NYC: a Place for Learning

I learn how life is. You see all these people standing before the doors, waiting to get into the boat, their heads down and their thumb constantly moving. Wires go into their ears; they talk to someone elsewhere, turning away from the physical presence that might disturb their attention. And over this scene stand the prophetic words of Heidegger: Technology alienates from being. I have seen a woman walking down the street with a phone in each hand, absorbed in each alternately, dimly aware of the surrounding world.

They use sunglasses as masks there, eye contact not being encouraged. Not that they’re not bold or curious. They are. I have looked up from my table at a veranda and almost always it is to see someone drop his gaze. You look at New Yorkers directly and they’ll automatically drop their gaze. They are curious about other people, but surreptitiously so. There are a lot of weirdos on the street, and these are looking for an opening. There are predators, and you want to make no contact with them at all, or seem like one. Life is so public in that place, so much the life of crowds that the fashion of the glasses is a fashion of armor too.

Because it is a hard life, that of the City. One of the things I learn is how forward you are expected to be. You make your way and you do not expect it to come to you. There is, of course, politeness and good service. But you must be forward: blessed are those who hustle and do what it takes. It is engaged, knowing, and unreceptive, which is to say: acquisitive. I went up and down Madison Ave looking to see a Dunkin Donuts, ubiquitous elsewhere. North of 38th one is not to be found: south there are two. North is the world of luxury goods, of shops in which security guards wearing nothing ill-tailored stare out, deftly avoiding your gaze, alert to the coming of one wearing the badges of inclusion. Affluence is paraded because it means success. Hard surfaces cover the vulnerabilities of the face for those who can afford to keep to themselves.

Two things I’ve learned about fashion. One is that a man can still look well with a mustache not entirely enormous, which I would not have formerly believed. Not an odd or an elaborate mustache, but something natural and ordered, corresponding to the face. Not many in our day will, but this guy understood all the factors and pulled it off. I have yet to wrap my head around how the thing comes to be. I did manage to wrap my head, thanks to New York, around another phenomenon: that is the man in sandals. The sandal is such a thing as requires a certain proportion around the naked foot and corresponding leg. It is more fitting for a woman because it can be more delicate, and so maintain proportion. There is a corresponding grace to the whole effect, which is of a different nature in the male. In men’s sandals, they must be less delicate, more substantial; but because they are, they usually overwhelm the foot, characterizing it not by grace but mere clumsiness. There is only a certain minimum of clunk available to the male sandal before it becomes effeminate, like a flip-flop. This all changes if you are a sufficiently large man. The proportions of a sufficient but not egregious sandal being dwarfed by a great foot clear up the problem. And that is what I saw, and wondered at, not having before believed such a thing at all could be.

All this is the world, but it is the world made obvious. I walk through the grim underworld of downtown Philadelphia, where the subways rattle and the cold light of ancient fluorescent tubes shows unrelieved corridors of wasted space. Nobody makes a bid for it. In the farthest habitable desolation, before the unvarying corridors begin, you have a Taco Bell. There is nothing of ambition in a Taco Bell since such a place contains nothing human kind associates with desire. The space ns Manhattan is at a premium in a way Philadelphia cannot rival, not being on an island. So it is concentrated, and humankind is concentrated, and for some purposes more observable in the avidity which this brings out.

Avidity, and other humanizing things. They don’t do ice as much now in New York, and that I celebrate. They give you water in glass bottles nowadays, not chilled either, and plain glass cups. None of it with ice, though this has not affected the potation of other chilled beverages. Perhaps it is in an effort to save water. After you are done they dump the remainder out and wash the whole apparatus, of course.

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