Pedestrian Walkways of New York

My delighted obsession with the pedestrian walkways of New York actually got its start far away from the Big Apple.

When I lived in Turkey’s big city, Istanbul, a sore point was the constant encroachment of construction onto places where I had to walk. Construction sites would spill over onto the sidewalk, sparks flying, pushing me into the street to squeeze anxiously alongside the hot, greasy, unpredictable tide of cars and taxis and motorbikes.

Each time this happened, it was a small reminder that—although the point of a city is human habitation—this city, this place, was in some ways not made for or meant for people. The needs and feelings of actual human inhabitants was not the point here; we were just an inconvenient annoyance hindering other purposes.

This is why I am so fixated on the pedestrian walkways of New York. In as dense and valuable place as Manhattan, there is also a constant rhythm of deconstruction, construction, development. But here, when the construction overflows onto sidewalks, they build elaborate tunnels of wood planking, fencing, and other barriers that protect pedestrians from both onslaughts of construction and cars. These “pedestrian walkways” are scrupulously labeled and marked with arrows guiding you along the designated path, scooping you into their dark forest-green plywood corridors and depositing you safely on the other side.

Some of the walkways are so thoroughly encompassing, insulated, winding, and mysterious that I like to imagine I will walk in and come out somewhere else, like Narnia or Middle Earth.

It is a nice fantasy because, even if you do not end up in another world, you’re not too disappointed: on the other side, you’re still in New York City, a kind of magical place that does its best to hold a genuine regard for the people who live here.

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Routine Life as Adventure

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

–Henri Matisse

On a recent weekday, I was feeling too anxious and antsy to work, so I got up from my desk to take a cathartic walk. My walking led me into a secluded, wooded city park. I thought I was alone, but sensed movement. I look backward and spot a small, petite, furry brown creature transversing the trail. Then, another one emerges. The little mammals seem unaware or unperturbed by my presence. They waddle across the path, sniff the air non-committally, and then amble, disappearing, into the brush. Were they groundhogs? Beavers heading to the East River? Wombats escaped from the Bronx Zoo? Were they half-baked Pikachus that got loose while Nintendo was still working out the kinks on PókemonGO? The true identity of the small brown creatures is yet to be conclusively determined.

On a Friday night, I rolled into a party 2 hours late and breathlessly spilled to my date, “I spent all evening following the news of the coup in Turkey and making sure my friends were all alive. When I had had enough of that, I headed to Brooklyn. But when I got to Brooklyn I put the wrong address into Google Maps, so I ended up at a construction site. I wandered around the construction site for 15 minutes until I realized my mistake. Then I made it here.” The party host then handed me a mug with a hot liquid, which was either a revolting drink or a flavorful soup, and it occurred to me that priming and perception have a lot to do with taste.

The Saturday after that, at a beach in South Jersey, I collapsed, again breathless, onto my towel. Where were you? my friends asked. “I was on an adventure,” I announced. I explained that I had swum far away from the shore, away from most of the other swimmers on the clothing-optional beach. Then I floated onto my back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t know where I was and didn’t see anyone around–the shore nearest to me was an empty strand. I put it together that I had floated out of the clothing-optional area, into and then past the clothed beach, and into some closed-off section of the beach. In order not to get in trouble–possibly excommunicated?–from the beach, I needed to swim against the current, back into the clothing-optional section, without landing on the clothed beach or being sighted by clothed swimmers. Thus ensued a desperate, existential swim against the inexorable Atlantic tide, with each stroke seeming to send me reeling further away from my destination–my destination being the bright white sign announcing “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Bathers.” But I reached this sign made it back to tell the tale.

For most of my 20s, I have moved to a different city every year, traveling extensively and having the typically adventurous adventures that I have been writing about over the past 6 years: being tear-gassed, fleeing police, sneaking into castles and abandoned hotels, climbing a mountain on the border of Russia and seeing the moon closer and brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Now that I have been living in the same city for almost two years, and I don’t have immediate plans to move abroad, I have begun to worry that my life is going to become routine, quotidian, banal–in short, I will stop having adventures.

Looking back on my past 2 weeks, though, it occurs that adventure might be more of an attitude, or choice, or state of mind, than an external reality.

Snowstorms, Anarchy, and New York

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“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.

In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?

In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.

Risk and Sidewalk Subway Grates

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Recently, the Village Voice published an article: “Twenty Ways to Die in New York.” Though comprehensive, it misses one crucial way, possibly the way that most intensely structures my daily life. That way is: electrocution by metal grate.

When I was an impressionable child visiting New York City for the first time, I heard a harrowing story. A woman stepped on one of the many metal grates or vents that dot the city sidewalks. Typically this would not be a storyworthy occasion but on that day, a wire had broken loose, touched the grate, and electrified it. The woman who stepped on that grate was electrocuted and, according to my memory, died instantly.

Whether or not this story was true, it was still clear in my mind when I moved to New York last year. At first I avoided walking on all iron grates and vents, either consciously or unconsciously assuming them all to be potential hazards in the urban landscape.

However, in the months since, my relationship with metal grates has become more nuanced. Specifically, they come to symbolize Risk, and how I respond to Risk depends on my mood and state of mind. If I am confident and happy, I stride over the grates with gusto. I taunt life: Things are going great, just try to mess this up. Or: My life is and has been full and interesting, and if ended now I would have nothing to regret.

If I am stressed, anxious, sad, or insecure, I avoid stepping on the metal grates. Life is already going badly enough, why make it worse? Or: I’ve accomplished nothing with all the opportunities I’ve been given, wouldn’t dying now be shameful? Coming home late at night, I avoid walking over the grates, as if being electrocuted is the biggest threat at 1 a.m. on Broadway.

If I am bored, the metal grates seem especially able to draw my attention, and as I approach them I psych myself up. What if the next grate is the one that’s electrified? I place my foot on the grate and feel a thrill through my spine, not of electrocution, but of excitement.

There is one attitude I can never have towards metal grates, though, and that is apathy or neutrality. Measuring and balancing risk always requires some kind of calculation and judgement.

That is why, to this day, with every encounter with a metal sidewalk grate I must examine my entire psychological state and philosophical outlook.