Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: A flaneur on the city streets
Letter From New York
NEW YORK — Recently a writer and very old friend, Michael Perkins, sent me his latest book, "The Woodstock Flaneur" (Bushwhack Books), a collection of columns he wrote for the weekly paper in Woodstock, N.Y.. Reading his lively, tart, perceptive columns about the people he encounters as he strolls through his small, arty town moved me to write another piece about my wandering about New York. I may not offer as many portraits of people as he does, but I am one with Mike when he writes, "the flaneur`s vocation is to pay attention to that which is overlooked." It's what I attempt to do, rendering observations of the everyday as I sit in the park or walk the city's streets.
One day I walk past Gristede's supermarket and see a young man in a blue suit sitting next to a pamphlet-laden table with a large Defend Trump placard. The Village is not Trump territory, so I wondered what group had the temerity and foolishness to publicly work for him on these streets. It turned out to be one of the followers of Lyndon LaRouche who just died at 96. I remember LaRouche as a pseudo-theorist leading an extreme left faction of the New Left in the '60s and then shifting to the extreme right. His members always seemed cult-like, promoting odd conspiracy theories, and talking reverentially about LaRouche's genius. He exemplified how the political extremes — brandishing absolutes and providing a group experience that offered a sense of identity — can often turn into each other.
A little later I walk to Washington Square Park, and pass a homeless woman who has been sitting and sleeping with her belongings next to neighborhood storefronts for over 20 years. I used to watch her avidly reading and writing, even when it grew dark. But her face is now coated with dirt and she talks to herself a great deal. Still, when I pass we sometimes smile at each other. I imagine that without ever speaking we recognize our different links to the life of the street.
I reach the park, walking through an oppressive maze of construction that has been ceaseless for years — new pipes, sidewalks, and street resurfacing, the construction and renovation of buildings, and constant drilling and excavating. The park adds its own sounds — jazz groups, drummers, and guitarists — to the mix. This city cacophony/symphony feels oddly comforting and serves seamlessly as a background for my reflecting about the city.
I sit in the park and try to read but my eyes keep darting about, looking at the passing stream of people. Many of them are NYU students, but there are also immigrant nannies with children, bikers and skateboarders, Villagers leading dogs of all sizes and breeds, and a heavily blanketed, impassive man in a wheelchair (suffering from dementia?) pushed by an indifferent care worker. No one should worry that the park has become an elite preserve. There are men begging, others selling pot, and four junkies hurriedly stagger by, zonked out of their minds, and to me they look beyond redemption. I feel little sympathy for them. I have compassion for those who struggle with their lives — psychologically and economically — but not for those who seemingly have given up. I am also grateful that the junkies and dealers no longer make the park their preserve. They are now just one piece of the fabric.
On another day, my wife and I go for a much longer walk to the Lower East Side. I used to do it more often, but being dependent on a walker constrains me. Still, we are able to visit a couple of the galleries that my wife is interested in on Suffolk Street. The galleries are two of over a hundred that are now located on the Lower East Side. Of course, even streets as low key and bare as Suffolk are slowly gentrifying.
An arresting symbol of these changes is a shop that despite a sign proclaiming Silver Monuments (tombstones) and a second with the original Hebrew lettering, now houses Rama Yoga classes. And as we walk up Stanton to Orchard, the streets are filled with noisy bars and cafes where young people hang out on nights and weekends. Some are bars that double as concert venues, and though there is a great deal of money on these streets, they still have a gritty vibe. The bars and these anonymous revelers feel alien to this 79-year-old, who remembers another world.
We finish our walk at Dr. Smood (Orchard and Houston), a chic organic food and beverage chain that claims in bold letters to be, "Never Artificial. Never Processed. Always Organic." Though I am wary of a menu of hot quinoa bowls, spicy eggplant jerky sandwiches, and organic date rounds, the food turns out to be tasty, and the customers the most varied, glamorous looking people on these packed streets, including three extremely thin young women models, one looking like a youthful replica of David Bowie. Not a place to visit daily, but worth dropping into occasionally.
This kind of essay comes easily if one's eyes are open to observe the life around you. But if one turns inward, mulling over one's troubles and turmoil, the outside world no longer registers. It turns into an undifferentiated set of sensations that mean little to the flaneur.
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