I like to take the train from Penn Station out to Paterson. It stops in Secaucus Junction, a new and gleaming place that never seems to have anyone in it, just cavernous halls of light marble and a lonely bar tucked in one corner, the woodwork of which seems laughable and out of place and therefore sympathetic. The barkeep told me it would be a great place to work if a few hundred more customers came through every day.
I always ride in the space between train cars from Penn to Secaucus. It is loud and feels like what I imagine train travel to have been like in the olden days; jarring, big, transformative. The train smells more like itself between the cars, especially when it is raining in the evening. As you bumble your way out of the big city and into the tunnels under the Hudson you can watch the rivulets of water splashing down into the lonely puddles that pockmark the railway trenches of the far West Side. The last few streams of light make their way through the clouds and glimmer in the raindrops and the dirt like a faded painting.
I don’t object to the changes in all things. I don’t object to the fact that all experiences are washed away in time. But I like the way that the little metal platform between train cars is protecting a feeling that has barely changed for generations.
The train pulls out of Secaucus Junction and then putters along through the marshy fields that make up the Jersey wilds just outside of Manhattan. There is tantalizingly little to see until the industrial ruins of Paterson begin to show themselves with not much fanfare. The train ride doesn’t get somewhere so much as end.
No one knows exactly why William Carlos Williams chose Paterson as the subject and location for a new poetry. He was working on his variable triadic foot. It was a new meter, so he said. It has never been entirely clear how it’s supposed to scan. Maybe Williams himself never really understood it. But he was messing around, trying to capture the American idiom and thereby the American experience. He stayed in New Jersey while all the other Americans went to Paris or wherever chasing something they thought was going to turn out big. For some it did. For some it didn’t. Williams stayed and stayed some more. He wasn’t having fun, he was working. He was listening to the Paterson Falls and he was crafting in his forge. “No ideas but in things”: a new poetic empiricism.
These days Paterson is broken, let’s be honest. She has her honor, like an old hooker, but she’s broken. It is probably impossible to know what finally breaks a city, what makes it give up and fall apart into petty fiefdoms and the inability to live. All the factors, of course, play their roles: economics, politics, the ongoing terrible American abyss of race. But something else happens when a city breaks, something nobody has a handle on exactly. In that way a city can be like a person. And no one can say precisely what happens to a person when they walk outside and look at the bricks around them, the houses and buildings, and suddenly see nothing at all. What seemed to be a world of meaning around them, the context for living a life, turns into something empty and irrelevant. When that happens you’re not living in the world anymore, you’re simply existing alongside it.
There’s a statue of Alexander Hamilton standing at the Paterson Falls, just looking. The Paterson Falls ought to be a marvel of the East Coast. They are nature in its aspect of the sublime. To one’s consistent amazement, they sit there in the midst of a neighborhood, right there in the lap of a city that suddenly shifts gears and gives way to a torrent of rushing water and black rocks.
Hamilton stands there and watches the falls decade after decade. Not many people remember it anymore but a battle took place here long ago. It was a struggle between competing dreams. To simplify, one was Jeffersonian and one was Hamiltonian. Jefferson dreamed of something agrarian, something manageable. He wanted a small democracy built up of autonomous men. It was a decent dream so far as it went. Hamilton dreamed of something else, of the wheels of industry churning out goods and wealth within an urban milieu that the world hadn’t seen yet.
One wonders what Hamilton would have thought about the actual history of Paterson. The way that Paterson ended up being intertwined with the American imagination, the American tragicomedy, the American story, is hundreds of times more complicated than he could have dreamed. But he dreamed it all up nonetheless. Now he stands at the Falls with his back to the city and watches, just looking.