Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Block Party – A Weekday in the City

By je * Other je Posts

Living for the City

I lock eyes with the meter maid. She no longer has any dominion over me.

I (finally) moved into Manhattan last spring, after spending the last three years situated a bit east of the center of the universe. When I started my new job in January, I also severed my suburban umbilical cord, getting rid of my car and joining my brothers & sisters on the streets, subway platforms, and commuter rail cars. Now, to get to work, I have to make an 8:32 train to NJ, a quiet 32-minute ride west under the Hudson and through Jersey's industrial steppes, on the lower level of a double-decker train. This was exactly what I always wanted—a commute that I could read or sleep through, one free of stop & go traffic or morning lines at a gas station.

Like all NYC transplants, it's taken a while to really start to see the jigsaws fall in to place. Now that I'm close to my first full year on the isle of Manhattan, routine and exploration have battered down a poor sense of direction and a natural inattentiveness to environmental landmarks: the Gotham geography is finally beginning to make some sense. Since I don't have to worry so much about getting lost, I now have the mental bandwidth to begin observing more of the world around me. And (sadly) the 15-20 minute walk from my Hell's Kitchen apartment down 8th Ave to Penn Station is sometimes the most exciting part of my day.

Shiny Happy People

Times Square is one of the happiest places in New York City. Almost everyone there smiles, but there aren't many natives.

If you're visiting NYC, Times Square is a destination, and so you gawk, bask in the neon glow of big screens and sort of just lazily float along the streets. All this flagrantly aimless sauntering is infuriating for the New Yorker, who views the Square as a means to a much more exciting and authentic destination, so he silently curse as he turns on evasive maneuvers to make it to any of the 13 metro trains that stop in Times Square. Accordingly, there are few New Yorkers in Times Square. The relative handful that spend any significant time in the malformed quadrangle between Broadway, 49th St, 7th Ave, and 40th St. are only around because they happen to work in the area. Few hang out or chill there and so the tourist takes pictures behind a backdrop of other tourists and advertisements. This has always seemed bizarre to me.

I bet Universal Studios or Disney could fabricate their own Times Square on a soundstage with fake buildings, bright lights and oversized televisions, simulated city noise (cabs, hot dog vendors, and calls for half-price tickets to plays/comedy shows/titty bars), hire a whole bunch of extras to walk aimlessly and totally nail the entire experience. Times Square is as real as the sets of any over-produced theatre on Broadway, and yet it is such an iconic view of New York. I avoid it as much as possible.

On Your Mark

Although 8th Avenue is outside of Times Square proper, inevitably, there's going to be a little spill over of solicitors, bright parka clad tour guides, and purse peddlers. A woman tries to hand me a flyer--advertising for a parking garage around the corner. She sees me walk by every morning and I never accept her hand-out, but she still tries again day after day. I thought it'd be clear that I don't drive (ergo I have no need of her parking services). In the evening, she'll be replaced by someone wearing a very dirty but smiling sandwich costume, trying to entice the evening commute into a local Subway for a sandwich. 8:08

Obstacles to Overcome

Fortunately, there isn't a lot of dog poo on 8th, due to the heavy pedestrian traffic, and I can get away with keeping my eyes off the ground for most of the morning constitutional. This isn't the case in all neighborhoods in Manhattan, but the thoroughfare seems to have found other ways to keep things interesting for the minutes we share every morning. I suppose this is only fair; Legends of the Hidden Temple had its Temple Guards, so it follows that I should encounter my own resistance during the trek through NYC's concrete jungle. In lieu of semi-solid waste, one must remain on the look-out for "phantom puddles," the foot soldier's black ice. These harmless looking pools of stagnant water are dangerous—DO NOT BE FOOLED. Although they may appear to be shallow, the phantom puddle transcends the laws of physics & nature, luring victims into a 6 inch Mariana Trench. Coupled with the accumulation from the previous night's snowfall, they are at most deceptively lethal (many a leather moccasin has been left slain in their wake). The city of New York should really post warning signs on every street corner.

How quickly behaviors change when you're no longer behind the wheel! Unless you drive a cab, there are some specific traffic rules that we all (strive to) abide by in our automobiles. This is simply not the case when grid-skipping on foot. Traffic lights, crosswalks, the distinction between curb & intersection—these aren't even suggestions to the pedestrian. At every corner, I turn into baseball's all-star kleptomaniac Rickey Henderson and the next block is my 2nd base. I side-step the diminutive bagel delivery man, move several more inches into the street, and then glare at the livery driver turning right onto 8th Avenue as he nearly runs over my toes, the exhaust warming the back of my calf. 8:12AM

Most often, it is my fellow pedestrians that I need to watch out for. Oblvi-miss, the large-purse-totting zig-zagging urbanite, always presents a challenge. Individuals of this type ignorantly occupy a disproportionate area of personal sidewalk space. Adding insult to injury, Oblivi-misses (or Oblivi-misters) roam the streets like blind ravenous Mongols and consequently block any attempts to pass on either side by annexing potential lanes into their ever expanding territory. Be extra vigilant on rainy days, when Oblivi-miss brandishes her ridiculously sized umbrella, much to dismay of afro-ed. Oblivi-miss sometimes appears in her alternate form: oversized backpacker with giant over the ear headphones.

