One of my favorite books of all time is Time and Again by Jack Finney. (He’s the guy who wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by the way.) Time and Again is a science-fictionish historical mystery set in New York City. I say “science-fictionish” because it’s set in both 1970 and 1882.
Finney set up a compelling time-travel approach: you can take any structure or locale that has remained unaltered and use it as a way of going back to an earlier time during its existence. Time travelers must first immerse themselves in the everyday life of their destination era—the culture, current events, attitude, etc—as a way of “loosening” the mind’s ties to the current day. Finney used the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan as a portal between 1970 and 1882. The way it’s explained in the book, you can almost believe it could work. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other places that would serve as appropriate portals. I could use the Empire State Building to go to 1931. The Brooklyn Bridge could take me to 1883. Certain historic houses could get me as far back as the 1650s and 1660s. You get the idea.
My favorite part of the story is when the protagonist, Si Morley, arrives in 1882. He boards a Fifth Avenue coach and looks at another passenger:
…I sat watching him from the corner of my eye, tense, excited, almost frightened at my first really close look at a living human being of the year 1882….This was no motionless brown-and-white face in an ancient photograph….There he sat, a living breathing man with those memories in his head.
I still remember when I first read these lines. I had goosebumps. Because I get this. I so get this. It’s not about witnessing a historic event or meeting a famous historical figure. It’s about being a part of that time, even briefly. Like when you first visit another country: “Look! Actual Italians/Indians/Australians/Peruvians! And this stuff looks just like in the photos! Hey, they really talk like that!” Except you would be visiting, say, 1862: “Hey, Lincoln is president and right now they’re all living through everything I’ve read about!!” It would blow my mind to see and interact with 19th-century people as live, Technicolor humans and not as static black and white relics. To walk through streets with the old buildings when they were brand new. And before they were torn down.
If you’ve read this or this, you know I’ve had some strange experiences with people who are no longer with us in corporeal form. I’ve freaked out a few of you (you know who you are) by being able to sense things without your telling me. So I wasn’t surprised when something else peculiar happened a few months ago…
I was on a train in New Jersey. We were about to stop in Newark—the tracks go over the Passaic River and into the station. I was looking out the window as the train passed over the railroad bridge. For a second or so, I saw the scene not as it is now, but as it might have looked in the 1830s or 1840s. It was fleeting but I remember it vividly. Lots of trees, low small buildings and houses, and boats. What I recall most distinctly is a mill with a waterwheel near the bridge. When I got home I looked for lithographs or maps of the area during that time, but no dice. If I did a thorough archival search I might find some but it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Maybe I imagined the whole thing, maybe I didn’t. I’ll probably never know.
All I know is, I hope it happens again and that I’ll be able to verify it. I would love nothing more than to peek through one of those mysterious windows of time again. Until then, maybe I’ll entertain myself by thinking of going to Flushing Meadows Park to see the 1939 World’s Fair.