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When I first leave the office it is unclear whether the city streets are coming alive or giving out one last late afternoon gasp. Perhaps both. People are darting in every direction and teaming up in crowds for greater strength and resolve against the counter-currents of other individuals, equally grouped together in opposing teams. The sun is still high but well past its apex. You can catch it out of the top corner of your eye, no need to even tilt your head.
I have time to spare, good weather, and a modest walk to consider if I want it. I do. I make the L-shaped crossing from the north west corner to Bryant Park and head up the stairs into the shaded pathways. I want to get away from the stream of anxious commuters and noxious car exhausts, both augmenting the heat of the street. I am able to take a deeper breath among the trees and mingling crowd. The park is packed, with equal parts seated visitors, people in search of benches and chairs, and others like me who are using the opportunity to take a more pleasant route to where ever it is they are headed. This will work out as a shortcut but it is hardly the reason I took it. I would have sought out the route for its own sake. I am on my time now and want to fill it with intention. To make it last and to make it count, an attempt to catch up on things missed while at the office. Past the fountain, others who have dipped out of work even earlier than I have already settled up to the outdoor bar and open air seating.
I look closer at some of the current park dwellers and many appear wound up. At this time of day, on this day of the week, the uniforms of the locals and the tourists are pretty clearly defined. This distinction does not so clearly divide the uptight from the relaxed. Each camp has a mixture of both. Some of the urban denizens undoubtedly have a more fluid relationship with the city. They have found a current of their own, certainly many of them today give off a blase appearance, and you sense a relaxed air about them. They’re also off the clock and much like me not in a rush to get to the next place. In point of fact, this park here is the next place. I relate to this view even as I continue my walk.
Though hardly settling in one place I am where I want to be, walking the city and taking in the sights. I am now coming to the completion of my second L-movement, this one taking me around the lawn and through the park. I’m descending the stairs back onto the pavement, this time onto a side street and not an avenue. Directly across is one of my favorite buildings in the city.
Though I have never spent a night in one of its rooms I have been to the hotel bar and ground floor restaurant. Both of those attractions are amusing enough and I would recommend either based on your interests. Come to think of it, the basement bar with its white tiles and cavernous cool spaces pops to mind but only for a moment, for the day’s heat is on it’s last stand. New York summer heat can last through the night sometimes unfairly seeming to pick up overnight but this isn’t one of those days. However, it’s not the amenities within so much as the decor out front that has me favoring the building. For whatever reason, old world influences or otherwise, I tend to be a sucker for a black facade with gold gilded plating.
After taking in the familiar building I turn my attention to the current of moving bodies all about me. It is one of the wonders of the city that we are constantly surrounded by others but rarely ever touch one another. Aside from friends, acquaintances, and business associates bumping into someone or making inadvertent contact is usually an occasion for an apology or show of recognition that a barrier has been crossed, that it was inadvertent, and that the arousal of attention was unnecessary. “Go back to your train of thoughts,” it seems to say (that look of deferment), “turn your attention back from the outside to the internal.” But this is exactly what I mean to avoid on this walk. I have pocketed my phone, book, and headphones to avoid the temptation of tuning out. I wish to be engrossed in the external and to be refreshed by the surrounding energy, the equivalent of human electricity. When asked what I enjoy the most in the city the first thing my mind goes to is the energy. It is that energy that drives all of the amenities and nuisances that delight and burden us.
I take my place among the pedestrians, naturally synchronizing my pace to those around me. I typically walk fast, even for this town, often times reflexively noting the rare passerby who overtakes me on the sidewalk. This means that in my more appreciative moods I am able to hang back in my walking and simply go with the flow. The slower pace, unbearable when imposed by obstructions (read: old people, tourists, and idiots), is a refreshing change that frees up my attention from strategizing, however intuitively, how to navigate most efficiently to observing my surroundings as if in slow motion.
