Friday, September 02, 2011

Rat race or fluid human dance?

Way back when, while teaching freshman composition, I used to sometimes assign an essay by Tom Wolfe in which he stood on the mezzanine balcony at Grand Central Station with a social scientist who compared the commuters below to rats. "Listen to them squeak," the guru said -- and sure enough, Wolfe reported, there was a regular squeak of pivoting soles.   This was, we were given to believe, the rat race made literal.

I cannot locate the essay, which is maybe just as well -- this a chronicle of my takeaway at nearly twenty years' distance. I know that the image and the thesis (at least as I remembered it) recurred in 1996,  when I was shuttling weekly and biweekly between New York City and Buffalo and contemplating a move back to NYC, where I grew up, after ten years in western New York.  The interlude in all-too-quiet cities had left me a bit traffic-phobic, and I wondered whether I could manage the crowds and traffic in the New York metro area. 

One visit took me to Grand Central on a freelance job. I had in my bag an Economist special report on India, with a massive indoor crowd on the cover -- hundreds pressed together, facing the camera.  I looked around me as I walked out of one track gate with the crowd from my train, then watched for a while in the central concourse as people strode off toward the exits and tracks lining one side of the terminal.  I thought something like, "I can handle this.  This is well-regulated and civilized. It works. It's not India. And it's not rats in a maze."  It doesn't hurt, of course, that Grand Central is a commuting cathedral, beautifully restored to its original splendor since Wolfe's essay was first published.

That thought has often recurred in fifteen years of commuting into Manhattan -- notwithstanding that I go into the ugly rabbit warren of Penn Station rather than the magnificent Grand Central, or that the trains creep with ridiculous slowness on Amrak's antiquated, overcrowded tracks, or that the 100+ year-old track gates at Penn Station are too narrow and the foot traffic up the stairs often jams.   This trip on the one hand offers plentiful evidence of the U.S.'s decaying infrastructure -- but it's also testament that the system still works. The trains are on time on most days (much better than Metro North's rickety fare departing out of Grand Central). Commuters are on the whole quite civilized -- I've had plenty of time to contemplate the complex etiquette codes that govern crowd movement at track entry and exit. The crowds in the station are testament to New York's successful melting pot and continued world-crossroads status  -- though there's sad evidence in a measure of societal breakdown in the station's plentiful homeless population (at times, the "new" New Jersey Transit waiting area, which no commuter uses because it's situated far from the gate staircases, is entirely colonized by this dazed subcommunity). In their processions down the main corridors, the crowds are lovely, dark and deep. They all have promises to keep. And miles to go before they sleep.

Now, my personal counter-narrative has been raised to the nth degree by Alastair Macaulay in a rhapsody published in yesterday's Times, The Fluid Human Dance That is Grand Central. Rats in a maze, bah humbug! In several observation sessions, Macaulay sees the stuff of art and ballet:
It’s funny how this view of real life keeps recalling works of art. Between 8:30 and 10 a.m., enough people stand still, some in groups, to make the floor look like an Italian piazza: those painted by Piero della Francesca come to mind. Earlier, a dancegoer could easily feel the resemblance between the incessant streams of people and the first movement of Jerome Robbins’s ballet “Glass Pieces,” but now the view recalls the scene in the Mark Morris work “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” where, amid the crisscross of four horizontal lines of walking people, a stationary man and woman spot each other.

At times the scene recalls the urban vortex of Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway.” And any Cunningham devotee will recall urban studies like his “CRWDSPCR,” in which the movement of one human being is circumscribed by that of others.

The panorama of all this is mesmerizing. But you can’t watch it for long without being absorbed by its succession of innumerable, overlapping human vignettes. The overview of urban motion is expressive one way, but even at 8 a.m., it is a fabric of innumerable stories, each apparent in an instant. Two men are walking, two yards apart, at the same speed, along the same diagonal toward the MetLife escalator: just what features of their builds and locomotion, seen from behind, make one look like a bulldog, the other like a leopard? Some men swing their arms but keep their bodies stiff, while one man whose upper body is nearly immobile seems to rotate his pelvis with every step.
It's true, it's true.  Every five minutes in these public spaces, there's a thousand little dances and processionals and interactions in the stream of the routine. 

P.S. I admit to waiting until I finished to looking for Wolfe's essay online. I've found some allusions: the essay in question is "O Rotten Gotham."  A glancing reference with a quote that tracks my memory pretty accurately is here.