“I went to the school of New York.”

 

 

 

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

 

 

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I was talking on the phone today with my longtime friend from my first days in New York, Bill Dalzell. He told me something that his dear friend Edwin Treitler once said to him. Ed Treitler, who recently passed away, was an artist, writer, and spiritual counselor/healer.

The quote, which struck me forcibly and rung true, was short and pithy: “I went to the school of New York.”

The school of New York. Herman Melville would have perceived instantly what this meant.

It rings so true when I consider my own experience.

 

 

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I had a very good education, for which I am very grateful. Then, I went further.

I moved to New York City right after graduating from college, and my education really began. Or was on a new plane. Something like that.

I had never seen a really good film. Had never, I believe, patronized an art film house. Had often frequented bookstores, but had never seen so many used bookstores cheek by jowl with so many interesting books, including many by avant-garde writers who were usually not taught in college.

I had never read so intensely and deeply before in such weighty works. I had never met such intellectually stimulating people. Many of them, most of them, I met in totally offhanded and unanticipated ways, in places where you would not expect to find someone smart and interesting, often in the workplace. (It reminded me of Theodore Dreiser’s friends in his early Chicago days; see below.)

I met many such persons in my early days in Manhattan: a poet who it seemed had read the whole corpus of great poetry — and knew all those currently active, including the New York School of poets (and who took me with him to poetry readings in Manhattan) — and practically every important work of literature from time immemorial, ranging from Roman poets such as Juvenal and Sextus Propertius to the most recent and challenging fiction by writers such as Thomas Pynchon … a printer who was thoroughly immersed in mysticism and the visual arts (and whom I tagged along with to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney; from him I became acquainted with painters such as Edward Hopper, whom I had never heard of) … and so many people whose ideas piqued me and who submerged me in new areas of thought and “mental adventure” and who introduced me to books, painters exhibited in the City’s museums and galleries, filmmakers, and such that I would probably never have learned about.

The true intellectuals, I find, are often buried in the woodwork, are in the back office or hunkered down over a desk doing drudge clerical work (as was I).

I had such stimulating conversations with people I met at random in taverns and at work, or with their friends. Almost none of them were well off, and most were at a stage in their lives where they were starting out and did not have impressive credentials, or were perhaps older but had never become credentialed. They were barely making it. But they had a deep passion for ideas, the arts, and culture.

I instinctively took to such a milieu as a duck to water. I bathed in it, drank of it. I grew immeasurably intellectually. I became sophisticated culturally and intellectually. I became a hundred percent better informed, better read, better educated.

 

 

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It has been said that New York is like no other city in the world. For me, this was true. There is an openness to ideas there, a wonderful tolerance, an acceptance of people without any expectation that one must conform. Loners are accepted. (I was afraid I might be perceived as a loner when I first came to New York knowing no one.) Eccentrics are accepted. People of all ideologies and belief systems are accepted, and of all backgrounds. Stimulating conversation by highly aware, well informed, intellectually alive, and intelligent people is the norm.

Cultural sophistication comes with the territory. The arts are almost upon you, so to speak, are omnipresent. It’s almost impossible to be in New York and not to be aware of them and influenced, liberated, and exhilarated by them. New York broadens you, stimulates you, educates you anew. And keeps right on stimulating and educating you.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 3, 2017

 

 

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Addendum: In his autobiographical work Dawn, Theodore Dreiser portrays an individual he met as a young worker in Chicago during the 1890’s. Dreiser was employed in the warehouse of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company, a wholesale hardware firm, at a salary of five dollars a week, as a “box-rustler” and “stock-piler.” A coworker whom Dreiser befriended and who fascinated him was Christian Aaberg, a Dane. Dreiser describes him as a “little rickety, out-at-the elbows, shambling man, with a wrinkled, emaciated, obviously emotion-scarred face, who at forty or forty-five and after God knows what storms and rages of physical and mental dissipation, still had about him that indescribable something which for want of a better word I must speak of as breeding.”

Aaberg was of little or no value to the firm, for he could do no hard work and the powers that were could not trust him with the more complicated, though less strenuous, task of filling orders. As he himself admitted, he drank and dissipated here as in the past and often wondered aloud why it was that … the firm stood for him. … He was shabby and sickly to look upon. Yet … there was that strong, seeking, vital light in his eye at times. … within two or three weeks we were fast friends intellectually, and there followed a series of conversations on life and character, the import of which has endured to this day.

He had read—God knows what! —everything! And he it was who talked to me of Ibsen, Strindberg, Grieg, Goethe, Wagner, Schopenhauer. He would talk to me by the hour, as we piled pots and pans or buckets of bolts or rivets. of the French Revolution and the great figures in it, of Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander, Also of Peter the Great and Catharine of Russia, Frederick the Great and Voltaire, whom he admired enormously. But not the silly, glossed, emasculated data of the school histories with which I had been made familiar, but with the harsh, jagged realities and savageries of the too real world in which all of them moved. And, again, of Greece, of the age of philosophers, logicians, playwrights, sculptors, architects, statesmen, warriors. He revealed as much as any history could—why it was that Aristotle was the first of the organic and realistic thinkers; why Heraclitus would always be remembered. He also told me why Socrates had been compelled to drink the hemlock; that the cross was originally a phallic symbol; elucidated for me the mysteries of the Egyptian temples, the religious festivals of the Parsees, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Persians. … When I told him that that our family was Catholic and I still went to church, he smiled. “You will come out of that,” he said. “You are already out and don’t know it?”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, Dawn: An Autobiography of Early Youth, Chapter 61

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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