Sunday, July 1, 2012

Swimming in Manhattan

I didn't know it was possible for an entire city to look as if its feet hurt, but that's been my observation in New York City this week. Even before the current repent-it's-the-end-of-the-world levels of heat kicked in, everyone seemed a little, well, pinched. Maybe it wasn't painful shoes. For all I know, this could be an entire city suffering from too-tight underpants, or maybe a recent breakup, but still, it shows up on the faces of the general populace.

I might have just gotten off to an overly melancholy start, because my first day in town I went to see a show at the Museum of the City of New York that evoked my deepest sympathies for the poor schmucks who have to navigate their way in this city every day. Titled "Stories the City Tells Itself," it featured video and photography of New Yorkers at their most vulnerable -- the look on their faces just as they missed a subway train, the deep concentration as they selected items at a salad bar, or the effort displayed as they hoisted themselves up the steps of the Crosstown bus.

The most dramatic piece was the huge wall of video images of New Yorkers at the moment they reached the top of the stairs at subway exits. In those few seconds of transition, they slid off their essential New Yorker-y-ness, that "I know what I'm doing" aura that is worn like a second skin in these parts. Emerging into bright daylight at the top of the stairs, they found a moment that required them to be purely human, to look around and place themselves in the context of their surroundings. They had to ask themselves the essential question,"Where am I?" and in those moments, they looked as they must have on the first day of kindergarten. For once, they couldn't pretend not to care, and it showed on their faces.

My route home didn't do much to lighten my mood, because I walked toward downtown on the East Side, where anxiety seemed to be freefloating in the atmosphere, settling on the collars of the navy blue blazers, or lodging in that space between the legs of the women who were so thin that their thighs didn't touch. I caught more than a few of those women who had gorgeous, youthful-looking blowouts from the back, and whose faces, glimpsed at the traffic light, looked like something that had just crawled out of the Temple of Dendur down at the Met.

Working so hard to keep up appearances, to stave off age, to keep the shirt unbuttoned just so -- God, no wonder I found it exhausting just to breathe the same air as these people. They actually seemed to walk with their noses tilted up in the air. Be careful, I thought. People trip, even in the East 70s.

Once I got to Midtown, the anxiety seemed to find an outlet in agression, and I struggled to keep my place on the sidewalk, like some twenty-first century lumberjack at the 59th Street log roll. Every step forward threatened another elbow, shoulder or backpack, seeking to smack me down. It felt like a cross between a cage match and a swim meet, and I jostled to stay in my lane.

I had just read about the upcoming New York Ironman event, in which contestants start with a 2.4 mile swim in the fresh and sparkly Hudson River, in August, no less. Apparently the water is only part of the challenge for this event -- there are also the fellow contestants who kick, elbow, and hold their competitors' heads under water.

As soupy as the weather here has been, I feel like one of those Ironmen myself, especially as I navigate the crowded sidewalks. I wonder if the Ironmen have to contend with cellphoners, texters, cigarette-smokers and stroller-pushers, as I often do these days.

And since even a rube like me knows better than to stand still on the sidewalk, I dive back in, a pale-fleshed Minnesota Walleye, swimming upstream to 45th and 5th.

1 comment:

  1. Head south immediately! Spring St. Bleeker. Washington Sq Park. Highline. Hudson River Park and just keep walking 'til you see the Irish Potato Famine Memorial. Then keep going. Brooklyn. Just. Leave. Midtown. Be cool and enjoy the sweet smell of the subway. Gasp.