Today around 1 o’clock I stepped out of my house on my way to the Y for a swim. I was immediately bathed in hot sunlight, wrapped in a big wind, and I instantly felt good, like it was summer the way summer should feel, though it is now September. (I later realized it must be because it is dry heat and reminds me of summer in California). Put in a good mood, I began looking about, smiling at the friendly plants in my neighborhood, and I had a thought that I should try an experiment: to smile at every single person who passed me on my 10-minute walk to the gym.
To some folks out there this might seem like an inane experiment – who doesn’t smile at people they pass by? On visits to my parents’ house in California, while walking the dog through the suburban neighborhood, I always make eye contact with, smile at, and even offer a “hi” to those I pass. But here in the city, even in Brooklyn, my plan was surprisingly difficult to carry out.
One, most people who pass you on the street don’t look at you. They note your existence through their peripheral vision so as not to walk into you, but that’s it. Two, when they do look at you, they usually have some sort of unwelcome or at least indifferent look on their face. With these people, after making eye contact, I found myself cowardly looking away as I smiled at them, as if it would break some kind of unspoken urban code to smile obviously and directly at them. Then there was a construction worker who watched me as I timidly half-smiled at him. He wasn’t one of the leerers, but that is one reason I have come into the habit of not making eye contact with people on the street – the abundance of men who will make random comments to you if you do. And then there was an old man who immediately stuffed a flier in my face when I made eye contact – yet another reason against doing so.
Maybe this says more about me than about the social codes of the city, but the people who I successfully smiled at were:
- middle-aged to elderly women,
- people with babies/kids,
- people with dogs.
I saw just a few people smile back, but this is probably due to my inability to commit entirely to the experiment.
On my way back from the Y, I gave up my plan, as it seemed to be depressing me rather than reinforcing my happiness. I instead focused on my favorite plant sites, checking on them as I passed. Many of the virginia pepperweeds on 17th street are now skeletal – dried-up and wheat-colored, they have long lost their flowers, but still retain a certain elegance.
The marestails on the same street are also past maturity – their flowers have been replaced by tons of tiny, fuzzy seed-orbs, which suddenly fly off as they are caught by the wind.
I thought they looked beautiful there in the dappled afternoon sun, but I was not happy with my photographic attempts. Somehow the light wasn’t working with me, the wind was making everything come out blurry, and I was frustrated by all the cars parked along the street.
There was one spot where there wasn’t a car. I went over to it and was just setting up my picture when a driver spotted the parking space and began to back into it – and into my frame. Stunned at my misfortune, I stayed there squatting on the sidewalk, staring at the car and at the driver in the car. Then, giving up on my photo shoot, I got up as she got out of her car. As I turned away to head home, she looked at me and smiled.