(approx. 10 min read)
Have you ever noticed the streets of New York?
Yes, they are dirty, which many people asked if I knew exactly how dirty they are when they found out I was moving. There is definitely garbage, and rats too, on occasion. I grew up in Oklahoma so seeing wildlife in the city is always a bit exciting, albeit, gross when it’s rats. Trash seems to rise every day at various spots throughout the city in these huge black bags that contain god knows what before being whisked off sometime magically during the night, the scent from the refuse gently lingering the next morning alongside the bagel and coffee carts that also magically appear sometime before the busy New York day begins.
The streets of New York are a mysterious place to explore, and I’ve found myself looking down at them since living here. Well, down, and also up. New York is a vertical city too. The towering buildings loom with their own lights, but even just beyond those lights are the few stars themselves that beat the light pollution. I’ve been looking up, don’t get me wrong, but mostly, I’ve been looking down. Now, metaphorically this does not sound like a good thing, to be looking down. But allow me to continue.
It turns out that there are certain types of rock that go into a concrete mix, the type of concrete that forms many of the streets of New York. Apart from the boring grey stuff that holds it together, concrete that has silica and quartz when rubbed down very fine by many tough years of hipster boots, dog paws, regular boring shoes, bare feet, shopping carts containing the full contents of one’s earthly possessions, meal delivery bike tires, mail carriers, amazon delivery boxes and the like – well, these silica and quartz rocks in the concrete eventually wear down to a brilliant gleam. The light must strike the concrete and silica and quartz just right, but when it does, it is hard not to look down.
I was walking home the other day from a place I can’t remember, and I saw it. I saw the streets of New York gleaming under lamplight like the night sky in an open country field, and it was disorienting. I wanted to look down, not up, although I did look up and saw the night sky, a few stars glittering briefly between the many planes’ taillights and wing lights. But I had to look down, and I kept looking down. The concrete flickered as I walked, as if I were the center of some scandal being captured by the paparazzi, or as if some thing had planned a light show for that moment for myself to observe. It was enchanting.
This, however, wasn’t the first time I had looked down in New York. I took a bus home from a laundromat because I do laundry off 75th, which is farther than I like, but there happens to be a cool bar near the laundromat that has $2 tacos and all night happy hour on Monday night. Why that bar remains as slow as ever on a Monday is beyond me. Also, $2 tacos in New York City should be reported as grand larceny. I started going to that laundromat, and the bar nearby for the tacos and happy hour, but I ended up staying for the people, both at the bar, and the laundromat but that’s a story for a different time. So one night, I caught the M15 bus back to my apartment. I could walk the distance if I had to, but carrying a fresh load of laundry, and being somewhat buzzed, I figured the bus was the wiser bet.
As I stepped on the bus, I sat down, and peered at my feet. Amongst the gum wrappers and the gum, the bottles and the contents of said bottles, lay the bus floor. It’s hard to describe the bus floor, but I also realized the bus floor looks the same as the floor of a subway train car. It is a dark, speckled looking floor that one would probably choose as an ideal design for hiding miscellaneous and disgusting features that slowly accumulate over time.
Is that some one’s drool and spittle from their latest crazed raving? Or, just the dripping of milk from another slightly less crazy person’s peculiar choice of beverage to consume while riding on the subway? What about that strange puddle slowly oozing its way toward me? Or looks like someone just upended a full bag of chips from the back to the front of this car. Either way, these things can be hard to identify because of the style of the subway train floor, or the bus floor. The floor does a good job of hiding the miscellany caused by humans in a speckled mystery.
That night as I was riding back on the bus buzzed from the bar and staring down at the floor like I had been staring down recently at the sidewalks, I realized the blackish blue design of the floor, smattered with various dyed colors, mostly grey splats, a bit of whites and reds, smeared over with stains from worn down boot soles and, um, other things – I realized this floor had the resemblance of early pictures of the Milky Way galaxy before we got the James Webb Telescope, or even the Hubble. The contrast and similarities between the two images, New York City bus floor and deep universe filled with nebulae and galaxies was not lost on me.
Was this someone’s conscious design choice? Or did it just happen that way?
As I sat and reflected on why I had been looking down so much, I realized that one of the first times I became conscious of the direction I looked when I walk was my last day at my old job. I remember walking the halls at the metro offices with my eyes up for no good reason since there was nothing to look at except walls, but I was in such a good mood because I was moving to New York soon. The office walls were those sorts of vampiric white/off white/ egg white walls that suck one’s life without them knowing. I remember this day because there was this walking loop around the office that had been marked off with green tape by HR or some other various corporate identity to encourage the overweight workers of the company to be healthy and walk around the loop shown by the tape. I always disliked that green tape. I remember waking up every day and trudging into that office building and walking along that damn green line with arrows throughout showing the “proper” walking direction – I walked that line every workday to my cubicle with my head down, mumbling good morning to the people I recognized on the way.
I never bothered to look up, to really look up and notice whatever was “up there” until that last day, when I knew I wasn’t ever going to walk that thin green line again. I finally looked up and noticed how stupid and boring the walls were, but it didn’t matter to me at the time because I was listening to this new track that caused my brain to produce dopamine, and also I was moving to New York soon. This is what I wrote when I sat down at my old office desk after that walk for one of the last times:
“I walked around metro offices today, on the thin green line, the same line that over time came to symbolize to me a rote life, a scripted life, a simple path marked in simple tape, scuffed by the many boots who chose to walk along its loop.
