Unhurried and very aware

Still working my way through Robert Caro’s tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.  We’re at the section—in the 1950s and ’60s—where Moses is “hacking his way” “with a meat ax” through neighborhoods to make room for superhighways that are 200+ feet across.  Caro is describing East Tremont in the Bronx, the kind of place that most of us starry-eyed urbanists only dream of living in (to hear Caro’s sympathetic portrait of it).

It’s easy for a reader like myself, who loves the idea of the city (sometimes more than the city itself) and the experience of it, to be wistful as he hears about the vibrancy of yesterday’s neighborhoods and also to be envious as he considers what painstaking research Caro must have been able not just to endure but also to enjoy in order to word-paint such portraits of them.  Going through Moses’ old Triborough Bridge Authority records on Randalls Island or in a Chambers Street archive or held at the NYPL (wherever they keep them) thrills some of us—writers who like to be alone with people and things of the past who change only when our keystrokes change them. And interviewing people who were “there” can be both invigorating and saddening.

When reading about the city—both the city of the past and the city that “could be” that we see in blogs about sustainable cities, walkable cities, the City of God and the city of man—it’s never about being “present” in the city around you.  Reading about the city is about making sense of things.

For presence, I walk.

Sometimes things make sense, sometimes they don’t. But I often don’t have time to make sense of them; I try—in my best moments—to just let them happen around me as an observer.

Walking the sidewalks removes me from Armchair City Adoration and places me into a state that Tony Hiss (author of The Experience of Place) calls “simultaneous perception,” an almost zen-like movement through physical space where one is calm and experiencing the things and people nearby in an unhurried and very aware state.  Holly Whyte, in City: Rediscovering the Center, wrote earlier and similarly about walking in New York City:

The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit. …He moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so. Think of the orders and computers it would take to match him! Transportation engineers are spending millions on developing automated people-mover systems. But the best, by far, is a person.

We move through city space in Whyte’s way—autonomously aware of others’ vector changes—and in Hiss’s as well: we are aware of fellow walkers’ facial and fashion details and of aspects of buildings and street-level stores.

In this way, I can walk even familiar territory on the Upper West Side and enjoy simultaneous perception: getting off the train at 86th and Broadway (having known exactly which car on the northbound #1 to get onto so that I can easily get to the turnstiles at my stop); ascending the staircase with seemingly hundreds of others—a sudden burst of urban blood bursting through a narrow capillary that was barely widened by MTA workers last spring, a capillary that, when shut down during work, caused almost a stoppage in flow on the alternate staircase and underground heart attack—only to emerge and call Karen (“I’m off the train; want anything at the store?”); crossing Broadway with many of those others even though we pedestrians have the red hand (formerly “Don’t Walk” in a literate society) sign, knowing how long northbound taxis and other vehicles will take to reach us before we reach the median; passing Euclid Hall seniors and disabled, whose presence is ubiquitous enough in Mama’s Famous Pizza next door and in front of their own building to appear even on the street view in Google maps; getting then to Broadway Farm for a gallon of milk and grimacing at the prices we pay (we vow to switch to Key Foods one block out of our way) but reveling almost unaware at buying from a place that employs a Moroccan, several Dominicans, Pakistanis and a Caribbean Islander all under one roof consistently between Olympic Games; then back outside deciding to navigate either in front of the Victoria Secret windows and their Amazon-tall flesh-posters or past the Jewish restaurant that has always intrigued me but never appealed to me to dine in; deciding for Broadway and walking past the Origins store—pumping enticing cologne at us from vents—Baked By Melissa, and Coach; turning the corner to see the local homeless man defecating between cars on the south side of 84th Street in front of Ouest’s service entrance; then finding my body move into a steady rhythm as I walk downhill to West End Avenue, to our block, and then the final approach to our building.  A stiff Hudson River-born wind blows up the bluff in Riverside Park, over the Promenade and then leaps the schist wall on Riverside Drive to meet me as I walk westward.  I notice the white-wire holiday lights on the stoop of one brownstone.  The scaffolding (“sidewalk sheds,” they call them) across the street on the south moves along the block from building to building like a worm’s sheath, fertilizing each townhouse and making it more marketable.

