Voyage au bout de la nuit
Talk of surprises! What we suddenly discovered through the fog was so amazing that at first we refused to believe it, but then, when we were face to face with it, galley slaves or not, we couldn’t help laughing, seeing it right there in front of us…
Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there as stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifyingly stiff.
We laughed like fools. You can’t help laughing at a city built straight up and down like that. But we could only laugh from the neck up, because of the cold blowing in from the sea through a gray and pink mist, a brisk sharp wind that attacked our pants and the chinks in that wall, I mean the city streets, which engulfed the wind-borne clouds. Our galley spun its narrow wake just outside the docks, at the end of the shit-colored bay, asplash with schools of rowboats and avid, tooting tugs.
When you’re down at heel, it’s never much fun landing anywhere, but for a galley slave it’s a lot worse, especially in America, because those people don’t like the galley slaves that come over from Europe at all. “They’re anarchists!” That’s what they say. The only people they really welcome are tourists, who bring them dough, because all the currencies of Europe are relatives of the Dollar.
As if I knew where I was going, I put on an air of choosing and changed my direction, taking a different street on my right, one that was better lit. “Broadway” it was called. I read the name on a sign. High up, far above the uppermost stories, there was still a bit of daylight, with sea gulls and patches of sky. We moved in the lower light, a sick sort of jungle light, so gray that the street seemed to be full of grimy cotton waste.
That street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world.
There were no cars or carriages, only people and more people.
This was the priceless district, I was told later, the gold district: Manhattan. You can enter it only on foot, like a church. It’s the banking heart and center of the present-day world. Yet some of those people spit on the sidewalk as they pass. You’ve got to have your nerve with you.
It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.
I found time to go and see them, I even went in and spoke to the employees who guard the cash. They’re sad and underpaid.
When the faithful enter their bank, don’t go thinking they can help themselves as they please. Far from it. In speaking to Dollar, they mumble words through a little grill; that’s their confessional. Not much sound, dim light, a tiny wicket between high arches, that’s all. They don’t swallow the Host, they put it on their hearts. I couldn’t stay there long admiring them. I had to follow the crowd in the street, between those walls of smooth shadow.
Suddenly our street widened, like a crevasse opening out into a bright clearing. Up ahead of us we saw a great pool of sea-green light, wedged between hordes of monstrous buildings. And in the middle of the clearing stood a rather countrified-looking house, surrounded by woebegone lawns.
I asked several people in the crowd what this edifice was, but most of them pretended not to hear me. They couldn’t spare the time. But one young fellow right next to me was kind enough to tell me it was City Hall, adding that it was an ancient monument dating back to colonial times, ever so historical… so they’d left it there… The fringes of this oasis formed a kind of park with benches, where you could sit comfortably enough and look at the building. When I got there, there was hardly anything else to see.
I waited more than an hour in the same place, and then toward noon, from the half-light, from the shuffling, discontinuous, dismal crowd, there erupted a sudden avalanche of absolutely and undeniably beautiful women.
What a discovery! What an America! What ecstasy! I thought of Lola… Her promises had not deceived me! It was true.
The people surged in the direction of lights suspended far off in the darkness, writhing multicolored snakes. They flowed in from all the neighboring streets. A crowd like that, I said to myself, adds up to a lot of dollars in handkerchiefs alone or silk stockings! Or just in cigarettes for that matter! And to think that you can go out among all that money, and nobody’ll give you a single penny, not even to go and eat with! It’s heartbreaking to think how people shut themselves off from one another, like houses.
I, too, dragged myself toward the lights, a movie house, and then another right next to it, and another, all along the street. We lost big chunks of crowd to each of them. I picked a movie house with posters of women in slips, and what legs! Boyohboy! Heavy! Ample! Shapely! And pretty faces on top, as though drawn for the contrast, no need of retouching, not a blemish, not a flaw, perfect I tell you, delicate but firm and concise. Life can engender no greater peril than these incautious beauties, these indiscreet variations on perfect divine harmony.
It was warm and cozy in the movie house. An enormous organ, as mellow as in a cathedral, a heated cathedral I mean, organ pipes like thighs. They don’t waste a moment. Before you know it, you’re bathing in an all-forgiving warmth. Just let yourself go and you’ll begin to think the world has been converted to loving-kindness. I almost was myself.