Sample Paragraphs About the City

Nothing teaches like an example. Examples come with dangers, though: they can shrink the horizon so a novice writer sees no possibilities other than the one the paragraph offers. When that happens, everything the novice writes is a modest imitation of the original, never approaching its quality. A good writing exercise, probably, but somehow not quite enough like “real writing” to satisfy my designs in the classroom.

Yet we have to start somewhere, and imitating a master to learn his brushstrokes is a time-honored lesson, so I’m posting some example paragraphs on New York City  (with a thank-you to About.com: http://grammar.about.com/od/shortpassagesforanalysis/A_Scrapbook_of_Styles_Passages_for_Rhetorical_Analysis.htm 

  • In no other city does life seem such a perpetual balancing of debits and credits, of evils and virtues, as it does in New York. No other city seems so charming yet so crude, so civilized yet so uncouth. I recall once going out with two friends to bring back Chinese food from a restaurant on upper Broadway. With the food in hand, we were stopped by a young Puerto Rican drugged to the hairline who wanted the wristwatch worn by one of my friends. We were able to joke him out of it, but the prospect was fraught with danger. Such, paradigmatically, is New York: the prospect of the delight of first-class Chinese food, the danger of having a knife pulled on you while getting it home.    (from Joseph Epstein’s essay, “You Take Manhattan”)
  • We steamed up into New York Harbor late one afternoon in spring. The last efforts of the sun were being put forth in turning the waters of the bay to glistening gold; the green islands on either side, in spite of their warlike mountings, looked calm and peaceful; the buildings of the town shone out in a reflected light which gave the city an air of enchantment; and, truly, it is an enchanted spot. New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments–constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. And all these become the victims of her caprice. Some she at once crushes beneath her cruel feet; others she condemns to a fate like that of galley slaves; a few she favors and fondles, riding them high on the bubbles of fortune; then with a sudden breath she blows the bubbles out and laughs mockingly as she watches them fall.   (from James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man )
  • Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see distracted looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are the people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is a shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I’m strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible–like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. The people down there in the shadows are happy about that. At last, at last, everything’s ahead. The smart ones say so and people listening to them and reading what they write down agree: Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.  (from Toni Morrison’s Jazz )
  • New York is full of people from small towns who are quite content to live obscure lives in some out-of-the-way corner of the city. Here there is no one to keep track. Though such a person might have come from a long line of old settlers and a neighborhood rich in memories, now he chooses to live in a flat on 231st Street, pick up the paper and milk on the doorstep every morning, and speak to the elevator man. In Southern genealogies there is always mention of a cousin who went to live in New York in 1922 and not another word. One hears that people go to New York to seek their fortunes, but many go to seek just the opposite.   (from Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman )
  • I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for the solitary restaurant dinner– young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.  (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby )
  • There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . .   (from E. B. White’s essay “Here is New York”)

And finally, one last paragraph on New York City, from the same E. B. White 1948 essay as above.  White earns a second paragraph in this collection by being utterly magnificent.

  • The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.
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