On the 56 Vermonter train out of New York, I put on a movie because everyone in the Quiet Car wanted to deny the fact of their having chosen the Quiet Car, and I chose The Cruise. Perhaps my favorite documentary, it’s about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who in the 1990s was a rhapsodic, erudite, and literary bus tour narrator in New York City.
About midway through the movie, the crew follows him around town, and he points out a white comforter bundled over a sleeping person in a dark nook on a quiet street, and he speaks, extemporaneously, this monologue:
The image makes me think of a conversation with this woman the other day. She was a fastidious, Judaic-type woman, in very sexual slacks, and we were talking about the Grid Plan. I made the comment about how the Grid Plan emanates from our weaknesses. This layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90-degree angles. To me, the Grid Plan is puritan. It’s homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available. There is only total existence, total cacophony. A total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of consciousness and awareness and cruising. And this woman turns to me, and she goes, “I never even thought of that.” She goes, “I can’t imagine it. Everyone likes the Grid Plan.” [Here, Levitch makes a dubious face.] And of course the question is like Who is Everyone? I mean it’s just like I said, and whoever that is under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th Street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and disheveled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island with all their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories—I mean what does that person think about the Grid Plan? Probably much more on my plane of thinking, my gradation of being, which is: Let’s just blow up the Grid Plan and rewrite the streets to be much more self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles. I mean doesn’t she find it infuriating? By being so completely allegiant to the Grid Plan, I think most noteworthy is this idiom, I can’t even imagine changing the Grid Plan. She’s really aligning herself with this civilization. It’s like saying, “Oh I can’t imagine altering this civilization. I can’t imagine altering this meek and lying morality that rules our lives, can’t imagine standing up on a chair in the middle of the room to change perspective, can’t imagine changing my mind on anything, and in the end, can’t imagine having my own identity that contradicts other identities.” When she says to me, after my statement, “Everyone likes the Grid Plan,” isn’t she automatically excluding myself from Everyone? How could you not like the Grid Plan! So functional! Take a right turn and a right turn and a right turn, and this is a red light and a green light and a yellow light! It’s so symmetrical! By saying that everyone likes the Grid Plan, you’re saying: I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made. I’m going to identify and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through. I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised. I will spread neurosis throughout the landscape and do my best to recreate myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.
I was struck most by isn’t she automatically excluding me from Everyone? It’s a familiar feeling, but what made me want to pause the movie and type the monologue out was the greater feeling I got that here, as I start the first of three 4-week writing retreats, is an excellent artist’s statement.
It’s a perfect image of the artist’s job of going against the grain of accepted norms, and it’s also the perfect example of the essayist’s job of taking an encounter from your past and making something more of it. You may think Levitch is Making Too Much Of Things when he claims that believing in the Grid Plan is like promising to be complicit in the Boomer-Republican project of leaving the world a worse and less inspiring place, but the beauty of the idea as an idea is that it is indefensible, unproveable, and it sticks in your mind like a song you can’t tell is good or bad. It puts two things together I have never myself put together, and even if I decide he’s wrong those things won’t soon unstick, and loving essays the way I do, I love Levitch for essaying me to that place.
I have been for two weeks in New York City, home of the Grid Plan, and many of the people I have seen and spent time with stood somewhere on the plane of Levitch’s thinking, and some of the people aligned themselves, in some way or another, with the Grid Plan. Not Everyone, but some. I’m knowing myself more and more as not among them, and that used to make me feel so terrible and lonely.