A few feet from our stoop, the temperature drops about ten degrees.

I reach our building and pause inside the vestibule to dig in my right front pocket for my keys.  I am almost sad—glad to be home but missing already the intimate connection with the city I’ve had for the past seven to ten minutes.

It’s been a daytime romance.

It now becomes only an idea while I rest at home.

I write in sentences and carriage returns instead of think in paragraphs.


the crimes will stop

9-year-old son, Teak, wrote this poem for school, in honor of upcoming MLK Jr. Day:

freedom for all

standing up tall

as he thought

and fought and fought

he had a dream

that a day would

come for the riot to

stop, then he was

shot, his message did

stay but I still know

although the crimes

continue it will stop

in a new place by some one

great exactly like who?…

Martin Luther King

The “sweets of liberty”

“Oh! Africa, my native land,

When shall I see thee, meekly stand,

Beneath the banner of my God,

And governed by His Holy word?

When shall I see the oppressor’s rod

Plucked from his hand, my gracious God?

Oh! when shall I my brethren see,

Enjoy the sweets of LIBERTY?”

— Benin-born slave, then Christian evangelist and lecturer, Mahommah Baquaqua.

Baquaqua wrote about New York City, “The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was F-r-e-e; we were taught it by an Englishman on board [the ship], and oh! how many times did I repeat it, over and over again. This same man told me a great deal about New York City…We all had learned, that at New York there was no slavery; that it was a free country and that if we once got there we had nothing to dread from our cruel slave masters, and we were all most anxious to get there…[After we arrived], that was that the happiest time in my life, even now my heart thrills with joyous delight when I think of that voyage, and believe that the God of all mercies ordered all for my good; how thankful was I.”

source: NYCreligion.info

Waking up and hearing

It’s silent now, even though I’ve been keeping my ears peeled for it, but the first thing I noticed when I came into the living room and sat down was a bird chirping.

It was probably a sparrow, which I consider so commonplace, yet in the Bible—at least in some English translations—this diminutive brown bird is referred to by name by Jesus himself.  The peacock boasts no such attention.

But it’s quiet now, except for the typing of my keyboard.  The bird(s)—for there are blue jays, robins, an occasional red-tailed hawk to our delight, and towhees in our courtyard—have settled into their Saturday morning activities, and so have I.  Soon, our middle son will come down (or, rather, I will rouse him and then he will come down), and he will shuffle to the couch, fall/roll onto it, and grab a throw-blanket from the headrest and pull it over him like a collapsed tent, sealing himself off from me and everything around him.

(The bird is back. It sounds like a bluejay, but not its standard “jeer,” as birders might refer to the call.)

My son—all three sons, really—come into the living room like I used to come into the kitchen in the mornings growing up.  They never come into a quiet room, where sounds outside the room are discernible.  Someone is always there first.  And even if they did—even as I did then—they are thinking about (1) continuing their sleep, and/or (2) what’s for breakfast.  Either fatigue or hunger guides them.  Granted, before I heard the bluejay and before I even tried to, my first step was to turn on the kitchen light, drop a Starbucks pod into the Keurig coffee pot (coffee “maker”?…they are not really “pots” anymore), and only then take my Steaming Cup of Morning over to the side-table by my Daddy chair, sit down, and…be open.

The coffee is my throw-blanket, though its effect is much briefer on my senses that its counterpart’s on my son’s.

Last night I returned from a work trip to Florida, where I woke up on three mornings overlooking the beach and ocean.  My mornings, with coffee at my side of course, were accompanied by the sound of waves—each wave absolutely different, like snowflakes, or humans—yet all seeming the same and all constituting a whole.  The waves were a familiar sound to me, embedded in my waking hours during summers on Fire Island from 1965 to 2002.

I wonder this morning how many New Yorkers are waking up and hearing—at first—the sounds of CNN Headline News, or of yelling in the next room or adjacent apartment, or of a bottle clinking on the sidewalk outside their bedroom window, or of a subway rushing downtown under the metal grate on which they are trying to sleep.

