Sunday, July 27, 2008

The look

One of the first things I rediscovered after getting back to New York from London is the look. By this I don't mean what I'm wearing (or choose not to wear), or the style, or the attitude.

I mean simply that people look at each other. In London I thought I had it figured out. At a distance of 10m or more you were free to appraise people, but then any closer you would turn your eyes away, only turning them back at the subject as you passed. Interesting, but really quite limiting.

Here in New York instead people simply look at you. No, not stare, but give you an honest moment's appraisal. And unlike some other places (Paris? I am inventing this? Those who know more, please correct me) in which any such inspection requires a neutral to bored expression, in New York you are allow to appreciate what you see. People will smile, or more often simply let you know that they like what they see. You can sit at a sidewalk cafe, and those at tables and on the those on the streets are always playing the look game. And if that's all you're going to do, then you have pretty much a free pass. If you want to proceed to the next level - a word exchanged, perhaps more - then it's another game, more on which later when I myself learn the rules of this game.

But the look game is simple and fun, because once you get into it there is more than one look. There's inquisitive, appreciative, disapproving, flirtatious, bewildered, scolding, critical, and of course the harried-get-out-of-my-way look.

* * *

Last night my friend Till and I were sitting at an sidewalk table; unusual for NY and more typical of Paris we were both seated to look out at the street. It was a street and not an avenue so the traffic was not overwhelming. But what a scene! First there were the 4 motorcycles, each parked to occupy a car spot (not laterally). Curious. And then after a while a man in a big SUV rolled along, his four children jumped out to go the Mr. Softie ice cream truck, and he got onto the one of the bikes, but just lounging not driving. Initially, I wondered whether he was just sitting on someone else's bike. The man had a perfectly hemispherical belly and wore shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. After a while, an older man who I had assumed was just loitering came up to him, approached him really. They spoke, and the younger man gave the older man the keys, and went in. The man rearranged the pylons that were cordoning off the area, and began to shift the cars around. After he was done, he was beaming. As though his position conferred great importance on him, and perhaps it did. I noticed that were 2 older guys just hanging out, looking after the different cars.(*)

A while longer and I noticed that there were many people loitering near the entrance to the building were the man had gone in. From time to time, people would stop by and speak to someone in the second-floor window above us (the same man?). Others would go in. The people going in were a wide cross-section of New Yorkers. I couldn't really pin down the type. Many seemed to live there, many did not.

After a while, the man above threw down some keys to one of the younger guys and he drove off with one of the motorcycles. But not before the boss's 8 year old son got to turn the ignition key and rev up the motorcycle. He was thrilled, and skipped off seeming very important.

And I suppose the highlight of the evening was when the woman made her appearance. She was fake blond, with reasonably good legs, but pretty (I believe the New York word is...) curvy from there up. She wore a black and white knit dress with horizontal stripes that was shall we say very fitted. Right out of a cartoon, Till commented.(**) Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Don't be too sure, because she hung out for a quite while, just chatting to people she seemed to know, and Till and I had to move along before we found out how this story ended.

* * *

Another night in the East Village.



(*) I was trying to pin it down, and finally I concluded they reminded me of the old men that populate the edges of town in a Sergio Leone or Kurosawa movie.

(**) Till went a bit further. He said, Europeans can't really pull off this look. They're too self-conscious. Americans (both North and South) can really inhabit the character without any inhibition, with a why not me? feeling.

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