Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Last night, another evening of unimpeded meaningful walking...
I walked east, past Cooper Union, then down into the heart of the lower east side, a place that always feels like home.
I walked past my old apartment on first avenue and 6th, waved hello to the 'doorman:' the man who beckons people into the Indian restaurants. Sometimes the line up to the restaurants was so long that I couldn't even reach my door.

I found myself lingering on the corner of first and first..., bought a coffee and sat on a bench nearby and started thinking about this street corner. One street corner can carry such an intense personal history.

One of the nice things about having glasses is that you can take them off, and enjoy a wash of impressionistic blurry vision. I did this as I was sitting on the corner, and then the smells of the vendor's cart and the warm summer air entered my senses, the wind blowing through the trees in the park, the pulsating lights of the food carts and the street lights and traffic, and amorphous human shapes floating by, no eye contact, just forms and shapes and smells and gentle sounds. It's quiet on the lower east side. It's a skeptical area, skeptical to change and fashion, and it's still acceptable to come out on the street wearing clothes that human beings wear; dirty jeans, work clothes.

In the early eighties, on this corner, late at night I saw a young woman wearing a dark cloak with her face hidden, painted white, ghoulish, pushing a baby carriage, looking intentionally scary, but that's back when things really were scary on the lower east side.

Just down a couple of buildings, I watched a performance at LaMama in 1985. It featured a puppet doll with a buffalo's body and a human face, I think. Striking. There was music, and I think the buffalo/human was singing.

Ten years later, my friend Ravi was teaching yoga in a space upstairs above LaMama. I attended a session once, really got into the 'corpse' pose and the sun salutations. Ten years after that I almost bumped into Willem Dafoe on this corner. Perfect place to see Willem Dafoe. There was a coffee shop on this corner, a nice place to hang out, but then as soon as I became accustomed to it, it became a wine bar...

I used to sit at a bench in front of another coffee shop for hours, just watching the world go by. Another guy would often come there, and we would talk about this or that. He was a jazz musician with a long history in the area. One morning, after many mornings, he turned to me and said in a somewhat astonished tone, "You know what, man, you ain't got no agenda." 
I wrote this a while ago and included it in this blog in an earlier entry. I was thinking of sending it out to publishers and then started reading about how publishers view blogs. It turns out that many print publishers consider blogs as a different, but legitimate form of publishing, and since they generally will not accept previously published work I removed it from my blog, sent it out in the mail to a couple of places, waited for the rejection letters (some were very encouraging and polite however) and now it returns....

On the Kindness of the Built Environment

  It could be a path in the woods, a few stones carefully laid to create some steps up a steep slope, or a hand rail, a slab of bluestone under foot, a lamp on a table in the corner of the room. All of these things give me hope when I lose faith in the way this project is unfolding (broadly speaking, I mean this project of humanity; the project of curiosity, inquisitiveness, mutual respect, gentleness somehow outwitting and overpowering the techniques of fear). The built environment is a gift given to us by people from the past, an act of kindness toward us. It is a good reason to subtract fear from the equation of our daily lives.
  There is a moral code woven into the every day actions of many people in the trades that I have worked with, because there is a knowledge that everything that one does must serve people in the future. After making an angled cut on a board at a job site, carpenters will generally square off the remainder of the board so the next user (whether that user comes in five minutes or fifty years) will have a square end. This is an unspoken act of courtesy, one of many.
  When I touch a table or counter and notice that the edge of the surface has been slightly rounded, I am grateful, because I know that there is no universal mandate coming from some otherworldly power ordering people to ease the edge of a board. It is done from within the individual; perhaps it was taught to them, perhaps it just came naturally, but I've learned not to take things for granted. Social fabric is fickle and changes daily, according to the whims of mass media and gossip and all these things that I don't keep track of. It's a giant tray of water, sloshing side to side. I prefer to contemplate a good roofing job, knowing that it's going to keep the inhabitants dry from the rain for years to come.
  Is it naive or idealistic to say that all of these buildings, roads, bridges and structures that we accept and trust and use daily are manifestations of human kindness? I don't think so, especially when one reads a little bit of history and learns how quickly and completely society can fall apart.
  All of these thoughts were prompted by a conversation I had with a Cambodian student about twenty years ago. His entire family was killed in front of his eyes by the Khmer Rouge, and he was also shot but somehow survived. One day he showed me a long scar that ran from the base of his neck all the way to his belt from the surgery when he was opened up by a doctor to retrieve a bullet. One day I was sitting with him on the grass on campus, we were talking about Buddhism. Maybe he sensed some despondency in me or something, but I feel like he was trying to teach me a lesson about not taking things for granted. He said "I'm happy all the time. Look at this sidewalk, for instance, they didn't have to do this for me."
  His comment immediately struck me as true. Because, I think, it really was insightful. In spite of all of the training, brainwashing, coercion, seduction, habituation, exploitation and manipulation which we all undergo, in the end, none of us really has to do anything at all. And when one looks around for a brief moment, one will quickly see that many of us don't.
  This past weekend I wandered the streets of New York with a friend. We walked on stone sidewalks hauled from long distances, laid by workers who have long since passed away. Our path was illuminated by lamps on buildings and on posts above us, showing us our surroundings, and allowing us to pause and look at each other to carry on a conversation. All day long, we opened doors with handles that were gentle to the touch, which swung open easily, we rested on chairs and stairs that were constructed decades ago.
  The built environment is something that we do for each other. We don't have to, but we do.