Dept. of Word Lists

Upper West Side Story: Living the Riverine Life

Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly.

As I approached the bustling Manhattan intersection of West 110th Street and Broadway, two fire engines drew up to the curb. No sirens, no flashing lights and, most unusual of all, no hurry, as only two firemen emerged from each vehicle and walked jauntily into the West Side Market. Of course, I then realized, they're shopping for the makings of their firehouse dinner, the way firemen across the city do every day.

jaunty  JAWN tee
lighthearted and self-confident in manner ("jauntily" is the adverb)

It will be remembered how jauntily Sir Walter Scott, when he wanted a motto for the heading of a chapter in one of his novels, used indifferently some snatch of a Scottish song, or two or three lines of his own, invented on the spur of the moment, and accredited to some indefinite Old Ballad or Old Play. So it was with Whittier. If he had a story or legend handy when he wished to give expression to some poetic thought or kindly sentiment, well and good, he used it; but if he had not, then he made it; and many of his poems which have all the air of a leaf out of some old book, as "The Gift of Tritemius," for example, are wholly his own. —Horace Elisha Scudder, November 1894

It was a scene I'll witness again and again, I'm sure, dwelling only a few blocks from the market as a new resident of Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood, whose focal point — and the reason its streets abound with young people — is Columbia University.

abound   uh BOWND
to be plentiful

Birds, as Messiaen never tired of saying, were earth's first musicians, and to his ears the best. People have been mimicking birds in music since the dawn of time. Certainly the Western canon, from Rameau, Vivaldi, and Bach on to Wagner, Strauss, and Stravinsky, abounds with owls, nightingales, cuckoos, and larks, evoked in picturesque but simplistic approximations. Until Messiaen the challenge of catching the complexities of contour and timbre of any but the plainest birdsongs went unattempted. —Matthew Gurewitsch, March 1997

I'm familiar with the area, having for decades taught high school journalism workshops for the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. But though I spent many hours on its streets and in its shops during my weeklong sojourns, I was always just a visitor. Now, as a denizen of the neighborhood, I am seeing it through different eyes and making it my own.

sojourn            SOH jern
a brief or temporary stay at a place

Travel and sojourn in strange lands teach us more about ourselves than about those lands and the people living in them. They give us a view of ourselves from a new angle, and standards of measurement which bring out our traits in curious and previously unperceived proportions. —Leland Hall, October 1929

Ever since our children were living on their own (I refuse to use the term "empty nesters"), Carol and I have planned to emigrate from Brooklyn to Manhattan, our hearts set on having an apartment in the Lincoln Center area, from which we could walk a block or two to Avery Fisher Hall to attend a New York Philharmonic concert, not with tickets bought months in advance, but on the spur of the moment, asking at the ticket office, "Anything left for tonight?"

And we'd see foreign films and indies at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, pictures that never played in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, where we raised our children contentedly and where they attended excellent schools, but where today theaters play only potential box office hits and there isn't a bookstore for miles.

On the first day she took us looking, our real estate agent, Sabrina Seidler, showed us several apartments in buildings close to Lincoln Center — one was directly across the street from it, for goodness sake — but the rooms were too small. We knew we'd never find an affordable apartment as capacious as our house, but we hoped for one with two decent-sized bedrooms, one to serve as an office with a couch that opened for overnight visitors.

capacious      kuh PAY shuhs
able to contain or hold much; roomy; spacious

Never will I allude to the English Language or tongue without exultation. This is the tongue that spurns laws, as the greatest tongue must. It is the most capacious vital tongue of all, — full of ease, definiteness, and power, — full of sustenance, — an enormous treasure house, or ranges of treasure houses, arsenals, granary, chock full of so many contributions from the north and from the south, from Scandinavia, from Greece and Rome — from Spaniards, Italians, and the French — that its own sturdy home-dated Angles-bred words have long been outnumbered by the foreigners whom they lead — which is all good enough, and indeed must be. America owes immeasurable respect and love to the past, and to many ancestries, for many inheritances, — but of all that America has received from the past from the mothers and fathers of laws, arts, letters, etc., by far the greatest inheritance is the English Language — so long in growing — so fitted.
—Walt Whitman,  April 1904

