What will future social historians think when they look back at photos of New York City’s street scene during this improbably warm autumn of 2005?
Chances are they will find New Yorkers of the early 21st century to be remarkably distinctive: individualistic, idiosyncratic, multiethnic, multiracial and, no doubt, prisoners of their specific time and place when it comes to fashions, customs and behavior.
We can’t see it, of course, the magnificent uniqueness of the here and now. It’s too comfortably familiar. It might take a Louis Trimble, the protagonist of a marvelous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, to do our city streetscape credit. In Fitzgerald’s tale, Trimble wanders around New York soaking up its simple wonders. “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of,” he explains.
Yet, we later learn, Trimble is no stranger to the city; a native, he hasn’t left its environs in ten years—in fact, he has designed one of its premier buildings. But Trimble has been blind to its sights and sounds because he’s been “every-which-way drunk” for a “Lost Decade,” and has now only just emerged from his alcoholic stupor to begin to appreciate New York anew.
Most of us are so caught up in our daily routines that, perceptions dulled, we miss or ignore the fabulous in front of us. Unlike Trimble, we don’t stop and delight in the human parade passing us by—garment workers with hand trucks, mothers pushing strollers, bicycle messengers careening, street vendors and deal-making businessmen, students with backpacks, tourists slightly-dazed by the speed and scale of New York.
Perhaps only an observer with the keen fashion eye of Tom Wolfe could adequately chronicle the variety of styles and individual statements being made on New York’s streets. Thin women in fashionable black (some things never change). Men in traditional business attire, but without the fedoras of the past. Instead, today’s hats of choice are from the Boys of Summer—baseball caps worn sideways, backwards, with the brim flat, with the brim curved, with ponytails protruding (yes, it’s a unisex style), with Yankees caps the most popular (New York has always loved a winner).
What is also different—and invisible and unremarkable, but passing strange none-the-less—is the ubiquitous electronic invasion of our city streets by cell phones, Blackberrys and iPods. It seems every third person is jawing away on a cell-phone. I chat, therefore I am, has become the motto of the age.
A businessman briskly strides along, conducting a conversation with no one, his miniaturized microphone and phone out of plain view. A tourist holds up her camera phone to snap a digital photo of a landmark, her husband offering guidance in German. Some of the younger phone-users pause to punch the phone keys with their thumbs or fingers – the text messaging of the under-30 set.
Will those future social historians regard these vignettes as the precursor of the plugged-in street? A preview of a wireless, digital world to come, where computers and the Internet are built into anything with electricity, and pedestrians glide by always connected to the invisible Web (shades of the Matrix!)?
Perhaps it will be so. But for now, why not abandon those digital props, and like Louis Trimble, simply enjoy this lovely autumn in New York, lingering, observing, and savoring the flavor of this amazing city in the old-fashioned, purely human way?