An Out-Of-Towner Attempts to Decipher The City.

Posted: January 14, 2011 in critique
Tags: , , ,

>I think I have figured NYC out. Every visitor to the city says this at some point, I suppose, and every one of them is probably wrong, but I’m going to outline my theory anyway. Why? Well, mainly because I, in my infinite wisdom as a completely unlettered amateur sociologist, have the opinion that New Yorkers can serve as a model for future behavior in an increasingly congested urban existence. In other words, we’re gonna have to get out of the suburbs and move back in closer to the centers as fuel costs continue to rise; most large urban centers were built around some sort of renewable natural resource, and we’ll need to make better use of these resources as the 21st century plays out. So, here goes.

Take a ride on the city’s fabled subway. You’ll notice that natives make no eye contact, and you can tell the natives from the newbies and the tourists because of this. When you’re new to the city, you’re taking it all in. You’re trying to make sure you don’t get lost. Your eyes dart around, from the digital display that tells you what stops are next, to the ads above the seats, to the faces of your fellow travelers. Your fellow travelers, who, by the way, have to ride this train everyday and don’t see it as some grand adventure but rather as the hot, smelly ride to work, will not look back at you. They don’t need to glance up at the display; they can feel their stop approaching. The ads above their heads are ignored, unread, just the way an ad is supposed to be treated. They are not lost. Ever. And after a while you’ll find yourself doing the same thing. We have an innate desire to blend in, and if we see other people doing something, well, golly, there must be a good reason for it.

The native New Yorker seems to run everywhere. No time wasted. Run down the stairs to the turnstile, swipe your metro card with barely a second thought. Run and get a snack from Au Bon Pan; have your money or your debit card ready. You know how much that apple danish is, you get it every day, dammit; don’t hold up the line. Don’t hold up the line. Holding up the line is… well, if the New Testament had been written in the city, Jesus might’ve taken a whip to the lallygaggers, as well as the moneychangers. Run. New York invented changing from running shoes to heels once you get to the office. Run. You’ll see people with hypertension, people with high cholesterol, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone fat. Run. What do New Yorkers do for relaxation? Take a jog in the park, of course. Run. Run. RUN.

There is a focus in the mindset of the New Yorker, and whether the focus originates from the city and is absorbed by the people, or the other way around, makes no difference. Some people think New Yorkers are rude. They aren’t. I’ve been the recipient of real, honest kindness from New Yorkers more times than I can count. If anything, the people that really are the rudest folk I’ve met would be fellow Ohioans in Ohio, but that’s another story. People from the city aren’t rude. They just have things to do, and you’re not gonna get them off task. They size you up. Are you going to help them, or are you going to slow them down? If you’re going to hinder their progress, well, they ignore you. You aren’t there. I have only seen that kind of orientation to detail in one other group of people: I taught a few students who all about bugs, or chicken, or some such thing. I hesitate to say it, but the city and its inhabitants have almost Rain Man like focus. This, I believe, is why the city works.

Think about it for a second. There are nine million people here. And I saw all of them in one day, I think. How do you find time or place to be alone, to have a private moment? You tune out. You stare straight ahead. Not behind you, and certainly not up. Never up- what are you, some kinda dopey hick from Indiana? Nope , you stare straight ahead toward your destination. The crazy guy on the f train trying to tell everybody to stop eating oranges because that’s where the U.N. hid the RFID chips? Pay him no mind. The slow moving train of camera-phone toting out-of-towners, inching their way down 42nd in slack-jawed astonishment? Brush past it, dodge the bike messenger and the suicidal cab drivers. Keep texting or talking on your Bluetooth. This city that never sleeps, never sleeps because that’s what works. Never sleeping, never stopping. Always en route to…somewhere.

New York’s infrastructure is set up to keep you moving. Pushcarts evolve into proletarian food trucks, which in turn evolve into gourmet food trucks that twitter their current location to their hungry, always running followers. Buying lemonade in Whole Foods? Stand in the general queue and wait for the number of the next register to light up, take your designated slot. Where was bebop, the world’s fastest jazz music, invented? What about Hip-Hop, where painting, poetry, music and dance merge into some hyper-kinetic, get it done right now, ephemeral art? Rapping may (or may not, I don’t want to pick more fights than I need to) have been brought to the Bronx by Jamaicans, but the city perfected free style and its quick as lightning, top of the dome wordplay. Somebody asks you for directions? Sure. Take the q10 to the f, get off at union square. The city is underground, because years ago, someone decided that if you put trains underground, you could get where you’re going faster. Vanish into one station and emerge in another part of town. Keep your eyes on your paper or your iPad, steal that precious time alone, even though you’re in the midst of this quick-march tempo mob. Get your bearings quickly though- you’ve got somewhere to be.

New York is a miracle of human evolution. All the totalitarian rulers of the past century had but one real goal in mind, and that was to re-make man. And they, for the most part, failed utterly. They aimed to crush the human spirit by force. New York has re-made man almost by accident, an afterthought in the rush towards faster, more efficient, and densely peopled. To function, to truly thrive in the city, is the social equivalent of being able to calculate the value of pi to one hundred places in your head, or playing Toccata and Fugue in D minor by ear flawlessly after having heard it just one time. But don’t worry. You can do it.

Just…Don’t hold up the line.

words and pictures © Christopher Ward. All rights reserved.

  1. Christeene F says:

    >Props to Topher Drew: 1) for starting a blog, anyway, 2) for posting your poetry online, and 3) for dispelling the New Yorkers are rude myth. Bloody Michiganders are rude, dontcha know? I will read this blog entry to my husband while he sleeps so he will get over his hatred of the Big Apple and subconsciously be persuaded to move there once more.

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