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9.10.2005

It's Because I Have a Real Job Now.
Oh God. I'm not even sure I should bother posting here anymore, but here is my latest article for the New York Spirit. Enjoy. I suppose it will be on their website in October.

There used to be a mini-golf course at that intersection. I remember because I had my tenth birthday party there and Phil, who’s last name is lost to history, was trying to look like a golf pro and clonked my mom in the head on his backswing. With a putter. I knew even then that it must have hurt, but someone fetched my mom a bag of ice and she soldiered on, making small talk with the mothers of my friends so as not to ruin my birthday. A few years later they built a strip mall. The place is gone.
I remember the Dairy Queen out on the edge of town too. I remember going there for soft serve with my older brother and sister, taken by a babysitter, and waiting while the flies buzzed, landing on my flip-flopped feet. I remember the ugly white linoleum tiles with grey caulk and ice cream smudges. Everyone else swatted and cursed at the flies but in my single-mindedness I couldn’t have cared if the damn things flew up my nose. I was getting a vanilla cone with a chocolate dip and everything else was irrelevant. That place, too, is gone. A pizza parlor last time I checked.
Weirdest of all, my parents don’t even live in that town anymore, that little New England ‘burb and house where I spent my entire childhood. They’re out in San Francisco. My whole family is out in San Francisco, actually, with me as the lone outpost on this hyper-accelerated side of the country. With them gone, I have no excuse to go back to the old home except to visit places that either aren’t there or aren’t quite like I remember them. You can’t go back. They say it for a reason.
I’m not old and I don’t decry the pace of change; that’s just the way it is. When things that I like disappear before I’m ready, I figure it’s the world’s way of telling me to find new places to love. It’s not like there’s a shortage. Besides, what other choice do we have? We can try and slow it down, I suppose – and you might even be successful for a minute or two – but in the end you’re just pissing into the wind, as my dad says. Wasting your time.
And New York is hardly the exception. If on the tourist brochures it’s “The City That Never Sleeps,” then to us, certainly less loudly advertised, it’s “The City That Changes Under Our Feet.” Blink and that corner store you love is gone. Even stranger, blink and that brand new corner store that just opened three months ago is already undergoing renovations. Why? Because New York can’t even keep up with itself. Change, change, change.

So, in the face of the incessant transformation, how do you capture the oomph of the places that have embossed your unwritten biography? Developers will come and leave their indelible marks, I promise. They will build on top of the places that are holy only to you, and the best you can hope for is that in their place they will create something that, in time, will also hold holy memories for you or someone else.
You have to be an urban boyscout, you have to be prepared for the change. How? Pay attention, keep your wits about you, be aware. Be a New York Urbanist.
And so, not unconnected to the fact that the entire city of New Orleans has been inalterably changed by a flood just this week, I offer a list of ways you can remember the places that will disappear before you are ready for them to go.

Learn to Draw. I went to graduate school keenly aware that I was a man who wanted to be an urban designer but didn’t know how to draw. I knew drawing was a language, as much as Spanish, as much as music, as much as math, but I was profoundly illiterate. And so I took classes. It was one of the most frustrating things in my life, to see something in front of me, to ask my hand to make a replica of said thing, and then have my hand steal the pencil and go off on a picnic without inviting me.
But even the process of learning how to draw – forget for the moment becoming proficient – teaches you to be aware of things that you rarely see. Your eyes are in the habit of lying to you. They use shorthand, telling you that lines receding into the distance are long when, in truth, they look very short. To learn how to draw, you have to unlearn the little tricks your eyes have spent a lifetime learning. And to do that, you have to shut yourself up and just look. Spend enough time looking and you’ll remember what you’ve seen.
Sit for half an hour with a glass of wine (always my favorite way to draw) and stare at a flower and patterns will emerge. Or maybe not patterns, but relationships – the length of this relative to the width of that. Now go sit in Columbus Circle, my new favorite public space, and draw 2 Columbus Cirlce, a bizarre building scheduled to be demolished (much to the fury of historic preservationists). It is a weird little thing with no windows but highly detailed frills. It is short and stocky next to the AOL/Time Warner Center. A plain Jane wearing a sun dress. Look at how it sits so heavy while the traffic darts around in front of it.

Listen to Music. My first year out college, I worked at a small planning firm in Boston with offices in an old industrial district. The office had interior brick walls, wide, wooden floorboards, and no heat after 5pm in the winter. To this day, when I listen to Morphine’s Cure for Pain album, I remember the December sunlight slinking past the cranes of the Big Dig, over the map table, and onto my desk. I remember the heavy clonk of the pile drivers (a sound entirely unlike the clonk of Phil’s golf club on my mother’s head, thank God) and the taste of Juicy Fruit, which I was strangely enamored with at the time. I remember that I only had two pairs of pants nice enough to wear to work and one had a stain on the right heel that I hid with a cuff. I remember wearing a winter hat in the office. Every time I listen to that album, I remember those things. You have albums that do the same, I’m sure.
So this one is easy. It involves your IPod, which I know that you have because you are a New Yorker. How to make use of the ubiquitous Apple music toy? Next time you are walking in the park, or on your commute, or anyplace you visit often and want to be sure to remember, pick an album off your IPod and listen to that album every time you are in that place or on that journey. In ten years it will remind you of the smell of that deli and that one London Plane Tree on the corner with brighter leaves than the rest. Change the album with the season, or in accordance with a major life change. Maybe you hate your job now and the album you listen to on your commute will yield bittersweet memories, but when you get that promotion you will have new songs and new memories even though you are walking in the same places. You will see the same things and they will look different.

Seek Out New Views. I recently moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I hired a “Guy with a Truck,” threw my boxes into the back, and sat up front with him while we drove across the city. He was a little bit crazy. The view from seat next to him confused me. We were still driving in New York, I knew, but everything about it was irrefutably different – but only slightly. By riding just three feet above where I usually do when in a cab, I got an entirely new perspective on the city. I was above it all but still stuck in the muck, a strange combination.
So where do you go to get this new perspective? Everywhere. It’s New York. Go up, up with the tourists to the tops of the buildings. There’s a reason they pay dearly for those views. Pay particular attention when exiting underground subway stations and arriving at street level. Revel in the discombobulation – it will give you that other-dimensional view of the city that tastes strangely like the first view you had of this place. Take the Staten Island Ferry, the water taxi, those double-decker tourist buses, or the Roosevelt Island Tram (especially if it’s going to get stuck for an hour). Sit still in a place where everyone else is moving or run as fast as you can through a place where everyone else is sitting still.

New York will be different tomorrow.

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