Urban Evolution

They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.

I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.

Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.

Matins

At a certain time of year, around November after the time change, early morning immigrants to Manhattan see the light. As they stumble out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and head to the east, it is as if the sun is rising like a monster from the sea. In Midtown the streets run east-west and the avenues north-south. I trip out onto Eighth Avenue and have to make my way to Madison, and the entire walk is facing into the unrelenting sun. You might think at 7 a.m. this should be no great challenge, but then you would betray the fact that you don’t commute in early. Hundreds of people pour in a human stream out of the Port Authority and head in all directions, many of them east. The streets are crowded and you literally can’t see what’s in front of you. You are, in the words of a young Bruce Springsteen, “blinded by the light.” I’ve watched in fascination as this happens for the past four years now. It isn’t the much touted “Manhattanhenge,” but simply the angle of the sun at this latitude at this time of day. It may be fun for a few minutes, but then you realize how dangerous it might be.

IMG_2595

One of the most basic elements of religion is care for others. Indeed, some religions suggest that you should treat others as more important than yourself. When I was growing up I was taught to think of things from somebody else’s perspective: if you were in that position, would you want someone to do that to you? It’s a message I took to heart and to this day I can’t pass a homeless person without a backstab of guilt for not pulling out my wallet and dropping a dollar or two into their outstretched hands. Having been on the receiving end of a pink slip more than once, I can easily imagine being there. Seeing from another person’s perspective can be dangerous. Not considering that perspective can be even worse.

Those out and about at 7 a.m. are go-getters. Climbers. They get to work early. Some, no doubt, stay late as well. The person walking west has the sun at his or her back. The street in front of them is brilliantly illuminated but not blinding. How many times I’ve nearly collided with them because they don’t realize that those of us going east just can’t see. You have to step into the shadow of a banner or awning or streetlight post just to get a nanosecond of relief and make sure you’re not about to step into a hazard like an open freight door. The photo doesn’t do it justice because if it were truly to show what I see, you’d see nothing at all. Raised as I was I can’t help but think of the beast rising from the sea, and the woman clothed with the sun. And the homeless being awoken by beams far too bright after a night on the streets.

Revisiting Jericho

I don’t get out from the office much. As those who commute to New York City will readily tell you, there is a constant anxiety about getting to and from the city that keeps you in the office (cubicle) as long as possible. Just yesterday my bus broke down on halfway there. I seldom take lunch away from my desk, and even more rarely get out to see what’s actually in Manhattan. Besides work. Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Berlin Wall. Wanting a picture that wasn’t somebody else’s work, I decided to visit the famous slab of the wall in Paley Park. Like many parks in Midtown, this is a mere pocket in the shadow of a high-rise, but a large slab of the Berlin Wall had been there for years, drawing tour guides and history buffs alike. It is only 19 blocks from my office. I’m a fast walker, and I made it all the way catching only three red lights. Since the anniversary of the wall’s Jericho moment had been twenty-five years and a day before, I expected crowds. Instead, no Berlin Wall was to be found. Businessmen smoking away their lives and lunch hours, but no oppressive wall. I double-checked my location. Triple-checked, with GPS. Then I walked 19 blocks back.

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Visiting the comments on one of the wall’s websites, I saw that it had been, perhaps unintentionally symbolically, removed. After standing in this pocket park for nearly a quarter of a century, the slab had been absconded mere weeks before the anniversary when I, and given the number of cameras I saw, not I alone, had gone to see and to reflect. Where does one put the Berlin Wall? There was another piece, I read, at the United Nations gardens. You only had to pay 18 dollars to get in. Although it is close to my old office at Routledge, it is a lengthy walk from where I now find myself. Once I arrived home I searched for answers. The wall had been removed for restoration. A wall that had been sufficient to divide a city, scrawled with graffiti, apparently, required restoration. On the long walk back, I considered my similarly ill-fated trip a couple years back to find the closed Gotham Book Mart. Like the wall, have I become useless history?

My Germanic ancestors came to America nearly two centuries ago, and although I never knew that side of the family well, I suspect it was for economic, not religious reasons. It is sometimes easy to think, given all the rhetoric, that Europeans came here to be part of a Christian free-for-all. No doubt, some did. Many others, however, had more mundane motivation. A strong Protestant work ethic that somehow seems genetic, and a belief that somewhere else is better, will help you get along. So I’m told. So the tale goes in the book of Joshua. Israelites, wanting to cross the water to a new home, blowing their trumpets and raising a shout. Yes, the Berlin Wall did come down. Like the fallen wall of Jericho, it’s nowhere to be seen.

Back to the Future

When I leave work, I’m in a rush. It would seem that Third Avenue and Eighth Avenue shouldn’t be that far apart, but you can’t see from one to the other. I’m a pretty fast walker, and I’ve negotiated city crowds since my graduate student days. If you get caught at a light on one of Midtown’s avenues, you get into a cascading series of minute-long delays and you could miss your bus. Since I do this nearly every day, I know the lights are on timers, and getting through one light may make all the difference in having to wait another half-hour in the Port Authority Terminal for a missed bus. So when the woman held out her hand in front of me, I was ready to pull a dodge, but then I saw the tarot card printed on the slip of paper she held toward me. I took it at nearly a run with an acknowledging nod of thanks. New York has any number of psychic readers, and I’ve noticed that different ones advertise in different street corners in town. Unlike the competition, this psychic doesn’t announce who s/he is (I always assume “she” but the chit doesn’t say). “Clairvoyant Consultant” is the only identity, along with a street address. “Gifted European Spiritual Psychic” also occurs. I will get a five dollar discount if I go in. Tempting.

Clairvoyant

On the bus I noticed something about the colorful print of the tarot card. I’ve never in my life touched a real tarot card. I’m not really superstitious, but why take chances? The Bible can be pretty harsh about such things. This card says, “Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, with its runic (and Hebraic) symbols, is surrounded by clouds. On each of the clouds in the four corners is—and this caught me off guard—an iconic symbol of each of the evangelists. Matthew’s winged man is in the upper left, and Luke’s winged ox in the lower left. Mark’s winged lion is in the lower right and John’s eagle claims the upper right. On the wheel itself rest a sphinx, a la Oedipus, a serpent (a la Eden?), and what appears to be a recumbent devil. Clearly clairvoyants see some value in traditional religious symbols.

New York is quite a religious city, for all its secular trappings. Not all of the religions are traditional—many, in fact, would start a literalist’s blood on its way to a low simmer. It is a city of seekers. The wheel of fortune may be a more apt symbol than I realized. The earlier bus gets caught in traffic today, and at one of the common stops I see the later bus whizzing by, and I know that it will arrive at my home stop long before I will. Of course, I had no way of foreseeing that. Each day as a commuter is another spin of that wheel of fortune. It is not a surprise New York is such a religious city. Your fate is never really in your own hands. But this flyer is, and it entitles me to five dollars off a peek into the great unknown. I think maybe I got this card about two decades too late.