Standing Still in New York City

I turned off my ipod, put my sunglasses in my pocket, and indulged in one of the purest, cheapest thrills available in New York City…I stood absolutely still. Standing there in the middle of rush hour I opened my eyes and ears, letting the energy of the city run through me. I can’t really say why I did it, an obscure character in an old Tom Robbins book being my only real motivation along with the desire to understand a place that felt so foreign to me.


The pavement vibrated as thousands of footsteps thudded in unison. A million different lives, each with their own story, spun around me like a psychedelic carousel. It began as a blur of faces and footsteps. I had to let my eyes adjust slowly, as if moving my head along with a fan to separate the blades, and focus on individuals. Mine was the perspective of the homeless, street vendors and musicians, a stationary spot in a city controlled, obsessed, by movement in every direction.

At first I got bumped into, brushed aside with looks of anger, impatience, and incoherence. I stood my ground, apologizing to the back of people’s heads. Then the crowd began to part, flowing around me like a rock in a river as I ceased to exist in the world of movement…I wished I could see what it looked like from above. A tiny spec among the concrete canyons…maybe it would look like I was the one that was moving. Now, that would be something. I was overcome by the urge to lift my head skyward and spin in dizzying circles until I lost my balance and toppled into the crowd, leaving the inevitable crash and physical contact with a single person to fate and fate alone. You never know, we could change each other’s lives…it’s happened before.

The City beeped and skidded, honked and whirred, but beneath the noise of the machines there was something different, the buzz of humanity. Human sounds began as a whisper and grew until they seemed to fill the air. I heard laughter…squeaking squeals of teenage girls and baritone hoots thick with Jersey accents. I heard the cries of two lovers parting for an hour or a lifetime, and I heard the word “fuck” more than any other in what must have been two-dozen different languages. I saw a man hand a ring to a woman, they were both crying but it was difficult to tell if they were tears of joy or sorrow amidst the confusion that surrounded them.

The world marched by me in so many different layers; Planes flew above my head, international flights bound for every corner of the globe, police helicopters circled, taxis, Mercedes, delivery trucks, and limos honked their way through gridlock, the subway rumbled below me, thrusting the warm putrid air up through the vents beneath my feet with a subterranean growl. And all around me there was life. Old and young faces, of every color, of every nation, whirled dervishly around me. How strange it was to stand in the crossfire of so many different pairs of eyes. Some were amused by my raffish quest for a stationary perspective, some were annoyed…most simply didn’t give a shit.

Andean music drifted up through the subway tunnels. The intricate mix of drums and ever-present flute gave the city a spiritual, even mystic, quality as the sounds of an ancient civilization mixed with those of a modern one. Questions about the future filled my head and I once again thought of the Tom Robbins Character; a man who stood on the sidewalk and, ever so slowly, turned in a circle. If you didn’t stop and watch him he looked like he was standing still. What was his message again?

In the center of the street, in the center of the city, in the center of the modern world there were visions of both hope and despair, often right next to one another. Right about the time I was getting ready to join the moving world again I saw a group of young children holding hands making their way slowly through the human traffic on the sidewalk. A crippled homeless man who had been somewhere between sleeping and dead propped him-self up and began to watch the interweaving lives in front of him, much as I was. He was truly destitute, a rash bubbled up his neck onto his face, his beard was gnarled and splotchy and his skin was lined with a hundred hard luck stories of loss and desperation.

Everyone on the street swerved wildly to avoid any sort of contact with him. But the children, or rather two children, oblivious to life’s cruel realities and holding hands in a gesture of oneness stopped inexplicably and both of them used their free hands to reach into each others pockets and pull out an object. I couldn’t tell whether it was small change, a piece of candy or something else entirely but they offered it to the man with such innocent affection that he took it reverently into his hand and I saw him smile widely, his white teeth sparkling in stark contrast to the rest of his outward appearance.

What I saw was a collision of hope and despair so visceral that any despair I held in my own heart about humanity’s similarities to a virus disappeared. All that remained was the memory and the hope of those two children in the center of the street.