The Colossus of New York, by Colson Whitehead

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I’ve liked Colson Whitehead’s previous work, including The Intuitionist (the title convinced me to pick up the book), and John Henry Days. His writing is just wonderfully sumptuous, so rich that I often have to re-read bits to appreciate the language.

A few years ago, he published this book, a set of essays reflecting on his home of New York City. Now that I’ve been here close to a year (!), it was interesting to read it and see how his impressions match my own experiences.

It’s great stuff. He’s got chapters on many common experiences at New York, from arriving on the bus at Port Authority, wandering down Broadway or through Central Park or Times Square, visiting Coney Island, or even the quotidian experiences of morning, rush hour, or rain.

On the very first page, he described when you are a New Yorker, and I’ve shared this observation with several people here, and they all go “Wow, that’s exactly right!” Here it is:

“No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”

While I love so many of his observations throughout the book, I picked one almost at random to share as an example of what the book feels like. Check out his description of waiting for the subway:

“Look down the tunnel one more time and your behavior will describe a psychiatric disorder. It’s infectious. They take turns looking down into darkness and the platform is a clock: the more people standing dumb, the more time has passed since the last train. The people fall from above into hourglass dunes. Collect like seconds.

There’s a culture for platforms and a culture for between stations. On the platform there are strategies of where seats will appear when the doors open, of where you want to be when you get off, of how to outmaneuver these impromptu nemeses. So many variables, everyone’s a mathematician with an advanced degree. Wait. Those elephantine ears of hers. Does she know something he doesn’t, she’s moving closer to the edge, and then he hears the roar, too. The herd trembles, the lion approaches, instincts awaken. The jaws slide apart and the people step inside. Various sounds of gorging.”

One thought on “The Colossus of New York, by Colson Whitehead

  1. As to the description of when you are a New Yorker, I think the same thing applies to being a Bostonian. I remember showing up as a frosh and hearing stories of ridiculous Bostonians giving directions based on “turn right where the Stop and Shop used to be”, and laughing at the people who couldn’t keep up with the times.

    And four or five years later I found myself doing the same thing.

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