Approaching the corner of Fifth Avenue I realize the “freedom” afforded me and I am nearly stopped short by the availability of the four simple directions open to me, though re-tracing the way I came is not likely to happen. The efficient direction would be to turn right and head downtown but I am hoping for a distraction to divert me. As if on cue I see that a loose collection of people, too timid in numbers or proximity to each other to be called a group, let alone a crowd, have tentatively turned their attention on a common focal point. I do not yet see the players but I register the impression of street entertainment by a combination of details both explicative and intuitive. I notice a desire to see a magic or juggling performance and smile reflexively at my childishness and lack of pretension. Perhaps it is my desire for details and layering but whatever it is I cannot help but feel a bit disappointed to confirm what was to be expected, that this performance will culminate in an impromptu acrobatics display.
In front of the Schwarzman building or just to the side is a busy “corner” with many competing interests. Besides the captive audience of commuters waiting for the special buses to escape Manhattan and the tired people on chairs or sitting on the library steps very few people stick around, even after taking a photo of the stone lions outside.
A few of those gathered look solemn and glum, perhaps due to a long day that appears to have no end in sight. This is in high contrast to the street performers who are animated and looking to spread the contagion to the onlookers. Also in contrast to not a few of the pedestrians are the trim figures of the players. The vitality brimming over with independence and bravado. The goal is to put on a show with the purpose of converting appreciation into a generous monetary contribution. However, the performers are giving off the impression that it is the viewers who are receiving the favor.
The players are of different ages and sizes. The veterans show their experience in dealing with all manners of “crowds” by the way they address the people. The younger ones sell the performance not so much verbally but rather by relying on their physical nature. The youth advertise the potentiality of the show through spritely nonchalance apparent in the very bounce of their steps. The vitality is present in the body, the demeanor, the incentivization they put forth, and even their faces. Especially their faces. Instead of the pallid office environment appearance they have faces from out of doors, faces burned by the sun, the rain and the wind. They are stamped differently as a result of their trade. It would not be unfair to say that their appearance is natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful.
While observing the pre-show theatrics and showmanship needed to gather a sufficient audience I am taken in by the MC. He has a clear and loud voice reciting a canned script, jokes and phrases, all expertly delivered in timing and target. He frequently receives the expected laughs and is able to stop people in singles, pairs, and more. He delivers barbs and encouragement with an obvious practiced air yet it matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible.
The energy is not there yet. Though the moves have been done hundreds of times, these remain concrete floors and if you are going to risk your neck you might as will be in the presence of more prospects and enthusiasm so as to maximize the possible reward. I maximize my entertainment options by straying away and taking the opportunity to revisit one of New York City’s most ignored attractions, Library Way (https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/09/13/library-way) .
I walk east on 41st keeping to the side of the pavement so I may allow others who are not strolling at their leisure to have the right-of-way. We are after all just a few minutes from Grand Central, that hornet’s nest of daily commuters buzzing about streaming in and out from all available directions. I stop on occasion with my back to the buildings to pause for a moment and more easily read the sidewalk text with its different fonts, shapes, and angles. How many of the daily pedestrians ever notice these prints of incognito and of those what fraction take a moment to read a quote fully? Moralizing is too often an armchair endeavor but here on the street you can see the actions of the people, the actual ramifications of thought or lack thereof as displayed in the outward show of life. My sidestepping gate has signaled to others of a break from the norm, an idiosyncratic gesture out of tune with the tempo we often fall into. I notice a few glances in my direction and half as many towards the object of my attention. I am for the most part hiding in plain sigh, as are the quotes, much like each individual pedestrian is.
Was that a smile I just saw on one of the passersby as they were surprised by what they found underfoot? Perhaps, but like a momentary diversionary interval in a much larger current my actions are but a tributary to a larger body of movement, a backwater to the main drive to the sea. Inevitable, easy, lazy? Today I complicate the journey by seeking out the city’s engaging qualities, its festivals and fictions. These are not always given to you, they must be sought out and you must be open and looking for the endless galleries of high and low life, as opposed to being in a state of passive acceptance and submergence resulting from a flood of stimulants, both actual and virtual.
