“Start spreading the news!
I’m leaving today…
I want to be a part of it…”
Well, you can fill in the rest of the lyrics, I imagine.
Those lines came to my mind, somewhere between Penn Station and our walk along 6th Avenue in New York City last week as Linda and I made our 1.5 mile trek to our hotel near Times Square. The streets were everything rumor, media and imagination suggest — thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people on the city sidewalks moving like clogged arteries, the veins plugging up at intersections and begging for a low cholesterol diet. Yellow cabs, small freight and delivery trucks, city buses and suspicious looking black SUV’s with privacy glass — all jockeying dirty streets for a position to win the race to the next stop light! People of every variety, shape, color, ethnicity, and age.
The sidewalk appeared to have an etiquette, if you can call it that — rules for the concrete jungle. Most pedestrians appeared to have one of three primary approaches:
1. Get your destination in mind and hunker down, steady forward movement, one foot after another, keeping pace with the crowd, avoid eye contact, looking up only to note intersections.
2. Grab your gear, your children, your loved ones, pray to God (or any other deities, given the variety of religious persuasions present), and suspect every creature in the path is “an unfriendly.” Its war out there! *there were occasional threats caused by an unwanted solicitation or an angry, impatient pedestrian behind you or heading straight for you or, the worst cause of collisions, a pedestrian suddenly stopping to check his/her cell phone for a text or GPS location — a 10 pedestrian pile up!
Side Note here — “Right of Way” on the sidewalk appears to be a function of size x mass mass x perceived inattention… As soon as I moved my rolling bag from behind me to beside me, and was clearly not watching where I was going, people unexplainably moved out of my way!
A variation on this theorem were the kids (young and old) who moved through the sea of people like “free radicals” in the body, simply weaving their way through the mass of bodies, running, roller blading, even skipping, as if there was no one else on the sidewalk. I call this the Matrix approach — “there is no spoon.”
3. The third primary pedestrian agenda, while not the most expedient, seemed the most enjoyable and rewarding, which I’ll simply call “paying attention.” Gary Zukov wrote about this approach, I think, in his book on quantum physics, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters (chaos theory and the “slow waltz” — call it “slow living” in the city). Those people effortlessly strolled along, noting landmarks, sidestepping “head-ons” and smiling at everyone. While the smiling rarely elicited reciprocal smiles, this “slow dance” seemed to be the primary engine behind the success of this approach and created a stress-free zone for those we noticed doing it.
This third approach also seemed most effective for noting the more interesting aspects of the clogged arteries — the healthy, curious, but often overlooked, creative agents present in the corporeal body, so to speak — anti-bodies, if you will, contrasting the mundane and myopic, even negative, consequences of clogging the arteries of our life (That probably sent you scratching your head. Sorry!)
We tried it! And we suddenly realized that we had almost plowed into Jay Leno. (We’re pretty sure it was Jay Leno). He had that playful smile, protruding jaw and said, “Hi”. And while many simply rushed past this other character, we saw Yoda (the Jedi master), floating stationary above the sidewalk, in Times Square. He saw us and pointed to his nearly empty donation can and said in his high-pitched gravelly tone, “A particularly unsuccessful day, today, I am having.” I dropped a dollar in his can. Suddenly his voice changed to a gruff, low pitch, “Yeah, thanks! I’m leaving, it’s too hot out here!” He stood up revealing the hidden plexi-glass stand under his Jedi robe and walked off, in an uncharacteristically human manner.
My favorite character was a guy walking up and down the length of a block or two, carrying a sign at the top of a 6-foot pole. We saw several of these guys over the two days we were there. The sign read, “Seek Jesus.” Then, while the guy would be walking and checking out his phone, he’d randomly flip the sign around to the other side which read, “Repent and be Free.” In the crowd, you mostly just saw the pole and the sign moving in the mass ahead of you. No one really seemed to notice it though.
But one time we saw another guy standing to one side with the same sign set up. But it read, “Seek Bob, He Frees Us”. Someone actually stopped and approached him, “What’s that all about?” The guy didn’t say a word, just flipped the sign around. It read, “Just Kidding, Seek Jesus!”
With the chaos of Times Square and Broadway, and NYC, the masses of pedestrians and motorized traffic, and the over abundance of flashing signs and giant advertisements everywhere, I would think it a challenge for anyone to take much note of anything, much less “spread the news” that I’m coming to NY “to be a part of it.”
Our last day in NYC we walked from the hotel to Penn Station, again about a mile and ½ walk. It was 5:30 — Rush Hour! So multiply everything I said previously about pedestrian chaos above times 10!
We almost missed it ourselves. The brick walls, flashing signs and glass display windows suddenly gave way to a beautiful park on our left, shrouded in dozens of tall oak and sycamore trees with an open field in the middle. Linda shouted, “Hey, this is Bryant Park!”
“How’d we almost miss this?” I remarked.
So, I dragged the rolling bag up the steps and we stopped for coffee at a busy kiosk asked for a couple of iced lattes. The young barista began to fix the drinks and I said, “This is an amazing place to work. Do you like your job?”
She was pleasant but quickly responded, “Not really, but it’s a job.”
I said, “Oh, sorry to hear that. I just meant, you’ve got like a window to at all these beautiful trees and flowers.”
She said, “You know, I’m here everyday. I just don’t notice it anymore.”
“What about noticing that?” I smiled as I pointed. A woman walking just walked by with her two-legged do, missing front legs supported instead by two wheels. The back legs pushed the front two wheels, which squeaked as the dog wagged its tail and moved along, tugging at its owner to keep up!
The barista laughed, “Okay, I don’t see that everyday!”
We talked a little longer. “You’re not like a lot of the other Texans I’ve met here.”
I smiled. “You’re not like a lot of the other New Yorkers I’ve met here.” I thanked her for the coffee, and the conversation.
Being in NYC was a more vivid reminder to me that whether we intend it or not, we are definitely a part of one another’s stories? But what might it mean if we were to recognize this? To pay attention to the ways that we are, in big and small ways, participating in each other’s stories? That our stories can actually strengthen or diminish us, carry one another, and sometimes drop one another?
There’s something of the Parable of the Sower of the Seeds here, I think. Seeds are scattered here and there, freely, abundantly. It’s all good. But some seeds fall on good soil; some on bad. Some stick and flourish. Some only connect with shallow roots and don’t fair well at all, while others dig in and find depth and become life to others. We understand this as one way Jesus spoke about the presence of Kingdom of God. But I think we can extend that understanding to the stories we live out daily.
Like seeds on the soil, what kind of characters are we in one another’s stories? How can we live our lives in ways that we not only make each other’s lives more interesting, but we open each other more deeply to the presence of God’s love and the beauty of God’s Kingdom — in Fort Worth, Texas, and even in a place like New York City?
“Start spreading the news… I want to be a part of it!”