Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Back when I visited New York City only infrequently, friends would often ask what I planned to do while I was in town. Would I go to a Broadway play? Visit the Metropolitan Museum? My answer was always the same: I planned to walk the streets. In a city of eight million, where you encounter representatives of every age and economic class and almost every culture on Earth, what could be more interesting than that parade of changing faces? Going to Starbucks was like a time-lapse trip around the world.
Walking has always been my favorite thing to do in big cities, and few lend themselves to it better than New York, which, in addition to its unparalleled diversity, is relatively flat and laid out on a manageable grid. I’ve walked a hundred blocks across Manhattan without getting bored. Blisters I got, but never bored.
Now that I spend more time in New York, I’ve come to see beyond the cultural mosaic of the crowds to their essential and remarkable mechanics. Pedestrian traffic on the city’s sidewalks, especially during rush hour, is like a million very subtle improvisational dance routines taking place in proximity to each other, the common theme being the avoidance of contact or personal disruption. It’s a different kind of motion, falling midway between, say, ballet and a rugby scrum. It feels almost choreographed, though choreography is contrived and, by definition, about design. There is no script, and no master plan, for the communal footwork on 8th Avenue at 5 p.m. It's just about what works, given the unplanned variations inherent in the barely controlled, mass distribution of people.
At its best the movement of crowds in New York (and perhaps most big cities) is spontaneous and honest, and in its way is more remarkable than the stylized choreography you see on a Broadway stage, or perhaps glimpse through the window of the studio across the way, where a group of dancers are practicing their hip swivels, kicks, sudden head-tilts and fist-thrusts. The results can be exhilarating: To see a huge, dense crowd of people up ahead, moving in all directions, to walk right into it, feel it part around you, but only so much, as you adapt to its rhythm and flow, making almost imperceptible corrections that enable you to move through unhindered, and to not hinder it. I’ve gone out of my way to pass through Grand Central Station during rush hour just to experience it.
It's mostly a series of tiny dodges. Almost without thinking, everyone reads the movements of those around them, at short range, and makes their own moves accordingly. No one is shy about darting in front of anyone else, the unwritten rule being only that, preferably, you do so without causing anyone to appreciably slow down, or to stop. People do break the rule, obviously, just as people run red lights, but overall the resulting crowd movement is sublimely efficient, which gives an unexpected sense of purpose and order to an otherwise bewildering universe.
The pacing tends to remain fairly uniform, aside from the occasional, notable aberrations, such as can be observed along the aerial, linear park known as the High Line, in which people walk in single file above the city streets, at a decidedly slow, un-New York City gait (which, particularly when viewed from the street below, makes it appear is if they were ascending to the afterlife). There are the occasional languorous lovers, forgiven in advance for impeding the flow of the sidewalks, and perhaps an intrepid old person with a cane. I also once came upon a blind man with a seeing-eye dog who had stopped, midway through a temporary sidewalk construction zone, due to the confusing sensory perceptions brought on by nearby jack hammers, which prompted one of those stereotypically callous New Yorkers to stop and guide him, gently, by his elbow, to the more manageable environs of the familiar sidewalk up ahead. But for the most part, aside from traffic, the only meaningful obstructions you routinely encounter are the clutches of tourists, ignorant in their bliss, and the evil, rogue pedestrians, such as the woman in the orange dress, who steadfastly follow their own matrix, at the expense of the rest.
I saw the woman in the orange dress approaching as I was going with the flow along 8th Avenue, late in the day. She materialized from a storefront doorway, and even glimpsed peripherally, was identifiable as a contra, moving toward me with unyielding focus, clearly intent that I would take full responsibility for avoiding the forceful intersection of our paths. For some reason, at this particular juncture, I decided not to give in. It was not about being polite, about arriving at the same point as someone else, and stepping aside. This was about sheer, unadulterated aggression. Perhaps you have to experience it to understand, but there are people who will walk in a beeline in your direction, without giving an inch, and attempt to bulldoze through as if you weren’t even there. She was one of them. Such people refuse to alter their gait or angle even incrementally to accommodate the fact that others are already under way, in a crowd.
In this case, my refusal to submit meant that the woman and I collided, after which she snapped, “Ex-CUSE me!” (in the command, not the apology mode), as if I had rudely run into her, which in her mind I had, and which, arguably, I had, in the sense that I had knowingly allowed her to run into me. Unlike the hapless, oblivious tourists who clog Times Square, such people are vile. They are utterly selfish. They’re the ones who cause wars.
In my current New York City state, in which I spend a lot of time in the city but don’t actually live there, I saw the woman in the orange dress as running counter to everything that is beautiful, true and graceful about the flow of human beings on the streets. I also see her as something of a warning about what potentially can go wrong in a crowd, and in the human race as a whole. She was a single errant, negative electron, capable of upsetting the physiology of the whole, and as such, served as a useful reminder that even when things go smoothly, life isn’t exactly a Bollywood musical. Despite the appearance of order, terrible disorder waits in the wings.
Compared with such selfishness and aggression, the other primary source of street disorder in New York City – the tourists -- seem tame, but they are also insipid, and I, like actual New Yorkers, am impatient with them. I have come to avoid Times Square, the tourist epicenter in New York, because, despite its stunning visuals, the flow is constantly disrupted by out-of-towners who are utterly oblivious to the moving mass of the city, who amble into the human currents and stop, then stand there looking around, or at each other, unaware of their immediate surroundings or of their role in the outcome of things. These people, unlike the woman in the orange dress, have no aim. They’re temporarily blinded by the lights, and block everyone else’s path.
And yet: I was once one of them! As much as I now enjoy running interference through a rush-hour crowd, I once very much enjoyed wandering aimlessly through Times Square, gazing up at the buildings and the dazzling lights, mindless of the hurried, harried New Yorkers who were, at that moment, parting around me, as if I were a boulder in mid-stream. If I thought of them at all, I scoffed at their jaded impatience in the face of such dazzling beauty. Now, I look back at the old me and wonder: Where are the streets of New York taking me? If Times Square no longer personifies the vibrancy of the city, and instead represents the annoying disruption of its beguiling syncopation, where is this process headed? At what point will I lose sight of the humanity of the streets? Given my itinerant status, I don’t think I ever will. I suspect I’ll remain in a state of arrested development, somewhere between a hapless tourist and a jaded New Yorker, which, from my current vantage point, doesn’t seem like a bad place to be.