Sunday, April 4, 2010

Elbow Room

[Highline Park, Chelsea]

I learned at an early age that cities make me claustrophobic, especially the big concrete canyon ones.  I've learned to cope, but when I start snarling at strangers because they happen to be standing near me, I know it's time for a trip out of town, or at least to some location where I can see long views and some sky.
[Crosswalk between 45th and 44th Streets, Midtown]

Midtown, as you can imagine, is not one of the places.  As Manhattan's de facto town square, it is about as urban as one can get. One does not expect Midtown to be a serene oasis of calm.  That's not its job.  I understand that.  I accept that.  When I can, I avoid it like the plague.  Since both my union halls and my credit union are right in the heart of it however, I still have to get down there a few times a week.  When I do, I will admit I usually turn into one of those New Yorkers, a surly guy who rushes through the place wishing he had an electric cattle prod to jolt the herds of slow-moving tourists out of his way.  I'm not proud of this fact.  I just recognize it, is all, and try to plan accordingly.  For the record, I do not own an electric cattle prod.    

[Same walkway as above]

This is why the sight of big open spaces--right in the heart of Midtown--caught my attention two Thursdays ago.  They made such an impression that I actually stopped, gawked, and in the ultimate tourist move, took out my camera for some shots.  But seriously, this was noteworthy.   
[Midtown, 46th St.  The woman in the sandwich board is dancing, not goosestepping.]

I have no way to explain this.  The weather was a bit unsettled, I suppose, and not quite as warm as the day before, but that has never seemed to make much of a difference in the past.  I'll admit these images have been tightly edited; had I faced the opposite direction for the Midtown shots, for example, the scene would be more typical.  But this one seemingly anomolous gap set a theme for the rest of the afternoon, as I walked through Chelsea and along the Highline Park.  There were many occasions throughout the day when I was free to gallop about in big circles playing airplane, with accompanying vroom-vroom sounds.  You better believe I did. 
[Midtown, 46th St]

[Chelsea Market]

To throw the weather theory into greater question, I even found large interior spaces that were empty.  Seriously, where was everybody?  Both these shots are from the Chelsea Market, which is actually a rather calm, amiable atmosphere most of the time, but these empty spaces, including one with large tables, many stools and window seats, blew my mind.  More vroom-vroom noises ensued. 

In New York everything boils down to real estate; I don't know if you've heard, but it's kind of expensive here, so it's rare for people not to cram as much as they can into any space they have.  One result: socializing rarely happens in people's homes because: 1) most people don't have space in their apartments to entertain more than one or two people at a time  2) if someone does have space, it's usually because she lives in an outer borough and 3) her friends probably also live in outer boroughs (or Jersey) but different ones, probably a substantial commute away.  How often do you see your friends who live an hour from you? So that means most socializing usually happens in Manhattan, simply because that tends to be the midpoint for most people.  And that means you see your friends in bars, cafes, or restaurants (parks are a nice warm weather option, of course).  It is very rare to find a place that will let you linger for hours over a single cup of coffee. Doing that is just an unworkable business plan for most places; they have to pay the ridiculous New York rents too. So the proprietors want you buying stuff, or giving the table to someone who will.   

Socializing in NYC therefore also tends to cost money.  It may only be about six dollars for two people to sit for an hour in a cafe (two cups of coffee), but that as cheap as I've ever been able to make it.  And that can still add up quickly.   
[Chelsea Market]

So I take note of empty spaces, especially interior ones, and file them away for future reference.  Never know when they might come in handy.  You can't really see in the photo above, but three people are on their laptops, a very good sign that they've been there for a while. 

Now, getting more than one or two friends in a room at the same time typically comes with scheduling problems as well.  Most people work crazy hours, probably two jobs, just to pay the ridiculous rents on their tiny shoebox apartments in Far Rockaway that they share with three roommates (oh, that's another impediment to socializing at home, did I mention the roommate issue?), so they don't have tons of free time, and on the rare occasion they do, it probably doesn't coincide with yours.  But having someplace cheap and pleasant to sit down (or play airplane) is half the battle.


  1. It's funny how we learn to plot our route so as to avoif that "town square" which is a mecca to those who visit.

    The baad lamb has often said he loves the city when it is empty.

  2. Got me humming this:

  3. I love your ramblings, as you call them. I feel the same way here in Tokyo. Everything is tiny and crowded. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I want to scream. But I will always choose city life over the barren wastelands of Indaiana. Don't sweat taking pictures. For our first few years here, Rob would make a little "disapproving don't be such a tourist" cluck whenever I took pictures. Six years, many articles, and a blog later, he's pointing out photo ops and reminding me not to forget my camera when we go out.

  4. Tony: yes, it's funny the things that will mark one as a local. When I visit unfamiliar places, I always wonder how I might tap into a non-touristy network, but so far I have no real solutions. I'm with the Baad Lamb. Again, not really proud of the fact, but I love it when the city is empty.

    Rev. AJB (look at that, a Catholic priest and a Lutheran Minister commenting on my post): your link is my next destination. Promise me I won't want to strangle you afterwards. 'kay?

    Cbellabell: Oh, don't worry, I don't really mind looking like a tourist in Midtown, it just amuses me that I undoubtedly was that day, by lots of people. Given what a crank I can be about them, it's just funny to be identified as one. Love the fact that Rob is now whole-heartedly onboard with the 'tourist' photography.
    Bite your tongue about Indiana! Barren wastelands, harrumph.