08 December 2005

Lennon's Living Legacy

I walked out of my apartment this morning into an exceptionally cold New York morning. I exited my building and the wind immediately met me as I turned the corner onto the sidewalk. It pierced my woolen coat as if I were wearing nothing at all. I shuttered, wrapped my scarf around my neck one more time, pulled my hat down over my ears, and began my five minute walk to the subway.

After artfully maneuvering piled up garbage bags, groups of hyper and excited children on their way to school, and old Dominican women in winter coats and headscarves pushing their carts, I entered the corner bodega and ordered my customary cup of coffee.

The clerk behind the counter initiated our usual conversation. "Anything else?," he always asks. "No, that's all.," I respond. Our conversation never changes. It is an entirely mechanical act. Rational and functional words, with no other purpose than that of pure and absolute commerce - 100 proof capital exchange, completely void of emotional content. I robotically handed him my dollar bill; he smiled a staged smile. I turn and leave.

Standing on the corner of Broadway and Hillside waiting for the light to change, I noticed that there were literally hundreds of people on the streets; some entering and exiting buses, some on their morning jog, others still entering the post office engaged in an awkward balancing act with oversized packages wrapped in brown paper - a Christmas present for a relative, perhaps? I opened my bag in search of my iPod. "Damnit!," I uttered aloud. I had left it on the coffee table amidst a pile of empty cigarette packs, a stack of Oscar Peterson records, scattered notes, and a half empty bottle of beer - a sad leftover from two days ago. I quickly recover, as I realized that I did remember to bring a collection of Chomsky lectures lent to me by a comrade and friend. This, I reassured myself, would provide me that escape I so desperately looked forward to in the mornings. A productive way to blind myself to the fact that I was soon to be shoved onto the downtown A like the seventeenth crayon in a sixteen crayon pack.

I have always experienced the morning commute as the perfect manifestation of New York's central and defining contradiction. You are surrounded by hundreds of people with whom, on a particulalry crowded morning, you are in direct physical contact for prolongued periods of time. Your arm touches that of a stranger. Your knee rests against that of an elderly man. Standing back to back with an unidentified person whose presence is only known to you by that act of touching. Instead of wanting to recognize this experience as one shared between living human beings, however, we ignore it. We explicitly try and distance oursleves from these moments. iPods, books, shutting our eyes - we've all done it, and we all know why. Not because we particularly want to listen to music, to read, or to sleep but, rather, because we want to project ourself into a fantasy of isolation. And, consequently, this is exactly what happens. We feel ourselves to be alone and isolated from the world around us, while surrounded by the multitude. And this isolation is, in fact, a fantasy; an illusion recognized by writers and thinkers from Marx to Montaigne, from Christ to Camus.

This morning was different, however. While standing on the plaform waiting for the train to arrive, I overheard a conversation between a young man and woman. They weren't particularly well dressed, and the conversation wasn't particularly intersting. They were deciding on where to meet before going to the homage to John Lennon in Strawberry Fields, an area of Central Park he often visited while living in his flat on the Upper West Side. For whatever reason, I decided to interject. "Oh," I said. "I wasn't aware that this was going on. " At first, they seemed unsure of exactly whom I was adressing. I smiled, and asked them where and when it was going to be held. The next thing I knew, they were telling me about their life as students at Columbia, the stress of impending final examinations, and that they, like myslef, had been battling terrible colds.

The exact minutia of the conversation I have already forgotten. And, in fact, those were the least important details of this morning's exchange. But during a time of the day where I actively seek to ignore those around me, today I felt connected with a larger community. I had met two new interesting people with problems, worries, and interests with which I could relate. I felt - human.

And this is how I choose to commemorate John Lennon. Not for his revolutionary musical sensibility, displayed in every song the man has ever written. Not for his piercing analysis of class and power found in 'Working Class Hero'. And not for his political activism. All of these are important, and they are, indeed, the things that usually come to mind when I hear his name or his music. But today I recognize him for his achievement in that moment, on that platform, between myself and two other people I would have otherwise never spoken to. His achievement in bringing the three of us together for that split second before the sound of the buzzer, and before the train's lights materialized out of the darkness of that long, cold tunnel.

So, thank you John. Thank you for reminding us all to be a bit more....human.
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