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Living in the Town of Giants

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.

While growing up in the Midwest my understanding of New York City was formed by shots of Rockefeller Plaza on the “Today Show,” and Monica Geller’s apartment in Friends. At the same time a different, more romantic notion existed in my head, similar to what Woody Allen envisioned when marrying an old and new New York in the film Manhattan: a city that “existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.” Since moving here 10 months ago, I’ve dispelled my preconceived, romantic notions of New York, learned that Manhattan has more to offer than Rockefeller Plaza, and am now just another commuter with a vacant stare and headphones, unmoved by the subway screeches and jolts I used to find alarming. But in many ways I’m still in awe and I and wonder if I always will be.

In E.B. White’s famous essay, “Here is New York,” he recalls “what it felt likes as a young man to live in the same town with giants”—his giants being those columnists, critics, and poets he idolized as an aspiring writer himself. White writes that being on the same island as them made him burn “with a low steady fever,” and when he walked by the house of F.P.A., “the block seemed to tremble…the way Park Avenue trembles when a train leaves Grand Central.” I myself am constantly in awe at the “big giants” I find myself in proximity with everyday. I have conversations with authors renowned in their respective fields; I’m always one or two degrees separated from the producers, editors and reporters of the publications, radio, and television programs I revere, which makes it difficult at times not to blurt out “I love your work!” And our enormous contact database, well it would be a lie if I said I was never tempted to abuse it.

In my short time here, I’ve learned that on the outside, becoming a New Yorker doesn’t take long: wear all black, don’t advert your eyes, and only carry a map if it can fit into your wallet—better yet, get a Blackberry with access to Google Maps. But what is a New Yorker on the inside? Does amazement have to stop? If it did, why else would everyone continue to cram themselves in such a tiny space? This seems to be what E.B. White is getting at when he wrote, “the city makes up for its hazards and deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.” I think that only when this supplementary dose stops taking affect, when amazement has manifested itself in every way possible, a person can leave. And then maybe, nostalgia leads them back to where they came from originally.

In Manhattan, Diane Keaton’s character, Mary, tends to disavow her New Yorker prowess in moments where her intellect and sexuality leave her feeling vulnerable. She says things like, “I’m just from Philadelphia: I mean, we believe in God,” or “I’m from Philadelphia. My family’s never had affairs.” Although Mary’s words are superficial, they are poignant because they show how New York can suddenly make us encapsulate the “virtue” of the places we left behind—whether we believe in that virtue or not. For example, I’m from Indiana where we “watch the fireplace for hours in the winter and take long country road drives in the summer.” Those New Yorkers who truly miss virtues like these return to them. Those who are content with keeping them a romantic notion until the day they die will stay on the island. Or they will continue their search for something else, and maybe even tell their tale of New York to a stranger in a pub along the way. And that stranger will decide they want to take a shot at it. So they come to the city and live their New York story, which is passed along, maybe even in the form of a novel, poem, portrait, or script. That is how I imagine the “greatest city in the world” stays alive. And maybe it is youth tinged optimism, but I hope my own New York story goes on for a long time.

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