Riding into New York City on the New Jersey Transit - the mosaic of woods and suburbs giving way to open grassland - a landscape grazed by rusted old factories and abandoned warehouses, barbed wire fences struggling to enclose the majesty of its emptiness.
Here the grass is the bottled green of summer; the sky is a breathless, innocent blue, as if no rumour of cloud had ever reached it. Small inlets of water grope their way onto the earth, hesitant like fingers. In the distance, the turnpike is the spine of some long dead dragon.
Impossible to tell from here where the sky ends and the water begins. Impossible to say what it is that swells your heart as if it were a sail, surrenders it to the wind. Perhaps it is simply that you experience, in that moment, a premonition of infinity, an intution of unplumbed depths. Perhaps what seizes you is that old yearning for distances, for perspective; the same horizontal vertigo that has claimed the world's explorers ever since the beginning of the human adventure. (What is it Tennyson says? "For my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the Western stars, until the day I die")
My iPod plays Simon and Garfunkel. We've all come to look for America.
And straight ahead, like some giant totem, the spire of the Empire State building rises dimly out of the morning haze. From this distance, the Empire State is a shrine, a monument to destinations at which we must all pay homage. My heart quickens. I sit taller in my chair, dreaming of walking the avenues again, making their towering heights my own. The momentum of my anticipation propels me inexorably towards the city - the train seems slow, almost lethargic - I can feel my will pressing it against it, trying to make it go faster.
Just before I reach the city, though, doubt returns. I find myself plunged into dark tunnels of it, feeling, suddenly, the dread in my heart, the sense of some great body of water piling up above me, waiting to break over me. Cut off from the world, I cling to the safety of my own insignificance, drawing breath carefully, afraid of jeopardising the very depths of the stone's oppression, which is all the keeps me secure now.
And then, finally, that last stretch of open rail when I emerge from the tunnel as if from a womb and draw into Penn Station like a slow breath of smoke. The light returns now, but it is a different light - drifting down between the brownstones, like a sheet of paper floating very gently to earth - that special diffused brilliance you can find only in Manhattan. (the music is different now - Dolores O'Riordan is singing Salvation). And I gather myself together, feeling the energy of this great city flow into me, stepping off the train with the sensation of having won some obscure victory, and being, in that moment, instantly and forever lost.
P.S. Just got back from a trip to NYC.
P.P.S. The title of the post comes from a S&G song called Heart in New York.