Tag Archives: New York City

Dreaming Reality

It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.

Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.

Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

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.

Odd One Out

The older I get, the more I realize I’m the one that’s weird. Go ahead and say it, “You’re just now figuring this out?!” This epiphany came to me on a stiff breeze. To understand you have to get the idea of commuting on New Jersey Transit. Although twice in one week my route was blessed with a brand new bus, the general operating procedure is to use the oldest, least reliable buses on my route. It is one of the longest routes the company runs into New York City, which means that it is one of the most expensive. You’d think they’d use their best buses, but then you’d be thinking like me. Breakdowns aren’t as frequent as they had been for a while, but other discomforts are fairly common. Just this past week, for instance the heat was stuck on high. Add about 50 bodies to an enclosed, overheated space, and well, let your imagination go.

Now interstate buses aren’t like the school species. The windows don’t open. There are, however, two escape hatches in the ceiling. When I got on board I noticed immediately that it was a sauna bus. The last time this happened (and yes, this wasn’t a unique situation in my experience) passengers opened the escape hatches to create a breeze. Problem was, it was winter this time. The day was struggling to reach 40 degrees outside. As we hit the highway the wind was blowing full against those in my row and I learned what wind chill really can be. There wasn’t much traffic, so the bus was tooling along at about 65. I could feel my left eye beginning to freeze up. My book pages were flapping wildly in my blue-tipped fingers. The personal nor’easter cut right through my winter coat. In my row we were lined up like eskimos, all bundled up. There were no free seats to which we might move. I couldn’t reach the hatch to close it. Nobody said anything.

Here’s where the weirdness comes in. As I child I was raised being taught that true believers think of others first. Other people may not see it, but I consciously try very hard in subtle ways to make sure others get what they need before me. I’m learning not everyone necessarily thinks that way. If I had a degree in fluid dynamics I might be able to describe airflow on a speeding bus. Instead, let me put it this way: the guy who opened the hatch was sitting in the row in front of it, out of harm’s way. The icy blast didn’t hit him, but it did everyone behind him. Passengers tend to think of themselves first. I’m sure I do, too. Just trying to get home after a trying day of work is, well, trying. It’s just that some folks try not to do things that cause others pneumonia, no matter how warm they feel. But then, I’m the odd one, I know.

Spoiler Alert

I work in a cubicle. That’s just one word shy of the famed “six word novel” challenges. I’m wondering what qualifier I should add. To understand this dilemma you have to realize a few things. My first professional job (professor) included a three-room office to myself. Also, I am a middle-aged man amid a work-pool of mostly twenty-somethings (everyone else my age has their own office). My cubicle has walls six feet high, so I can’t see, but can hear my just-out-of-college neighbors. Very few people talk to me at work. In fact, I can go an entire week without anyone saying anything to me, right here in the largest city in the country. The office is generally very quiet. You can hear everything. This leads to my concern with a very specific peril regarding work in a cubicle.

Much of the meaning in my life comes from what I read. In addition to all the books I review here on this blog, I have quite a few fiction projects going at any one time. I happen to be reading a book just now that was recently made into a movie. The reason I know it’s been made into a movie? My unseen, 20-something colleagues began talking about it yesterday morning. Complete with spoilers. Now, they couldn’t see the contortions on my face, hidden in my cubicle. The people who sit next to me work in a different department than mine and I have no reason to speak to them—they don’t even know who I am. Should I, like the voice of God, thunder unseen from my cube, “No spoilers!”? Or should I just continue to sit here with my fingers jammed firmly into my ears and hope that when I pull them out I don’t learn anything more about what I haven’t read yet?

I know it’s just me. I don’t read the blurbs on a book before reading the book itself. I don’t read reviews of movies before seeing the film. Guys my age appreciate the craft of story, building up to the reveal, not getting it in Monday morning water-cooler talk. I finally got up and walked away from my desk. There’s nowhere private to go on my floor, so I went to the stairwell and pointlessly climbed to the top floor and back down again. I returned to my desk and they were still talking about it. Not only was it Monday morning in a New York City where nobody had spoken to me in the three hours since I arrived in town, but there wasn’t even a spoiler warning for one of my favorite pastimes. Such are the perils of cubicle life.

Great Communicators

Perhaps you’ve encountered it too. You’re in a major city. You’re in a hurry. The person in front of you is plodding along, staring at the device in his or her hand and you can’t get around him or her. You’re being held up by technology. I just want to get to the Port Authority before my bus leaves. The late Jonathan Z. Smith called cell phones “an absolute abomination.” I wouldn’t go quite that far—my bus pass, after all, is on my phone, and I’ve been saved from embarrassing conversations on the desk phone in my cubicle by being able to walk away and find a quiet corner in a corridor where I can talk freely—but I do see his point. While technology has had many benefits, in real life it can slow you down.

A news source I recently read said that heavy smart phone users are more prone to psychological problems than, say, those people who live raw in the bush of southern Africa. Phones isolate as well as connect. Instead of asking somebody for directions, you can turn to your monotoned electronic friend and find out. What you lose is the nuance of human communication. On my first interview in New York City—I was still living in Wisconsin at the time—I was disoriented. Which way was Fifth Avenue? I asked a stranger on the street and learned something in the process. New Yorkers weren’t the rude people I’d been told to expect. In fact, I quite frequently see strangers asking others for directions. I’ve never seen someone refuse to help in those circumstances. Although I’m in a hurry if someone asks me “which direction is Penn Station?” I’ll stop and try to help. It’s a people thing.

One of the distorting lenses of a large city is the acceleration of time. Many of us depend on public transit in its many forms, and none of it is terribly reliable. Being late through no fault of your own is part of the territory in a city like New York. It’s become harder to stay on time because of smartphones, however. A few years back I saw it with the Pokémon Go release. Groups of phoners wandering around, slowing the flow of foot traffic on sidewalks that are somehow never wide enough. If only I could communicate with people! How does one do that when they’re riveted to the device in their hand? I wouldn’t say they’re an absolute abomination, but I agree with the dear departed Smith that there are hidden costs to being so connected that we can’t talk to one another. I would say more, but I think my phone’s ringing.

Even Thoth can’t help walking and texting.

March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.