Every morning for the first few months I lived in New York City, I mapped out my destinations for the day. That might involve lunch with a friend at the Boat House in Central Park, followed by some reflection in Strawberry Fields or a peek into the Delacorte Theater during a rehearsal. If drinks were on the docket in Battery Park, I’d plot out some time for Trinity Church or a diversion to Chelsea Piers. There were job interviews, of course, which drew me to midtown, which might lead to a lap of Rockefeller Center or a pilgrimage to the Carnegie Deli.
I planned intently and I’m sure I wasn’t the first eager urban emigre who quested to make the most of every minute and every single step, to experience it all, every destination and landmark, every “place.”
But after a few months of this arriviste vigor, it became apparent that, even in New York City, destinations are finite, there are only so many places one can visit—or arrive at. As the autumn colors faded to winter gray, so too had my initial enthusiasm waned. I had fewer appointments, fewer meet-ups, fewer reasons to venture off to far-flung corners of the City. My mornings involved less mapping and more malaise, a dread that I had seen all that had I come to see in New York, and that the City had served up all it had to offer.
This is when I began heeding the signs of the Walking Man. I remember it as a stray, steely weekday, a workday for most, and I was idling down Lexington Avenue on my way to an event or errand of little significance. I don’t think I even needed to be going there. It might have been a haircut.
Somewhere in the mid-60s, I was paused at a corner, staring across the street at the glowing, red-dotted hand of the do-not-walk symbol. I was idled, blocked, detained. But no matter: I had nowhere to go anyway.
In my right side periphery, I espied the Walking Man, the white lighted icon of a person on the move. People started towards him, shuffling around me and going somewhere. I sensed the Walking Man was beckoning me too: this way is open, you’re not a stander, you’re a mover. I thought, If I’m not going anywhere, why not go where the Walking Man directs?
And so I did. I crossed Lexington and continued east. Before I reached Park Avenue, struggling as I was against bitter winds. I’d committed myself to follow the wisdom of the Walking Man a while longer. In whichever direction he instructed. Two blocks north, then over to Madison. North again, more than 10 blocks in a row. In time, I found myself standing right in front of the Whitney Museum.
Though I had already checked the Whitney off my list of destinations, now it seemed more special; this visit was meant to be. How fitting that this urban museum was featuring an Edward Hopper exhibit. Even more appropriate, the wall near the entrance to the gallery included what has become my favorite paragraph about living in this place, from E. B. White’s Here is New York. The Walking Man knew I needed to be here.
From that day, whenever possible for the remainder of my time in the City, I put my trust in the Walking Man to reveal the City to me. At every corner I would cross the intersection whatever direction the Walking Man beckoned. No longer did I arrive at a place; I more often I discovered a place, rewarding my willing curiosity with a new, sometimes alien encounter. Casting my lot with the Walking Man made me feel lucky.
A single Tuesday stroll led me past a media frenzy as the Pope arrived at the Vatican embassy on 72nd Street, a David Letterman stunt staged on West 53rd, and a nighttime film shoot of “Men in Black” at the Guggenheim uptown. On a lovely Saturday stroll from the Upper East Side to Hell’s Kitchen, I passed three weddings and a funeral (I diverged from the path in late afternoon, seeking out a fourth wedding). The Walking Man delivered me to the White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas supposedly died, to Pete’s Tavern where O’Henry composed A Gift of the Magi, and to Mott Street south of Houston, the scene of so many gangster scenes, both fictional and not. I discovered street festivals celebrating place and heritage, from Chinese to Italian to Puerto Rican to just some really nice people who live on the same block of West 55th, between 8th and 9th Avenue.
I occasionally had to game the system to avoid an infinite loop of a single block, or a step too far into purportedly unsafe territory. There were times when the Walking Man delivered me to places like Central Park, which dispatched me off the grid to wend and meander along the pathways and fields, to get lost in the Ramble and emerge at Belvedere Castle. There were dead ends at the borough’s perimeters that, with a bit of creative navigation, afforded some seafaring aboard a ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island, or a trek across the Brooklyn or Manhattan Brides to discover the then-nascent DUMBO neighborhood. (Brooklyn had not yet become the cultural hotbed that it is today; I don’t know if the Walking Man holds sway there.)
In those instances when I actually did have a destination to reach, I’d revert to breaking the flow of the Walking Man. I didn’t find it liberating; I felt like I was betraying the rhythm of the City. But I had a someplace to go, someplace to arrive at, and there was no time to discover or explore.
After months of trying to chart—even force–my own course through the wilds of Manhattan, I took a chance on the Walking Man, and it paid off. Though he’s nothing more than an automated, illuminated visage of a man, he serves as the ambassador for the myriad man-made mechanisms, both modern and primitive, that make the City hum. He keeps the City from devolving into chaos and madness every single day and every single minute. He is among the most civil and simplest of symbols, and he’s every-present amidst the myriad signposts and light posts, the horns, squawks, buzzers and alarms, the elevators and revolving doors, the tracks and trains above and below, the buses, tunnels and ducts, the wheels and walls, the gates and grates, the blasts of air as you enter the bank and the ATM receipt that says, Have a Nice Day, as you head back into the world with direction and purpose.
In time, to most inhabitants these sights and sounds become invisible. But these contraptions make living in the City more beautiful and rewarding. They make life there more human.
You’ve likely gleaned from this essay that I spent much time alone in New York City, which seems ironic. Here is an excerpt from E. B. White’s Here is New York that afforded me much comfort in my time there and ever since.
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy…for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary…New York…can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”