What I should not have read before going to sleep

Last night, after working a 15-hour day, I made the mistake of reading that the food product “Hot Pockets” sold for $2.6 billion to Nestlé.  I didn’t have “The Power Broker” handy in the living room, and it is this that has been my nightly reading for the last 800+ pages and umpteen nights. So instead I picked up Robert Frank’s “Richistan,” which I’ve also been reading at the 3-year-stale recommendation of my friend and peer Patrick Johnson, whose thoughts and work I’ve admired for some time now.

It seemed inconceivable that a company would pay, for instance, the equivalent of nearly 1% of all American charitable giving—1% of the love we show to one another and to people affected by tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes—for foil-wrapped cheese, tomato sauce and bread.

I believe I’ve eaten a Hot Pocket. Maybe.  Not sure.  Have you?  Do you think often about Hot Pockets?  Do you tell your friends about Hot Pockets?  Are Hot Pockets more important in your community than the local repertory theater, the local soup kitchen, even more important than the larger museums that cater to the rich but increasingly draw in the less well-heeled?

Call me cynical, but somehow I think Nestlé spent less time deciding on spending this money for crap no one should eat—but they do eat it—than they would spend considering whether to give away 0.04 percent ($1 million) of that same amount to charity.

I am cynical.

I must now be a good boy and read my Bible and pray for them and pretend that spending $2.6 billion on a product that yields them more than $2.6 billion—and that’s why they did it, because we all make it possible—isn’t ludicrous and irresponsible.

Because it’s not. In fact, it’s smart business. And it makes me hate the world.

Hot Pockets.

2600 times as costly to buy than a $1 million gift to charity.

And that’s in 1990 dollars.

3-1-1 on Christmas tree disposal

Alleen should have his face on an IMDb or RottenTomatoes thumbnail photograph. Tall, dark-cocoa skin, severe jawbone, handsome and older, and gentle smile—one that could provoke sympathy from an audience. He would be a supporting actor, not the lead.  He would not be bagging New York landlords’ trash, as he does for the landlord of our brownstone. He’s been the epitome of kindness but yesterday had seen enough.

“Who did this?!” he demanded of Karen, who was carrying groceries, as he surveyed our kids’ creation. “We’ll get a $100 fine from the city!”

The three boys had taken discarded Christmas trees from along our block and lined them end to end, smallest to largest, along the sidewalk, extending perhaps thirty or forty feet.  They looked like Ukrainian matryoshka nesting dolls.

“Well, the boys did this; they said they were ‘building a forest.'”

“Yes, but who does this?!”

“Kids do! Ones who are having fun.”

“But it’s like taking your trash and putting it in front of someone else’s building.”

“No, Alleen,” Karen said, “it’s like taking someone else’s trash and putting it in front of our building.”

Karen walked into the apartment in a huff, but animated. At least she wasn’t mad at me. After hearing the story, I was glad that the boys were outside the house and not shooting heroin at the same time. In my book, that’s a check in the Win column.  She called the City’s we-answer-everything-(though-we-might-not-fix-it)-line, 3-1-1.  She described to the city employee the scene with Alleen and asked if our landlord or Alleen himself would get fined.  I heard the story rehearsed.

Karen hung up the phone and said to me, “The lady told me that next time the boys see Alleen maybe they should hide in their fort.”

Not write

In my desire to make things shiny and new, make them tidy and “branded,” make sure the quotation marks looked more like sans serif fonts and less like Courier, make sure I spoke only of external things and not of those things that were roiling inside, make sure that sentences and paragraphs were well edited and that posts were accompanied by an attractive–even come-hither–Flickr photograph that I’d rip with Preview and of course attribute at the bottom (with appropriately manipulated font size and coloration), make sure that if clients or business partners or bosses or friends with money or practically anyone with power real or imagined navigated here that they’d find an antiseptic-at-worst and “fun”-at-best post, in my desire to make people like me–to please others–I found it easier simply to not write in 2012.  Or if I wrote, to not post.

But mainly, to not write.

I’d rather write than correct all the Courier quotation marks.  And most of the other stuff as well.