One morning this week I took my garbage down to the trash cans in front of my apartment building. My landlord was there. He likes to hang out and supervise things. I think it gives him something to do. Feeling magnanimous, I waved. You might not think waving is magnanimous, but my landlord is a grumpy, eighty-ish Spaniard who is anything but congenial. His personality is a cross between Basque churlishness and Bronx who-you-lookin-at aggression.
The wave pulled me off balance, and, as I turned around, I slammed into a dude coming in the opposite direction. And I mean slammed. It was the kind of cheek-to-cheek, dirty dancing intimacy that you don’t expect on the sidewalk at 9:30 in the morning. Normally, when you’re that close to someone, you exchange phone numbers. We exchanged dirty looks. I think he wanted to hit me.
Now, here’s the thing, and I encourage all of my blog readers (the five of you) to tell me if I erred. I apologized. I was the one who wasn’t looking where he was going. In fact, I committed one of the transgressions that annoys me the most about the way people walk in New York. For some reason, they move in one direction but look in the opposite as if searching for someone. You might think this is a trifle, but there are a lot of people here and the sidewalks are crammed with them moving left and looking right. I have a personal stake in this, since I do a lot of walking (see below).
So, I apologized, he grunted menacingly, and we both moved on. He may have muttered something to my landlord in passing but it was out of earshot. After thinking about it–brooding, really–I decided that the dude was in the wrong. After all, he saw me. I didn’t see him. Wasn’t it incumbent upon him to avoid me? You would think so, but that’s not the way things work in the Bronx. People are too concerned with their rights rather than their obligations. He was right, so why should he move or apologize? I don’t expect anyone who doesn’t live here to understand, but believe me when I say there is a pedestrian war going on (I won’t even get into cell phones!).
There is also a biokinetic, magnetic force at work that I am only now beginning to understand. I don’t hold to the theory of attraction and that book about secret societies, whatever it is (Gnosticism is alive and well), but I have noticed strange things happening. For instance, whenever I enter an empty or sparsely occupied establishment–restaurant, cafe, bank, post office–inevitably it fills up. Or, with walking, if there are five people on the sidewalk, say, three going in one direction and the other two in the opposite, we all converge at the same point so that there is as little space as possible to pass. And in a place like New York, you can count on someone exiting a building with packages just at the right time.
If you think I am exaggerating, you should know that I have been observing this phenomenon with scientific-like acuity. I have even kept records. The greatest number of people passing on the sidewalk and converging at the same point–no lie–is fourteen. Yes, I said fourteen. That included three families with strollers, a group of university students, a mail carrier, and a UPS driver with what looked like a big-screen TV. I saw it coming but could do nothing about it. It is what I imagine bungee cord jumping to be like.
So, what is the upshot of all this? There is a lesson here about our inability to share. Space is a basic necessity of life. Yet, it has caused wars, revolutions, strife, and violence. We seem incapable of sharing it. Forget Gaza and the Mideast. We can’t even do it on a sidewalk. Think of lawns, parking spaces, armrests, beds. Then consider food, water, and energy. Remember Lebensraum? We might be doomed.
I can’t be too pessimistic, though. There have been attempts throughout history to remedy the situation, most notably in Ancient Egypt. Maybe we should take our cue from them.
Stay tuned for Nine Lives and let me know if you’d like a review copy (“The main difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat only has nine lives,” Mark Twain). Note to self: August 15, Feast of the Assumption, marks five years back in New York City.