Walking north on 7th avenue— the red-vested Jesus parade cries for heaven through megaphones on a sidewalk lined with rags. It’s rare to see this density of human suffering in the suburbs, but it’s on display outside of Penn Station. One man stands out to me. Cross-legged against a building, with good posture and a scraggly beard, smoking a cigarette like he was posing for an album cover.
On 38th Street.. outside a gift shop selling Big Apple T-shirts, I see shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, and I hear two radios within earshot— one mentioning Gordon Ramsey, the other, the Kremlin. It’s a culture blender. A full-on sensory assault. I lean right to avoid a pigeon flying at dangerously low altitudes. Then a teenager with silky hair sprints by my left. Someone coughs on my face and I don’t even notice. Sirens, kebab smoke, and cold air fill my nostrils.
In case you’re not overwhelmed by the chaos launching at you from all directions, you can find synthetic weed dealers, literally spaced 10 feet apart, offering low-grade hallucinogens to guarantee a mental breakdown. “Sour haze, kush, pre-rolls, any edibles ladies?” I’ve been out of touch with marijuana legalization in New York, but this can’t be the real stuff.
Even in a state of complete sobriety, 7th avenue is a cross between a dream and a Hieronymous Bosch painting. I see a Diva with plastic surgery, a wheel-chaired construction worker, and a man who looks like a taxi cab.. On 39th Street is a vendor selling Native American dreamcatchers. He is cranking flute-centric elevator music, while explaining to a customer how Manhattan was purchased for $24 worth of beads.
At the edge of an intersection, a woman with her hair draped to the curb looks up at tall buildings, smiling in genuine wonder. She’s divorced from the madness on the street. She sees the heaps of brick and glass as a mountainous force of nature. Meanwhile, a man walks right by her, grumbling incoherently out loud. He doesn’t notice the buildings.
The first billboard that catches my attention is a marquee that says, “gay, bisexual, transgender, queer,” on loop over and over, finally resolving every 15 seconds with the logo of a meditation app. Advertising is changing with the times. The graphic designers at Taco Bell are obviously on psychedelics. But what stands out most is Mandy Moore and her 50-foot-face with glowing skin. She is the Goddess of Time Square today.
Crossing 42nd street, I look east at the exact moment another woman looks west— we exchange a direct glance in a crowed where no one is speaking English anymore. At the corner ahead, some people aren’t even human anymore. What I thought was a woman in a short red polka-dotted skirt was actually a gigantic fucking mouse. Minnie Mouse. We’re officially in mascot territory.
I arrive at Time Square— at that iconic perspective. Everyone is here: Elmo, Batman, Cyborgs, Micky Mantle, an 11’ Statue of Liberty on stilts, and wedding photographers.. it’s my first time here since Russia’s nuclear dick-waving. I’m standing stationary, looking down, logging the sight into my phone, parting a sea of approaching pedestrians.
The chance of global nuclear war from the Ukraine conflict is slim. The chance of catching the flash as I’m logging at the center of Time Square is even slimmer. But for a split second I imagine that I’m painting the peak of civilization into my phone at the very moment it all evaporates. People watching takes on a a whole new dimension.
I can’t comprehend the range of experience behind these swarms of people. I focus in on one person at a time, and visualize imaginary scenes from their life. Their first orgasm, the death of their parent, and their moments of boredom or addiction. Each moment is fabricated. It’s a caricature. It reveals my own judgment. But by visualizing fictional moments of strangers, I feel the depth and range of experience hidden behind the profanity of Times Square. It’s a lot to process. My mind is tingling, drowning in a surge of summoned empathy.
I walk north on 7th Avenue, up to 47th street, five blocks past my destination without realizing. After re-routing, I catch a glance of myself in a glass storefront. It’s distorted like a fun-house mirror. My legs are toothpicks, and my boots are refrigerators. Why do I dress like this?
Bryant Park is in sight. I used to come here every weekday until COVID. The place feels mostly new again. I’m hit with horns, wind, chatter, and the neurons of 127 soon to blossom trees.. I see a face that looks identical to my ex-girlfriend from high school.. I step foot into the park to find a collage of portrait-painters, chess-players, iPhones, artists, grins, selfie-sticks, defeated nappers, Mexicali music, mix-tape buskers, and ping-pong tournaments. The Lawn is closed. I’m an hour and a half early to meet Isabel, so I find my way to my spot on the steps in front of the Library.
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