By Justin Nobel, author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle
Have you ever spent 14 hours straight on the New York City subway? I hadn’t either, but one day while living the hectic life of a freelance magazine journalist I had an epiphany.
I had spent the summer of 2008 reporting in Nunavik, a remote Inuit territory in far northern Quebec. There were many firsts, first bowhead whale hunt, first time eating seal brains, first time seeing the northern lights. In mid-September the first blizzard struck and I flew home, which involved a flight to Kuujjuaq then Chibougamau then Montreal, where I boarded a Greyhound bound for the border.
My bus crossed into the U.S. at midnight, by dawn I was in New York City. As I lumbered wide-eyed with my hiking pack through the bustle of midtown Manhattan, memories of my summer with the Inuit began melting away. By nightfall it was like I had never left New York at all.
Over the next few years, I traveled to the Pacific islands of Yap, Tokyo, the Gulf Coast, and again the Arctic. My life was a rainstorm of experiences, followed by a flood of forgetting. The opportunity to see the world is a magnificent privilege, but I was moving through it so swiftly everywhere seemed like nowhere. Even my own city had become anonymous, just people pitter pattering through a jungle of steel and concrete.
Then I discovered a way to slow New York down and make sense of it all. I started a blog with a simple concept: stand still for extended periods of time in iconic New York City spots and observe minutiae. By recording the city’s daily nothings I aimed to capture an invisible pulse so easily ignored. In the end I captured much more, and that blog is now a book, Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle.
I am not the first person to have done such a thing. In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals founded an avant garde sort of journalism known as Mass Observation. They believed the most revealing way to document an event wasn’t to record the major news, but the trivial details. The Mass Observers carried out their greatest project on May 12th, 1937, when they dispatched more than 200 observers throughout London to monitor the coronation of King George VI. They recorded endless chains of gossip and noted things like in which direction drunks swayed, all of which made it into a mostly unreadable book. The group dissolved soon after.
Decades later the idea was refashioned by a more literary set, the Oulipo writers, a group of French poets and novelists who played with patterns and redefined the nature of the book. In October 1974, the Oulipo writer Georges Perec spent an entire weekend planted in Paris cafés recording the minor motions of life. “I again saw buses, taxis, cars…people with bags, satchels, suitcases, dogs, pipes, umbrellas, potbellies, old skins, old schmucks, young schmucks, idlers, deliverymen, scowlers, windbags,” he observed while seated in a cafe near La Fontaine Saint-Sulpice.
Later, while watching a flock of pigeons go around a square, Perec was struck by the same thing that had dawned on the Mass Observers. The minutiae is not meaningless at all, it’s a window into the sublime.
I did my first observation on the subway. One cold February evening I boarded an uptown 1 train at Times Square and didn’t get off until sunrise. A few months later, inspired by those glowing early spring New York days when anything seems possible, I stood from sunup to sundown on a romantic Central Park bridge. And I spent all day at the Museum of Natural History, where I had visited so often as a child, only this time I observed not the exhibits and dioramas but the visitors themselves.
I was trying to capture New York, but I was also trying to recapture my place in it, and see for the first time a New York I had never known.
I stood still in gritty spots where no tourist would ever go, the ER waiting room at a major hospital, a street corner in a rough part of the Bronx, a forgotten cemetery. But here were perhaps the biggest surprises of all. I found that the ER, despite its violence and trauma, was a safe haven, for the homeless and the drug addicted and sometimes those just wanting a friend. And on the Bronx street corner, among drunks and drug dealers, I found a spirited group of artists happy to take me in.
I began to see the city behind the city. I looked deep into the past and far into the future. In Staten Island I sat all day at the mall and later learned that 400 years prior a band of American Indians had been slaughtered there by New Netherland soldiers. In a Queens cemetery I had visions of a future New York protected from sun and storm by great domes, a vision that seemed silly at the time but all the sudden has become eerily realistic. Standing still in one spot and observing is a form of meditation, allowing you to see into the city, and see into yourself. I had found a new sort of travel adventure, where you didn’t have to leave your city or even your block.
New experiences are waiting everywhere, in the parks where you stroll, the buses that you ride, the places where you shop, all the humdrum destinations of the day. Like Perec and the Mass Observers before me, I learned that the minutiae is not minutiae at all, it is sublime. You just must open your eyes, and stand still.