The first surprise you get as a resident of New York concerns its waters. Twin rivers clasping hands to the south, forming the bay which was of great import to Hamilton, and Cornwallis, and maybe John Jacob Astor, but which now holds for most the same attractiveness as an unfunny mural. Barrel-chested Hudson over yonder is more important for what lays up it forty-five miles than what it does for residents of Manhattan’s west side, or, for that matter, their contraflumenses in the New Jersey heights. The East River quickens no blood, and for many millions of city residents is no watery lifegiver, but a commute-time-extender. Deng asked us to “cross the River by feeling the Stones,” which is alright when you’ve got to cross the East River – it’s one big stepping-stone. So you beat on, bodies against the current of other bodies, whether browsing on Prince St or noodling on Smith, and you forget there’s a point to being on an island.
The magnitude of this surprise varies with the considerer’s point of departure. Many more cities have mighty, proud rivers – Philly’s minor man, the Schuylkill, Boston’s Charles, Austin (among others) caressing the mewling Colorado. Even Cleveland has the Cuyahoga, though the precise reading of civic pride therein is tough to ascertain at the moment, the mercury is sluggish. Imagine a child of Nizhny Novgorod, learning her people’s deep-rooted interaction with the Volga, whizzing and beaming a bit brighter as the story of that expanse she had never not known comes into clearer focus. Hear her tapping happily home, unfurling the name in her mouth, the fricatives and the stops – Vol-ga, Vol-ga.