Way Too Sexy

I probably pass a dozen places to buy pornography and adult novelties during the 13-block jaunt down 8th Ave. On the east side of the street between 40th and 39th Streets sits WORLD OF DVD. At this particularly seedy establishment, the window display is angled 45 degrees to the sidewalk, and is incredibly difficult to miss. It features the tanned toned trio of what I assume is some gay adaptation of Survivor (the title is "Man Island") greased up and wearing nothing but briefs. The dudes stare out with their best let's-do-something-worthy-of-a-republican-sex-scandal faces, with the hand of the lead (in the center) down his pants, cupping his um.. man-bits. One of my favorite 15-second pastimes is watching the wayward eyes of people passing porn on my way home in the evening. In the morning rush, however, I'm the one getting punked. 8:20

Now, I'm a pretty modest guy, but I have nothing against "sexy shoppes"—in fact, I feel better knowing that my neighborhood is peppered with them. Their presence is a bit like a sexual security blanket—what if I have a 3AM dildo emergency or the internet goes down and I really need to watch Edward Penishands? Or I find myself in a situation that desperately calls for some silicone-based lubricant. But this promotion is so aggressively explicit (do they really need to flash pubes?) and that shit always catches me off guard. Way too much unsolicited sexy before 9AM.

Train Station Tsunami

Times Square may be a bit like sailing through a harbor littered with naval mines, but the last leg of my trip through Pennsylvania Station is more akin to sprinting head in the "wrong" direction during the Running of the Bulls, or swimming upstream a waterfall.

The main corridor runs underground along 34th Street and collects streams of exiting masses: starting with riders of the A-C-E lines of the subway, adding Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit passengers, and finally picking up the 1-2-3 subway folk before leading everyone up 2 escalators (and a set of stairs) to the primary street level entrance to the station. The corridor is also home to a few dozen newspaper stands, mass-market bakeries, and miscellaneous commuter service shops. To reach my gate and jump on the train, I need to take the single escalator moving in the down direction and eventually cross through the torrent, traverse/battle my way through the main concourse, and slip through another (much smaller) exodus of workday warriors using the 7th Ave/32nd Street exit. I might even kill a dragon or two while I'm at it. 8:26

Odds are that if I stopped for coffee or a croissant, I've had to step up the pace to a power walk for the last block or two, so by the time I've reached the mouth of the station the first few droplets of sweat have started to form on my brow. My self-conscious side sounds the alarm: "Stay Cool, Je. Running is for suckers, and you don't want to stew in your sweat for the next half-hour anyway. Stay Cool, Je. ICE COLD!" Not much time left if I'm going to catch the train, and unfortunately this can be the trickiest part of the trip. There are only a few minutes before departure, and if I happen to be out of train tickets, I'll need to set aside time for the slow purchase process at the NJ Transit self-serve kiosk.

After the first few weeks, I discovered that I could minimize the risk of falling into the mirror game with an oncoming commuter (I move left, they move right and we repeat our two-step a few times trying to adjust to each other's movements). No matter what, cutting someone off ON FOOT is a big dick move, so I try to be quick about it and move without hesitation, using one of the following approaches (in order of preference):

  1. The Hypotenuse – a slow, but direct shot, giving people time to understand your trajectory and move out of your way. Requires less thought and results in fewer steps overall to destination, but is sometimes difficult to execute if the crowd is moving like molasses.
  2. The Perp – attack perpendicular to the flow of people. Shortest distance across the main corridor (and the people moving through it), but adds time to the overall walk to the gate. For best results, find someone trying to perform the same procedure and use them as a blocker.
  3. The Reach Around – used only in extreme cases, like a disabled escalator. Bypasses the very viscous fracas early and runs along the outside of the flow path. Takes the most time and must be executed early for best results.

The whole chaotic concert can be overwhelming, but it's time to make moves..


If all goes well, it's now 8:29 and I'm settling into my seat.

1 comment:

  1. Being a fan of angular guitars, I do appreciate the title of this piece. Also, the drawing of times square is an accurate depiction of the contrast of smiles v frustration.