I walked, and as I did, I listened to “Extreme Northern Lights” and I entered into another world, a world that negated all of my own beliefs about myself. That is to say, I had previously believed I was chained to the thin green line and I was destined to walk its paths forever. Every day, the thin green line to meet me. And yet, here I was, walking along it, knowing I won’t ever see it again in a week. I kept my eyes up and surveyed the remains of a 4.5 year career. The pipes and ceiling tiles, the oft-patched concrete, the many doors leading deeper into the office complex, where numerous grey cubicles squat day after day. I walked, and I kept my eyes up, and I realized that in that moment, when my dream was becoming a reality, to embrace the absurd romanticized feelings of success I was experiencing as the dopamine kicked in and the beat dropped on the song I was listening to, to embrace that feeling was a very human thing and a very right thing to do.
This is dream fuel, the thin green line no more, keep your eyes up and alive and dreaming. The future is up there, not at your feet, not following the thin green line.”
Yea, so that’s what I wrote that day… I was obviously in very good spirits.
I never thought about the direction I had been looking, until I chose to move to New York. I guess in Oklahoma that direction was out or down. Oklahoma is a horizon line state, and that is meant as a compliment. The sunsets are stunning, they fill the sky up way “out there” with such beauty. But, it’s always “out there” way past El Reno, or Amarillo. It always seems to be just another state away. I guess all that looking out made me look out to New York and now that I’m in New York, I’ve been looking down a lot more contrary to my own earlier written advice. I’ve been looking down at the streets and floors of the places I’m inhabiting. As I’ve mentioned, it can be gritty, and frankly downright gross at times. Take for example the other day when I was going up an escalator about to make that important transition at the top where one attempts to step off the escalator without getting their shoelace stuck in the crack which would cause a terrible chain reaction resulting in one getting sucked violently down into the netherworld of the MTA underground – Well, so I was about to step off the escalator, and narrowly avoided a fresh pile of vomit. It was really really gross, but this city and these streets have got a grittiness, a humanness to them that seems to grab me lightly by my shoulders and say, “This is it.”
Whether one looks up at the night sky and the fraction of the universe, the small part of the Milky Way we can glimpse from our limited position, or whether one looks down at the cracks in the sidewalks of New York filled with cigarette butts and worn down quartz that shines like diamonds, or the floors of buses filled with signs of living, breathing, struggling humans, it’s all got a slice of a most peculiar sort of beauty – a beauty that oozes utmost with humanness, with the human experience. It’s hard for me to describe exactly this beauty because it is an experiential beauty by nature, but I find it most often somewhere in between looking up and looking down.
Looking up at the universe makes me wonder how wild it is to be a human and to experience life as a human being. Looking down at the gritty streets, and the floors of buses and subway trains of New York has made me awestruck that other people are going through this “human being-ness” thing alongside me, and somewhere between those two is that beauty I find so enchanting and alluring. Experiencing this beauty makes me think that it points to more than just a weird chemical brain reaction caused when I think of cosmic space dust exploding contrasted against human vomit on subway escalators.
I would never have realized all of this if I hadn’t been made aware of the direction of my looking. See, it seems to me, that the direction isn’t necessarily as important as the actual awareness of looking.
I left Oklahoma and I was looking out at the sunset and I wrote a poem. I mean, of course one of the last poems I would write in Oklahoma would be about a sunset. It was one of those cold November sunsets, where the sun goes down early, just before 5 pm, and the cold was being sprayed across the sky in a brilliant thin beam of orange. I was on my way to my parent’s house, exiting I-40 West onto Cimarron Road, slightly late for my last dinner there, and I couldn’t help but realize the peculiarity of the life I was living.
I entered a new city, and I looked down. I looked down and saw the human experience scattered far and wide over every inch of the city, from polished shoes to bare feet. In the streets, the buses, and the subways, humans live and breathe and struggle, and now I am struggling and breathing and living with them, and most importantly I am looking.
I am looking in, as I write this silly whatever-it-is internal processing of my thoughts and feelings. I’m looking in like I’ve always been looking in, but this time, I’m looking in without worrying about what the world out there is thinking of my looking in, if that makes sense. The point of this paragraph is to provide a nice symmetry between looking out and in and between looking up and down. It is also so that I can be honest.
I left my first job, and I decided to look up at the walls of an office building, perhaps one of the dullest and most insipid symbols one could imagine, and the fact that I was seeing them, aware that it was one of the last times I would see them, invigorated me, knowing I was on a different path than I had previously fooled myself into believing I should go.
I am looking up too, at the skyscrapers, and the night lights of Times Square, and the planes taking off from La Guardia and JFK. The cornices and windows of each building speak of so many stories untold and unnoticed. Metaphorically, I think, I have always been looking up even when I have been physically looking down or out or in, because metaphorically looking up implies that there is something happening in this world beyond what one can see. It implies also that the important thing is that one should look, that one should give their attention to the mundane things and the extraordinary things and also to the people who are affected everyday by the, well, “everydayness” of life.
There is so much beauty in this world, if one simply chooses to look.
Here’s to looking up at the streets of New York.
2 thoughts on “The Streets of New York”
I enjoyed reading this listening to Extreme Northern Lights. Still processing the meaning of all of it. I am glad you chose to get off the green tape.
Thanks Sarah, glad you enjoyed it! I’m glad I stepped off it too.