Random Observations

Just some random observations today from the Lower East Side on my lunch break.

“Yo, do me a favor,” I heard a woman say into her cell phone as I walked down the sidewalk in her general direction. She was leaning over a guard rail around a subway entrance, causing her shirt to ride up slightly, exposing a hanging gut that she probably didn’t want to expose. “Don’t nobody slap me in the face. Not my mother. Not you. Not nobody. You touch me and I will stab you in the neck.”

She was using her outdoor voice, despite having a private conversation. As I passed her and walked further away from her, her voice got fainter and fainter. I noted that, despite the threat of mortal violence, her part of the conversation took place entirely without profanity.

Waiting at a cross walk for the light to change, I noticed a small figure to my left out of the edge of my field of vision. He was an old man, and he was standing next to a garbage can, fussing with a green umbrella. He opened and closed it, running the folding mechanism up and down the shaft a couple of times, shaking it, twisting at it.

I checked the light and turned back to the old man. He was stabbing the umbrella down into the garbage can. Judging by its missing handle and broken spines, I guessed he had taken it from the garbage can originally. He had in his hand a spring, evidently taken from the shaft of the umbrella. He fingered it and wiggled it slightly and then turned and walked away down the sidewalk.

The light turned, and I crossed the street.

On the other side of the street I encountered a sidewalk sweeper. He wore a heavy-looking green Lower East Side Business Improvement District jacket #8212; better suited for November than early July — and rode on a machine that resembled a zamboni with two large wheels in front, one small wheel in back, and two rotating circular brushes meant to sweep debris under the vehicle and toward an intake fan.

The single wheel in back left a winding ribbon of motor oil wherever he went, betraying the erratic course he took swerving through and among the pedestrians. No one seemed to feel they were in any particular danger as he deftly avoided sweeping them up or knocking them over.

I was puzzled by such eforts at lunch time on a weekday. I’m no city manager, but surely there’s a better time to sweep the sidewalks, I thought. And what was he cleaning up anyway? A cigarette butt or gum wrapper here and there, leaving a larger mess behind him than what he encountered in front of him.

Maybe he just wanted to get somewhere without walking. I have a friend who, when she was 15 and had no driver’s license, rode through her home town on a riding lawnmower to buy a pack of smokes from the only place that would sell them to her. That makes sense, in its desperate, adolescent way. But this guy… where was he going?

I wonder if there really is such a thing as a random observation. The events around us are random in that they are unpredictable and outside of our control, but the very second we begin to pay attention to them, the act of observing becomes deliberate. With all the activity around us in New York City, we could be distracted in any direction at any time of the day. It’s something in us that draws an occurrence into our sphere of attention. Something led me to notice the woman on her phone, the man with the spring, and the guy on the sidewalk-sweeping machine. I wonder what about those three incidents is the common link to my attention.


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