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CRITIC AT LARGE

Icy Realities Of The Big Apple In Deep Freeze

January 31, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

NEW YORK — It is possible to forget just how cold cold is, but a visit to Manhattan during the largest snowfall and coldest snap in some time does bring it all back.

Cold, like hot weather, just takes a little practice, and you can get out of practice. Forewarned about the storm, I took a pair of rubbers from a shelf where they had been in retirement for several years. When I tried to put them on as we taxied in to J.F.K. (in coach, this is a new exercise for the budding contortionist), I found they had deteriorated to the look and consistency of overdone pot roast.

The New York stores had previously been swept clean of any kind of overshoes except in sizes appropriate for midgets and giants. So I brought some transparent tape and mended the rubbers with a thick crust of cross-hatchings that look poignant but has kept the salty slush more or less at bay.

The side streets, narrow at best and now further clotted with a kind of sooty cholesterol of hard-packed snow and buried cars not likely to move again until spring, are further bedeviled by the construction barricades and pedestrian detours. It is a high adventure to wander out for a paper.

But whatever the island's reputation for instant spleen, the cold snap appears to make philosophers of everyone. It brings out that prideful civic masochism that always surfaces in New York during blackouts, subway, bus and train strikes, torrential rains, heat waves and sudden collapses by the Knicks. "You think this is bad, you shoulda been here last time."

(The triumph of the Giants in the Super Bowl, of course, took a lot of the sting out of the cold, although it was a jolting revelation the next morning for New Yorkers to be reminded that the Giants are now New Jersey performers, and there would be no ticker tape parade up Broadway, thanks, even if it might have taken sled dogs to bring it off.)

New York is eternally a city of tomorrow that never seems close to being finished. There are scaffoldings in every block, and no street that goes more than a few dozen feet without pausing for an excavation. "What do they possibly hope to find?" Jack Paar once asked rhetorically about all the digging.

Monumentalism in Manhattan appears to have run amok. The buildings seem taller, more assertive of some vast and dubious corporate achievement and less scaled to the individual than ever. Such efforts as there are to build in some decorative touches seem only to emphasize the prevailing gigantism because the touches are gigantic as well.

It is as if all the designers had collaborated on a master plan to create a skyline that would look good from Queens or Jersey, no matter what it was like to live and work in, or beneath.

The cold makes the architecture play differently, somehow. The sheer expanses of glass, marble and other facings are the more impersonal and off-putting when they appear to be deflecting the icy blasts down the back of your neck with deadly aim. The facades never seem so unyielding, even hostile, as when they feel as well as look like ice.

You walk with something like relief through the streets east and west of midtown, where there is still a neighborhood feeling of small shops, walk-up apartments and pleasant restaurants. Life may be only relatively less expensive than on the avenues and in the high-rise co-ops, but for the moment, here and there, the Newer Gentrification has not yet raised its chic and glazing hand.

Yet even the occasional visitor, largely confined to midtown, can't escape, even if he would, the severe contrasts of wealth and poverty that the cold dramatizes with a terrible cruelty. By night the homeless sleep on the gratings at the feet of the topless towers, and more often than not by day the outstretched hands belong not to old winos but to young men, who say with their eyes that they have lost hope in a country built on hope.

The cold may be invigorating, but it arrives with chills that steam heat cannot drive away.

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