When Sabrina showed us the rest of the day's agenda, my heart leaped, for there, next to last on the list, was the Ansonia, one of New York's most beautiful and legendary apartment buildings, a place I wouldn't have imagined had an apartment available, much less one that we could afford. On Broadway, between West 73rd and West 74th Streets, the century-old building stands like a vision, a fabled palace, a 16-story French pastry. It would be a dream living there. Sabrina said it was a sublet, but we still wanted to see it.

We were thrilled when we entered the 12th-floor apartment. The windows of the circular living room — 20 feet in diameter — faced one of Manhattan's most exciting vistas, a constant swirl of life — cars, taxis, trucks, buses and bicycles; people walking, shopping, waiting for buses, hailing cabs. And in view, Lincoln Center, five blocks away. The kitchen was small, and curved, like the living room, and the two bedrooms, both overlooking Broadway, were each big enough for office space. It was wonderful, and even though the building manager told us the owner planned to return in, at most, two years, we were nevertheless willing to move in for just that brief time.

It was not to be. A few days later, Sabrina called to tell us that the owner preferred subletting the place to someone who wanted it for only 18 months. We weren't disconsolate, but we were certainly disappointed. Immediately, though, a family maxim kicked in: When you lose out on something you want, something better will come along. It has to. Why, after a letdown, would you accept anything less?

disconsolate    dis KAHN suh lit
so unhappy that nothing will comfort; cheerless; gloomy ("disconsolately" is the adverb)

Everyone knows the story, so popular with success magazines, of the old man who bravely turns his business over to the younger generation and goes off, freed at last to live his own life. Soon he is back again to haunt the arena of his former triumphs, pottering about disconsolately, a jealous or wistful critic of his successor's policies. If some turn of events gives him a chance to "muscle in," he is soon ensconced again in the old swivel chair, radiating authority and action. — Earnest Elmo Calkins, May 1933

A few days later, after a morning of again looking at Lincoln Center apartments with tiny bedrooms and luxurious lobbies, Sabrina said, "I'd like you to look at something farther uptown."

"How far?" I asked.

"Riverside Drive and 115th."

"Too far. Really," I replied.

"Just have a look," she said. "We can be there in 10 minutes."

Five minutes after we emerged from the taxi we realized that we had found the apartment of our dreams, and were quite thankful that our Ansonia hopes had been dashed. The rooms in this 11th-floor apartment were not only larger than the ones in the home we were selling; two of them overlooked the Hudson River for miles on each side and New Jersey's hilly shoreline, while around the corner and up the block, on Broadway, was the Columbia University campus, an oasis in the midst of one of New York's most densely populated neighborhoods. 

Along Broadway stretched a vibrant street life of small shops, restaurants, specialty food stores, bookstores (four of them!), a public library and a post office, all a five-minute walk from our apartment.

I counted a dozen restaurants between 110th and 116th Streets — Mexican, Korean, American, French, Cuban, Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern — most of them with outdoor seating. And people were actually eating at them on that stifling day! (Please tell me why people do that. Although I always prefer indoor to outdoor dining — I even shun picnics — I can appreciate the charms a sidewalk café holds for diners. But tell me, please, how al fresco charm holds up in 95-degree cement-radiated heat when even Bedouins would opt for the a.c.)

As a creature of the neighborhood now, I can walk its streets in a more leisurely fashion than I did during lunch hours between workshop sessions at Columbia — I can saunter, actually —  and in that fashion have made some acquaintances among the street merchants.

saunter            SAWN ter
to walk in a relaxed, leisurely way; stroll

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, —who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. —Henry David Thoreau, June 1862
(Thoreau's derivation of saunter is charming but not borne out by modern etymological research. While its origin is obscure, it may have come from the Middle English santren, to muse, be in a reverie.)