Certainly, many of these daily worker bees walk this path oblivious to what lays under their feet, while a smaller set may be unaware of the celestial ceiling of Grand Central, but when was the last time they looked up? Each of us has our quotidian demands and restrictions but when we neglect to have our systems serve us and we instead cater to the routines we forfeit our intention and are right to be challenged on how deliberate our actions may be considered. I notice the exceptions because they stand out so easily before too many more plugged in by way of headphones. The premature hunchbacks attending to their tiny screens of oblivion and confusing them for the world when in fact it is all around them, unnoticed.
The carelessness with which we lend or give away our attention often exposes us to irreparable losses. Chief among these is losing all memory of the present. Having made the walk from the office to the station can you honestly say that you have noticed anyone? Was there any eye contact made or acknowledged? I smile back at a lady who follows my gaze to the sidewalk, notices the target of my attention, and looks back at me, all the while continuing her walk. “Some light reading?” she asks. “Just one a day,” I respond before she is swept away.
I pick up my gaze and follow the momentum, allowing myself to be pulled to the large train station. My mind drifts to other matters. Thoughts of an office assignment, a conversation with my brother, and ideas on a movie that is coming out all pass through my mind before I am able to realize my distracted state. I pull up from the general trend and cross over to the other side of the street. In deciding to resist the pull I head back in the direction I came from, repeating myself in passing the same buildings, though with different quotes underfoot. This direction provides a better view of the oncoming traffic of people. Far more commuters are heading my way now, on their way to Grand Central.
Back at the corner, I see the group of people have actually turned into a crowd and from the sound of the clapping and encouraging yells of the performers it is clear that the show is on its way in earnest. There will be a build up of tricks, increasing in intricacy, use of performers and difficulty, culminating in one big jump.
I head downtown, sticking to the east side of the Avenue so as to get as much sun as possible and the best street view of the Empire State building from so close. There is a benign wonder about what colors the top will be lit up with tonight. I will not bother looking up that information but I make a mental note to physically look up when leaving the bar later tonight. It’s not as if the information will do me any good in the meantime.
There is a momentary buzz in my pocket from the phone but I ignore it. If it is not important enough for a conversation it’s not important enough to look at now. The idea of it being an emergency is a mental trap that springs at each beep.
I head in the direction of the bar and doubt making any further diversions, not physically anyway. I retain my leisurely pace in order to continue taking in my surroundings, the fugitive, fleeting beauty of the living city. There is a mixture of all types - whether it be age, race, sex, various states of employment, those heading home and those heading out, living creature, stationary building, or mechanical transportation - its distinctive quality is to have none. This combination is ever changing. Typically the ingredients vary in proportion but over longer time frames the ingredients themselves get swapped out. Today’s concoction is one manifestation of an infinite number of ephemeral, fugitive, and contingent possibilities. Idle thoughts come to bear and leave just as easily, adding further to the mix.
Moments like these, where I take a mental breath, provide the best opportunity to appreciate the beauty of our modern time. Without stepping out of time and rhythm with the contemporary our thoughts are even more transitory than the present street crowd.
I remind myself not to be too congratulatory in my observations and appreciations, in the hope of avoiding an innocent and monstrous self-conceit. The triviality of my own life is no more lost on me than is the seriousness with which we all get distracted by transitory and frivolous concerns. I still can’t help but notice the avarice of our attention and the need to be entertained. And indeed, one wonders why we let ourselves do this.
We may disregard the detrimental influences on ourselves, it is not uncommon to skirt the best care of oneself - how much easier to dispense advice than to take the medicine - but to permit our friends to behave this way and they to not object in return? Curious.
Is our sense of community and obligation a sunset, like a declining daystar, still glorious but presently without heat and full of melancholy? Perhaps.
Today I aim for a rendezvous with a friend, a pint, and the time and space needed to have a conversation. I seek out the elusive moments lived out with intention. At the same time, this being a work with no pretensions to seriousness I would be perfectly content with a limitless credit at the bar.
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- All words in bold orange represent adaptations or direct phrases from Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24607.The_Painter_of_Modern_Life_and_Other_Essays)