Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

The Sidewalk Standpoint

Upper West Side (Wikimedia Commons)

A fair feeld ful of folk fand I there . . . / Of alle maner of men, the mene and the riche, / Worching and wandringe as the world asketh.

On an Indian-summer day I posted myself at a sidewalk table on the square and watched them, fellow city dwellers, strangers, walking, walking. This was the field of the city, going to and from lunch, errands, work, school. Maybe Kanye West and Emily Ratajkowski were walking away from me, but these were the ordinary folk I saw coming in my direction.

Red heads are rare enough to be noticeable, beautiful enough to repay the notice. In a time of do-it-yourself hair color — purple, green, silver, sometimes two of the above — you have to beware of false flags. The skin tone tells the story. If the fire or the copper frames a paper-pale neck, it is the real thing. The rest of the picture does not matter; the bearer can look like Jabez Wilson, redness will make him seem pre-Raphaelite.

How the old sag. We can keep gravity at bay with workouts and trainers, but either we don’t make the effort or time makes too much, and flesh and muscle give up. Skeleton protests, I’m doing the best I can, but it is barely enough. Struggle on. Speaking of the old, there came a pair of old ladies, one white, one black. Something about the features or manner of the black one seemed Caribbean. Instant urban sociologist guesses, A woman and her attendant? Who is better able to help whom?

A schoolboy walked, flanked by two girls, one of his arms around the waist of each. They seemed to be in late middle school; the girls wore the identical skirts of uniforms. He seemed very happy, as did one of his friends. The other seemed less happy. A short story we have all read. Younger yet was a child carried by her mother. Mother wore a tank top showing substantial arms and shoulders; her right side was heavily tattooed, her hair dyed dark. In the crook of her unmarked arm sat a toddler with a tuft of natural brown hair sprouting up like water in a fountain. Time yet to walk on the wild side.

Everyone is plugged in. Oh, there are a few old believers, but not enough to count. Earbuds connect to hidden phones, to phones held flat at mouth level for replying, to phones held like breviaries for two-thumbed texting. A pair of hard hats came by, one of them was on his phone. The techlord can eavesdrop on you anywhere, even on the sidewalk. When the telegraph was invented, a journalist wrote, “There is no more elsewhere. Everything is here.” Once the smartphone became universal, there was no more here, everything was elsewhere.

We will be able to use our smartphones for a long time. That is what I am guessing, given the absence of cigarettes. The purge of cigarettes from daily life has been striking. Every car armrest once had an ashtray in it, every city restaurant had a cigarette machine (maintained by the mob). For a while, mid purge, you saw the addicts congregated on the street, outside their office buildings, puffing frantically to keep up their pact with the devil. No longer, the habit seems simply gone. Social engineers may celebrate it as a great triumph of their craft. What you see instead is vaping, young people sucking on those still-not-familiar contraptions the size of harmonicas. Progress.

How does the average city dweller dress? Cas is big. Lots of denim, lots of sneakers, lots of shirts untucked or without sleeves. To see a man in a blazer, or even pants neatly belted, is an event. One man came by in a suit, with a pocket square. He might have been a reenactor. Young women seek for ways to undress, within limits. The more or less bared midriff is as common as good dentistry. Rather than wear abbreviated clothing, fashion-forward young people have turned to clothing that has been destroyed. You don’t have to sprawl on a flight of stone steps to get the knees of your pants ripped, you can buy them that way, and pay top dollar too. Shouldn’t there be some discount? There are fewer threads. One young lady came by with pants so ripped they might be described as anklets, hanging from suspenders attached to a girdle. Think of it as taking your thighs out for air.

Home rentals have become a political issue. Renting out your apartment to a tourist who is coming into the city to not see Hamilton is said to aggravate the housing crisis, even homelessness. There was a demonstration at City Hall, the city council passed a bill. Evidence of the practice came my way with the rattle of a rolling suitcase. Yes, there is a big hotel in the neighborhood, just across the square, so why would a guest be hauling his kit over here? Because someone around the corner is picking up a little extra by letting him do so. 

Dogs are natives. Some walk pertly, well trained. Others, ill behaved, haul their owners along. This boots the larger question of whether it is right to keep dogs in a city in the first place. Shouldn’t they be in packs, romping after scents? Evolutionary science teaches us that they will go wherever the two-legs give them scraps.

One passerby stopped at an adjoining table. I was not aware of what was going on at first; it seemed like two older men, belonging to the blazered minority, meeting for lunch. Then a third arrived, which caused one of them to leave. “?” (I missed the newcomer’s exact question.) “I was standing in line, when he came up, saw I was reading the Wall Street Journal, asked if I would like a stock tip. He was telling me to buy Barnes & Noble.” Shared laughter. N.B.: This is not a recommendation, only something I heard on the sidewalk.­­

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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