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The Rhythm of the City

March 5, 2015
It is snowing here as I write, the birds in mass pecking away at the feeders or eating seed on the ground below the feeders. The dogs, tired of watching the birds and squirrels, are huddled near the radiator sleeping. The traffic on River Road below the house is minimal on this usually busy road. The rhythms of life have slowed considerably.
Suburbia has its rhythms, somewhat different than the city in a similar situation. Snow is transformative.
In a recent visit to New York, the city of my birth, I took note of those rhythms in the following story:
The Rhythm of the City©
Neal P. Gillen
I had just returned from four days in New York City and was changing in the locker room, when Dan Gordon, a YMCA staffer, asked, “Where’ve you been, Neal.”
            “The Big Apple.”
            “Huh, what’s that?” he asked squinting, obviously puzzled by my response.
            “New York City,” a few voices called out in unison.
            “What were you doing there?” Dan asked.
            “Attending meetings at the United Nations and getting together with friends.”
            Dan, who has never been to New York, asked, “Was it quiet up there, like here?”
            The laughter coming from the guys changing into and out of their work-out gear caused Dan to blush. He grew up in western Maryland and is not familiar with large cities.
            I moved towards him and put my hand on his shoulder. “Dan, it actually was quiet. It’s just a different place when there’s snow on the ground.”
            “Real messy, like here, I guess,” Dan said.
            “Actually, Dan, it’s messier, and more difficult to get around.”
            “How’s that?”
            “Well, here in the Washington area everyone gets around in their cars. In New York, particularly in Manhattan, people are on the street walking after they emerge from the subway. The snow is a mess.”
            Dan moved on to work downstairs in the gym, and I went into the pool to swim a set of drills in preparation for an upcoming competition. Swim drills are a dull task in which your mind wanders. But Dan’s questions had me thinking as I contemplated the rhythms of New York City as I glided through the water. 
Manhattan and the outer boroughs of New York each has its own distinct rhythm, most often fast paced. The people are fast as they walk and talk. It all depends on the hour of the day. New Yorkers have little to say in the morning. It takes a lot of coffee to get them walking and talking, but their pace picks up as the clock ticks forward. Before you know it they are soon in high gear, their voices becoming quicker and louder and their steps faster, much like the increasing pace of the rhythm in the opening musical score of Richard Rogers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
The pedestrian traffic on the busy streets moves in a fluid mass as if choreographed by George Balanchine. People seem to be comfortable moving at a fast pace, and the lights at street corners are no impediment to many jay walking and often turning in graceful pirouettes to avoid the slow moving traffic on the side streets. The ballet picks up speed once the corner is crossed as the mass moves on to the next one.  The traffic on the avenues and the major cross-town streets, the buses, taxis, and trucks have their own distinct noises and rhythms adding to the organized chaos of a city alive and on the move.
Only one thing is capable of slowing down that rhythm – snow. Everything changes when it snows and in the days that follow as the city digs out and cleans up. The traffic on the sidewalks and streets thins out. It is relatively quiet. The snow is transformative.
            Navigating the streets after it snows is an art form of sorts. The pavement becomes a narrow serpentine pathway on some streets causing people to slow down and actually interact as they meet and edge by each other. The cross walks are especially hazardous offering multiple messy choices. One must move with the dexterity of a ballet dancer to leap over the water pooled at the corners, to tip toe through the accumulated slush or to scale the piles of snow formed by the plows. At corners the rhythm pauses, the movement is cautious as people contemplate their next move.
Impatient New Yorkers take notice and adjust to the slower pace emerging from their normal shells of indifference. You often find Sir Walter Raleigh’s at each intersection. There is a sense of joy, of pride, as people make a successful journey from one perilous corner to the next. It becomes a slow Gershwin rhythm, a Rhapsody in Blue, as people pause to confront pools of water, soupy slush, or mountains of snow. The options can vary at each corner – to leap, tip toe, or climb. 
While New Yorkers are often prone to make hasty decisions, at these intersections they carefully contemplate their choices – it’s counterintuitive conduct. They pause and ponder before they leap over the water, tip toe through the slush, or attempt the gingerly climb up and down the mounds of the now gray snow, the latter two movements often accompanied by the balancing and helping hand of someone in the same fix, a ballet partner. Each of these movements has its own distinct rhythm.
            The snow is transformative; it makes people pause and take care, to be mindful of others. It has a rhythm of its own, a pleasant rhythm, a calming rhapsody that brings people together, at least it does in New York.
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