REVERSE COMMUTER by Jennifer Kabat
“The paving deep in the station had a frosty glitter, and she wondered if diamonds had been ground into the concrete.” This is Alice Malloy, rube, hick, innocent –stepping forth into Grand Central Station, full of dreams, this the John Cheever story “O City of Broken Dreams” (you can guess what happens to hers). Her husband Evarts on the street outside sees, “Faces purposeful and intent as if they belonged to people who were pursing the destinies of great industries.” He’s also stunned by the youth and beauty of those faces, and they remind me of how Edith Wharton described Lily Bart a half century earlier also just outside the station: “She must have cost a great deal to make… a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her.”
Those words could have been applied wholesale to the station itself (and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s hubris in building it). Or, to the city: expensive, sacrificial and glittering with diamonds – and dreams – crushed into it. James Salter probably nails it best in his novel Light Years, “The city is a cathedral of possession; its scent is dreams.”
This scent, these dreams, those rubes– they are me, they are mine. I stare at everyone in wonder. I arrive at Grand Central among the tourists and travelers commuters and cops, the thrum and rush of crowds scurrying across marble floors and the grand Paris-Opera stairs, sweeping you into their embrace (and the Apple Store with Salter’s scent of dreams). Voices echo and phones flash as their users quixotically try to light the vast space for photos. Overhead, above it all, Vanderbilt’s blue heavens twinkle. On the Number 6 train downtown afterward the swell of people shove together ass and elbow, bags, backpacks and books. (This alone is thrilling; people still read books here). They might stare down at shoes or out into space but that we are all here together is positively transcendent. I’ve ridden down the margins of the Hudson to arrive in this moment.
Like some Cheever character, I’m a commuter, only where adjuncts are concerned, I am the reverse commuter. I live not in Westchester, not even in some suburb, but more than three hours away, in the sticks, in the mountains, in the country, in a place of 593 people. My county is often identified as the second-poorest in the state, and I live in a town of laborers and loggers and farmers – more blue-collar than bucolic. Here the per capita income (mine included) is more than 2.5 times less than what my students at NYU pay a year. Still on my commute home last night there were equally rousing moments – the place in Port Ewen, home of Ain’t-I-A-Woman Sojourner Truth, where a clearing gives way to a view across the Hudson and the Catskills rise in glory. Here my heart always lurches with the thrill that that view is home, that that is where I’m headed. Then, I got to save a baby snapping turtle crossing the two-lane highway a mile from my house.
Still when I travel to the city, my pulse quickens (it did for the snapping turtle too, but in a different way. I was hoping a car wouldn’t hit me and the turtle wouldn’t bite me). Instead of Cheever or Salter or Wharton who all loathed and left the city, I get to be of both. Of course, being of both renders you a citizen of nowhere, an outsider to all. And that is weird – it might open me up for some profound moments, still I want to speak to both, to write for both, but where art (contemporary art and theory is what I teach) now involves huge sums of money and fairs and things we might all bemoan about a realm often called “the art world,” returning here to a place of dusty streets and defunct dairy farms shows how small that world’s reach is—in both directions.
Being one of transcendent and populist tendencies, I want to love all of it, and in loving all of it, I wish I could communicate all of it, in all its multifariousness to everyone all of the time and not speak in two voices and two vocabularies to two different worlds. It’s why for a short time I was on staff at my small-circ local paper writing about cops and water and the politics of water, and the local grammarian who was retiring from said paper (the piece wasn’t seen as a conflict of interest but urgent news) and of making maple syrup and hunting. I also tried my hand at church, as a way of finding a place in the community. These days I think I need to join the local volunteer fire department (Cheever was a member of his). I feel guilty every time I hear the air raid siren calling the firemen and women into action.
I’m part of this rural world because it means I don’t have to sacrifice my dreams. Here I can afford the luxury of writing; I don’t have to surrender them to a city I can’t afford, where in a Cheeveresque fashion those dreams get ground up and shoved into the sidewalks – or else you go work for an ad agency. Here I get to write hybrid essays. I get to do exactly what essays are supposed to. I get to try. I get to explore. I get to think. I get to experiment with form. I also get the baby snapping turtles and the baby beavers, and the efts (which are, for the uninitiated, adolescent newts) and snakes and fawns and other critters that are beyond cute. It’s also a place where everyone else seems to want the freedom to do and explore as they wish. In a way this renders me similar to my neighbors. I just don’t have a sign outside my house lobbying to repeal the SAFE Act.
One of my closest friends here, a good old boy with Buddhist prayer flags, a hunter who also has assault weapons, said he didn’t get—didn’t even read my writing. His “get” was a “git,” the word chewed down to the nub. As he speaks, his syllables are bitten off and vowels slide into consonants. My essays were too long and too complex (we were talking about attention spans in this our digital age), but he said, “You know you’re encountering a real writer when you set out to read ‘em, that you’re doing something in there.” Not that I blame him for his stance in reading, this friend is big-hearted and generous and interested in the landscape and photography and community and ideas, and often has great ideas of subjects for me to consider in my work—even if he rarely reads it.
Still in a place where people say, “You got two rocks for every dirt –” that’s how poor the soil is but also the community – I often wonder what it means to write. Or, to travel between the two worlds. What does it mean to talk of feminism and Marxism and, yes, still, modernism, to write about art and its values, to show (as I do my students) images of identity and sexuality, politics and war, and to talk about the meaning of painting, the perpetual struggle over the meaning of painting?
Yet here in the land of the Hudson River School, idyllic and beautiful, our fate is tied to the city. Our bluestone (that two rock for every dirt which is our native ground) was used to pave New York’s sidewalks before the mica, cheap and glittering, cornered the market. Now all the city’s water is from here. In my column I’ll write about that, and our local 19th century robber baron, Jay Gould, and his connection to Vanderbilt and Grand Central and, of course, all the nature, because maybe that is how I talk to both, by smuggling what is here south – and showing videos of baby beavers.
 Back when he was still in Boston, the city of his youth, Cheever wrote: “The idea of leaving the city has never been so distant or so desirable.” He was already trying to escape; this note a plea to get into Yaddo.
Let us know what you think...