Like Adhemar Ahmad, one of several sidewalk book sellers along Broadway near Columbia, who keeps a chessboard set up to play with passersby, although not for money, unlike the chess hustlers I've seen on New York's streets.

 "Ahmad doesn't charge anyone to sit down and play," Lenore Apsel, a long-time friend and regular at his chessboard, told me. "He also teaches a few children in the neighborhood and refuses to accept any money from the parents." His business, she said, is selling books, the chess games are strictly an avocation.  

avocation        a voh KAY shuhn
an activity engaged in for the enjoyment of it, in addition to one's regular work; a hobby

A handful of musicians — the Perlmans and Pavarottis — can make in one night what the average orchestral player earns in a year. Several thousand others — either freelancers (known as "gig pigs") putting together a living with pickup groups, teaching, and commercial work, or the musicians in the country's twenty-seven full-time orchestras  —support themselves as musicians, earning incomes that place them in the middle-class professions. For everyone else the choice is between keeping your day job and leaving music as an avocation, and living a monastic existence playing in subways and on street corners. —David Schiff, August 1997

The river scene from our windows changes constantly. To begin with, as the tides change the Hudson flows backwards a good deal of the time, pushing upstream as far as Troy, New York, 135 miles away, We are living a riverine life.

riverine           RI ver een
on or near the banks of a river

Riverine data in some form have been collected by all civilizations, so essential are rivers to commerce and agriculture. Records of the annual high-water level of the Nile, for example, are complete all the way back to A.D. 622, save for one large gap in the early modern period. —Cullen Murphy, January 1995

Sailboats, modest and impressive, pass under our window; small powerboats and opulent yachts; commuter ferries and tourist boats circling Manhattan with hundreds of passengers; kayaks and jet skis; New York City police boats, armed U.S. Coast Guard boats with guns on their bow; and ships operated by New York City's Department of Environmental Protection.

Tugboats push and pull barges hauling oil, coal and scrap metal in both directions. At night, brightly lit barges sleep in the middle of the river a half-mile apart from each other, moored to their tugboats, waiting until morning to continue their journey north and south. Bruce Richards, vice president of marine transportation at Moran Towing (you know their tugs by the big "M' on their smoke stacks), told me that those sleeping barges are usually empty, awaiting a berth somewhere in New York Harbor, farther down the river.)  

Autumn will come and acres of leaves on Riverside Park's trees will be yellow, brown and red. They will drop and winter will come. The trees will be bare, and for the first time we'll see the cars on the Henry Hudson Parkway zipping by, traffic that has hummed steadily since we've been here but haven't seen. Rather than an intrusion on the river scene, on Riverside Park's greenery, and on the beautiful sunsets across the river, it will add to the vitality of our life here. We're looking forward to it. We didn't move to Manhattan for the tranquility.

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 23rd 2010, 1:38 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent piece, and I love the photos too. All sumer long at a day camp in Riverdale, I've been singing a great song about the Hudson , "The River that Flows Both Ways."
Thursday September 2nd 2010, 7:58 PM
Comment by: Carol V. (Pleasant Hill, IA)
Breathtaking piece of writing. I really like your addition of literature to give emphasis to certain words. Your pictures bring this essay to life. I shall share this piece with our creative writing teacher.

I am a teacher librarian in Iowa. This summer, I had fun writing a quick piece at the urging of Stephen King - an exercise on improving imagery in writing...on the city by night. My goal was to test out Visual Thesaurus on improving vocabulary in one's writing. Afterwards, a teacher suggested that a followup to my City by Night would be to contrast the piece with a daytime view. I read that very contrast in your story!

I would like to read your thoughts on your city by night!
Tuesday February 15th 2011, 7:25 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Your essay infatuates. It is most welcome.

I hope you still enjoy.


Thursday September 29th 2011, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Dandelion
I like the photo's a lot...

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