The “gem-like flame” of a City at Sunrise

In Orientation, New York City, A Sense of Place by Dylan Beach1 Comment

Taking my cue from Alan Lightman’s refreshing discourse about memory’s hold on our habits of navigating familiar places, I’d like to write about a time of re-discovering, or re-navigating, an already familiar place. Immediately following my sophomore year at NYU, I landed a job, moved out to Brooklyn (Greenpoint), and bought a bike. With all these changes to my routine, schedule, and transportation, I felt like I had just moved in to New York, despite having lived there for the previous two years.

The most powerful feeling of re-discovery that I felt was on the morning of my first opening shift at my new restaurant job. I had already biked over the Williamsburg Bridge, but this time it was sunrise. The bitterness and moisture of this dewy summer morning was balanced by the warmth of the direct sunlight dancing with the structure of the bridge, as well as the warmth of the reflection of sunlight off the buildings of Manhattan.

The J hustled by on my left and tugboats tugged underneath perpendicularly North South to my East West. The feeling of newness was tangible.

The city was waking up. For the first time, from the new perspective of my manual cycling transportation machine, I saw Brooklynites watching the sidewalk become the subway, and Manhattan workers buying coffee, while the same coats, worn by different Brooklynites, emerged from the Manhattan subway exits. But it didn’t feel like the same old scene that the monotony of student life had slowly become over my first two years of going to NYU.

New York smells different on a bike. It doesn’t smell so much like piss and trash, as cycles of fresh air replace stagnancy. It doesn’t sound the same either. What might be the oppression of sirens to a pedestrian becomes a poem to the biker, briefly but urgently speaking its verse under the title “Get the fuck outta the way.”

There’s also the thrill of discovering new paths and directions. I try my best to maintain momentum when I’m biking, which typically takes precedence over habitual routs. So if a light turns red, rather than continue straight, I take the right turn, skip to the left lane and take my next left. Or not.

Sometimes, time permitting, it’s equally as nice to stop at the red light and look around to find a sense of stillness. Like melting into a hotub in the middle of a snowstorm.

I have since had my bike stolen and resigned myself to subway shuffling, but the beauty of Lightman’s text, and my own experience rediscovering this city from a new perspective, is that this philosophy behind the ‘habit of newness’ can be applied to every moment, no matter how mundane. Habits and routines, like the subway schlep, organize the scaffolding of modern rational life. Habits are the standard bearers for this 21st Century march of Progress. But here in lays the paradox that many of our readings directly and indirectly addressed: the only zen you find at the top of the mountain, is the zen that you bring with you.

Our habits might be as still and unchanging as the waves of a rock garden, but as on of the grandfathers of literary criticism as we know it today, Walter Pater, has written:

“To Burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.

 While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a liften horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.

Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater,


  1. Hi Dylan,

    I think your approach to rediscovering the city is great. It’s fascinating how by simply changing our methods of transport, we can experience the city in a whole new way. My perspective of New York completely changes depending on which area I’m in; but I hadn’t really thought about the way I travelled before. I like this phrase in particular: “What might be the oppression of sirens to a pedestrian becomes a poem to the biker”. It brings out the essence of reawakening and looking at something familiar in a whole new light.

    Also, the formation of new habits that you discuss is very relevant in keeping images and memories of a place alive. Interesting post, and well written!

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