Willem de Kooning, the Abstract Expressionist painter and Dutch-born New Yorker, whose Woman I at the Museum of Modern Art is the most disturbing depiction of the female form ever painted, was a night walker. Prone to depressions, as Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s recent biography De Kooning: An American Master relays, the painter would attempt to walk off his gloom, heading south to Battery Park from his studio in Chelsea, sometimes in the company of his friend the painter Arshile Gorky, often alone.
Depression is hardly an exclusively bohemian phenomenon, though many bohemians were, and are, depressed. Nor is walking, by day or at night, a bohemian trait, though many bohemian-minded people have been great walkers, and New York, like all great cities, lends itself to walking. You could spend a week walking in New York, a city where some never cease to walk, and never believe you’d walked enough. What drew Joseph Mitchell to Joe Gould in 1942 wasn’t his bohemianism: Gould, as Mitchell wrote, was “an example of a type of eccentric widespread in New York City, the solitary nocturnal wanderer.” These wandering types are now hard to spy—possibly because the boundaries and differences between districts are now more blurred, and as neighborhood become less distinct so, too, do their inhabitants. Yet the nocturnal walkers are no less present, if also less visible. I know more than one person who walks through New York by night, never aimlessly and yet without what you could say was a destination.
I’ve never walked round the island of Manhattan, but I’ve walked from its northern tip, down the Hudson to Battery Park at its southern end, and then, after walking through that park’s many memorials to the sailors of the city drowned in the Atlantic, past the ferry terminals for Ellis, Staten, and Governor’s islands, I walked back to where I had begun the day, at Fort Tryon Park, timing my arrival, by chance, with sunset.
It wasn’t exactly planned, this walk; the best walks rarely are. It was a good day. Why not, I said soon after waking. Without thinking more, I set off, dressed in a suit, the most practical of walking garments, for the pockets, for the camouflage—for not appearing to be a walker. I’ve never understood why people think they can only go walking if they’re dressed as walkers.
You needn’t make a circuit of it, the four-hour walk from north to south is fine enough. Take the 1 subway train to 215th, walk past Columbia University’s playing fields, into Inwood Park, and make your way to the entrance of magnificent Fort Tyron Park, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the Olmsted who designed Central, Riverside, and Prospect parks. It’s a wonderful irony that the work of a family of park designers is a greater presence in this city, the most intensely urban expanse on the planet, than any single architect, and how, after you’ve got your eye for the city, the parks are greater edifices than any skyscraper.
There is on this long walk much time to lose yourself, though not geographically, because the riverside path now extends almost the length of Manhattan. You could, en route, visit The Cloisters (in Fort Tryon Park), a museum the New Yorkers I know have visited once but never return to—like Staten Island, in this respect. The Cloisters is inherently lonely; there’s a bleakness about an old monastery, an asylum, recreated in a modern city and utterly remote from it, a place of contemplation that evokes all the unpleasantness of spirituality. Beautiful tapestries, interesting Medieval European sculpture and architecture, but all lost in New York. I’ve made my one visit to The Cloisters.
At 157th St and Broadway, a block in from Riverside Drive, past the gothic Trinity cemetery, there’s the Hispanic Society of New York, one of the least-visited galleries in New York, with its several Velázquezes and El Grecos, including a St. Jerome by the latter. El Greco’s elongated figures, tall and skeletal, set against land and sky, resemble skyscrapers, heads in the clouds, feet on the ground. The facial expressions are always of existential pain. Before New York artists discovered the Parisian avant garde 100 years ago, Spain, and especially Velázquez, was the great inspiration for American painters: for James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, and William Merritt Chase, as well as for the bohemian-minded of the era, some of whom who took to dressing up for parties as matadors. Yet it’s El Greco, the Greek who moved to Spain, the painter of distressed saints, who today resonates more powerfully. His paintings are considered hugely religious. They are. Yet part of the agony expressed in El Greco’s portraits, I’ve always thought, is a question: What if there is no God?
On the western portal of Riverside Church at 120th and Riverside Drive, are the figures of Christ, Confucius, Euclid, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Pasteur, and Einstein. I’m attracted to the idea of Christ as just one face in a crowd.
In the summer months there’s an open-air bar in Riverside Park, near West 105th Street, where you can watch, down on the sandpits between the park and the West Side Highway, muscular types preening themselves on gymnast hoops in what’s quaintly, if not inaccurately, known as Hudson Beach. But why pause at all on this walk if the object is to reach land’s end, and lunch in Chinatown, at, say, Great New York Noodle Town on Bayard and the Bowery, which is not just cheap but has some of the best grilled meat in town (the cold baby pork, especially) and finest soft-shell crab.
On my walk down the Hudson, I passed two women at about 38th Street. One was talking on her cell phone. “I’m with Doris. We’re walking Manhattan,” she said. I was glad I wasn’t the only person heading in the same direction, and I had the sense that many others had chosen to walk the length of the island that day.