresses. As a result of this stress he became talkative for a doorman, and as Harry Copeland, who had maintained his military fitness, began to increase his velocity in the lobby before bursting out of the door, the doorman said to Ramon, his diminutive charge, “Here comes a guy. . . . Now watch this guy. Watch what he does. He can fly.” The boy fixed his eyes on Harry like a tracking dog.
As Harry ran across the street his speed didn’t seem unusual for a New Yorker dodging traffic. But there was no traffic. And instead of relaxing his pace and executing a ninety-degree turn left or right, north or south, on the eastern sidewalk of Central Park West, he unleashed himself, crossed the tiled gray walkway in one stride, leapt onto the seat of a bench, and, striking it with his right foot and then his left, pushed off from the top of the seat back and sailed like a deer over the soot-darkened park wall.
Knowing extremely well the ground ahead, he put everything into his leap and stayed in the air so long that the doorman and little boy felt the pleasure of flying. The effect was marvelously intensified by the fact that, because of their perspective, they never saw him touch down. “He does that almost every day,” the doorman said. “Even in the dark. Even when the bench is covered with ice. Even in a snowstorm. I saw him do it once in a heavy snow, and it was as if he disappeared into the air. Every goddamned morning.” He looked at the boy. “Excuse me. And in a suit, too.”
The little boy asked the doorman, “Does he come back that way?”
“No, he just walks up the street.”
“Because there’s no bench on the other side of the wall.”
The doorman didn’t know that as a child Harry Copeland had lived at 333 with his parents—and then with his father after his mother died—before he went to college, before the war, before inheriting the apartment, and before the doorman’s tenure, though this doorman had been watching the weather from under the same steeply angled gray canopy for a long time. In the spring of 1915, the infant Harry had dreamt his first dream, which he had not the ability to separate from reality. He, who could barely walk, was standing on one of the glacial, whale-backed rocks that arch from the soil in Central Park. Suddenly, by neither his own agency nor his will, as is so often the lot of infants, he was lifted, though not by a visible hand, and conveyed a fair distance through the air from one rock to another. In other words, he flew. And throughout his life he had come close to replicating this first of his dreams—in leaping from bridges into rivers, or flying off stone buttresses into the turquoise lakes that fill abandoned quarries, or exiting airplanes at altitude, laden with weapons and ammunition. His first dream had set the course of his life.
Because he was excellently farsighted, no avenue in New York was so long that the masses of detail at its farthest end would escape him. Over a lifetime of seeing at long distances he had learned to see things that he could not physically see: by reading the clues in fleeting colors or flashes, by close attention to context, by making comparisons to what he had seen before, and by joining together images that in changing light would bloom and fade, or rise and fall, out of and into synchrony. For this fusion, which was the most powerful technique of vision, it was necessary to have a prodigious memory.
He could replay with such precision and intensity what he had seen, heard, or felt that these things simply did not lapse from existence and pass on. Though his exactitude in summoning texture, feel, and details could have been bent to parlor games or academics, and in the war had been made to serve reconnaissance, he had realized from very early on that it was a gift for an overriding purpose and this alone. For by recalling the past and freezing the present he could open the gates of time and through them see all allegedly sequential things as a single masterwork with neither boundaries nor divisions. And though he did not know the why or wherefore of this, he did know, beginning long before he could express it, that when the gates of time were thrown open, the world was saturated with love. This was not the speculation of an aesthete, or a theory of the seminar room, for this he had seen with his own eyes even in war, darkness, and death.
To see and remember life overflowing and compounding upon itself in such vivid detail was always a burden, but, that May, he was able to carry it easily. Though a bleak, charcoal-colored winter had been followed by an indeterminate spring, by June the beaches would be gleaming and hot, the water cold and blue. The streets would flood with sunlight and the evenings would be cool. Women had emerged from their winter clothes and one could see the curve of a neck flowing into the shoulders, actual legs exposed to the air, and a summer glow through a white blouse. In the weeks before the solstice it was as if, moving at great speed toward maximum light, the world had a mind of its own. It clung to a reluctance that would slow it as the brightest days began to grow darker. It is perhaps this hesitation at the apogee that lightens the gravity of sorrows, such as they are, in luminous June evenings and on clear June days.
As the half-dozen or more people who had swum that morning rushed back to work, the shivering clatter of slammed locker doors momentarily overwhelmed the hiss of steam escaping from pipes in locations that would remain forever hidden even from the most elite plumbers. Why steam still charged the pipes was a mystery to Harry, because the heat had been off for more than a month, and a string of cold days had chilled the unheated pool to the taste of polar bears. As he removed his clothing and floated it across the gap between him and the hook in his locker, the tan poplin undulating slightly as it met the air, the last of the other lockers was closed, and after a long echo the hiss of the steam pipes restored the room to timelessness. He was alone. No one would see that he did not shower before entering the pool. That morning as always he had bathed upon arising. He walked through the shower room and onto the pool deck, which like the walls and floor of the pool itself was a mosaic of tiny porcelain octagons, every edge rough and slightly raised.
