Working in Manhattan can be an exciting, thrilling experience, but it doesn’t have to be. For the first year of my legitimate-office-job-having life, I worked in a building entrenched in a cozy block of 7th Avenue, spitting distance from two of the most impressively banal landmarks in this city: Times Square and Macy’s. Now, things can get pretty hectic in busy digital media what with the constant barrage of emails, IMs, phone calls, and that woman from accounting shrilly dictating lists of numbers into her speaker phone. I soon learned, therefore, how valuable it was for the mental health of any office worker to unwinch one’s shoulders from their hunched slump, peer away from the computer screen, and make one’s way out into the city.
I highly recommend an afternoon stroll through the western gutter of Midtown Manhattan to anyone who complains that the city has gotten too gentrified, or fancy, or clean, or pleasant. Nothing quite lifts the spirits like battling one’s way down a narrow sidewalk shrouded in complete darkness at 3 pm on a summer afternoon. I took a walk like this during my lunch break on my last day at my job, and maybe this was why everything seemed already tinged with nostalgia, why the dim streets seemed particularly elegiac. How I would miss spending my days here!
People are friendly in this neighborhood – from the delivery men saying “hello” by tapping gently at your legs with their overloaded dollies or bolts of fabric, nudging you like cordial goats, to the slow-moving herds of tourists who envelop you in their fanny-packed midst, sweeping you inexorably towards the luminescent glow of the Applebee’s in Times Square. Seven-foot-tall teenagers stalk by with modeling portfolios tucked under their arms, directing their doe-eyed gaze at you in what might be welcoming greeting, but also could just be hunger. Every time you exit your building or turn a corner, rest assured you will run smack dab into someone, perhaps even someone (as happened to me on this particular day) who will take hold of your arm and forcibly shove you out of the way (of danger, I assume). Plus, there is a cornucopia of interesting lunchtime options, representative of the breadth of New York’s international cuisine: from salads and sandwiches to sandwiches and salads. The brave of heart may choose to venture down Board-of-Health-defying alleyways marked with handmade signs promising cheap tamales or glatt kosher falafel; the iron of stomach can graze on the urine-yellow halal meat offered up by the street vendors.
Meander a little further west, preferably down 40th street, flanked by the Port Authority bus terminal on one side and the local parole board office on the other, towards the peep shows, and keep your eyes peeled for the authentically “gritty” characters this city still has to offer. There – a stumbling fellow with a face like gristle leers openly, calls out in a nonsense language something I can only assume means, Hullo, friend! There – a man peeing in a doorway looks up and grins, waggling his flaccid member in cheerful greeting. Hullo!
I came to find that after my lunchtime strolls it was largely a relief to make my way back towards the office building. What a relief to sink back into that office chair, though it seems to be ergonomically designed to make me slouch – how tranquil the office seems after the chaos of the street. The soothing hum of phones ringing, the quiet clatter of web copy being typed into ancient computers, the mellifluous singsong of the woman from accounting dictating numbers into her speaker phone. And yet, there’s something wonderful, I mean really wonderful, about such a dose of chaos.
Now I work in the Conde Nast building, where the hallways seethe with the seamy lights of Times Square. I don’t get back to the old neighborhood much anymore. It sounds nutty, but I actually really do miss it in all its filth and bustle. Maybe one of these days I should make the 5-block trek down to the Garment District and watch someone peeing in an alley just for old time’s sake. After all, I don’t want to become one of those office drones who only leaves the building to go to Starbucks, with that baleful cry, “Anyone want anything from the outside world?” Because you know what? I do want something from the outside world. And it’s not a latte.
Well, not just a latte, anyway.