The last swimmer had left the water ten or fifteen minutes earlier, but it was still moving in barely perceptible waves repelled by the walls and silently rocking, lifting, and depressing the surface, though only a keen eye could tell. Unlike in winter, when the air was saturated with moisture and chlorine, it was cool and dry. Standing in front of a huge sign that saidAbsolutely No Diving!he sprang off the edge and hit the water, gliding through it like an arrow. As the body’s sensual registration is not infinite, the shock of falling, the feel of impact, the sound of the splash, the sight of the world rushing past, and even the smell of the water he aerated in his fall crowded out the cold, and by the time he began to feel the chill he had already begun to warm in exertion.
He would swim a mile, first at a sprint, then slowly, then, increasing his speed until he would move as if powered by an engine, all vessels open, every muscle primed and warmed, his heart ready to supply whatever was asked of it. He swam twice a week. Twice a week on the bridle trails and around the reservoir he ran a six-mile circuit of the park. And twice he took a racing shell out on the Harlem River or, were it not too windy, on the Hudson, or upstate on the Croton Reservoir, for ten exhausting miles in the kiln of summer or in the snow, fighting wind, water, wakes, and the whirlpools of Spuyten Duyvil where the Harlem and Hudson join. And on Saturday, he rested, if he could.
Although he had played every sport in high school except football, and in college had rowed, boxed, and fenced, it was the war that had led him to maintain the strength, endurance, and physical toughness of the paratrooper he had become. Whereas many others long before demobilization had abandoned the work of keeping themselves fit for fighting cross-country and living without shelter, Harry had learned, and believed at a level deeper than the reach of any form of eradication, that this was a duty commensurate with the base condition of man; that civilization, luxury, safety, and justice could be swept away in the blink of an eye; and that no matter how apparently certain and sweet were the ways of peace, they were not permanent. Contrary to what someone who had not been through four years of battle might have thought, his conviction and action in this regard did not lead him to brutality but away from it. He would not abandon until the day he died the self-discipline, alacrity, and resolution that would enable him to stretch to the limit in defending that which was delicate, transient, and vulnerable, that which and those whom he loved the most.
Though as he swam he was not thinking of such things, they conditioned his frame of mind upon reaching the state of heat and drive that sport and combat share in common. Upon leaving the water, however, he was a study in equanimity. As he showered, a fragrant gel made from pine and chestnuts, and bitter to the taste—he had brought it from Germany just after V-J Day not even a year before—made a paradise of the air. The pool had been his alone, and no old men had come to paddle across his path like imperial walruses. In the glow of health, he dressed, and the bitter taste became more and more tolerable as it receded into recollection.
To be in New York on a beautiful day is to feel razor-close to being in love. Trees flower into brilliant clouds that drape across the parks, plumes of smoke and steam rise into the blue or curl away on the wind, and disparate actions each the object of intense concentration run together in a fume of color, motion, and sound, with the charm of a first dance or a first kiss. In the war, when he dreamed, he sometimes heard the sound of horns, streetcar bells, whistles, claxons, and the distant whoop of steam ferries. All rose into a picture attractive not so much for the fire of its richness and color but for the spark that had ignited it. He had known in times of the greatest misery or danger that his dreams of home, in which all things seemed beautiful, were in essence his longing for the woman for whom he had been made. That was how, as a soldier, he had seen it, and it was how he had come through.
In the five or six miles down to South Ferry the life of the city crowded around him and no one could have been more grateful for it. From the arsenals of history came batteries of images bearing the energy of all who had come before. They arose in columns of light filled with dust like the departed souls of hundreds of millions agitating to be unbound; in sunbeams tracking between high buildings as if to hunt and destroy dark shadow; in men and women of no account, the memory of whom would vanish in a generation or two, and who would leave no record, but whose faces, preoccupied and grave, when apprehended for a split second on the street were the faces of angels unawares.
For a moment in Madison Square, he had locked eyes with a very old man. In 1946 a man born in the last year of the Civil War was eighty-one. Perhaps this one was in his nineties, and in his youth had fought at Antietam or Cold Harbor. Fragile and dignified, excellently tailored, walking so slowly he seemed not to move, just before entering the fortress of one of the insurance companies through an ancient ironwork gate he had turned to look at the trees in the park. No one can report upon the world of the very old as the old comment upon that of the young, for no one has ever been able to look back upon it in reflection. Who could know therefore the real weight of all the things in this man’s heart, or the revelations that had begun to surge from memory, to make the current that soon would bear him up?
In Little Italy, Harry saw half a dozen men loading heavy barrels onto a wagon. The sides of the wagon were upright two-by-fours joined by chains in symmetrical catenaries. Two dappled grays stood in their braces ready to pull. The barrels were lifted in coordinated rhythm, rolled along the wagon’s bed, and righted. For these men, the world was the lifting of barrels, and nothing could have choreographed their moves more perfectly than had the task to which they submitted. And when finally Harry broke out from the tall buildings of Wall Street at South Ferry, the harbor was gray and almost green, the sky a soft blue.
Excerpted from In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.