Lunch hour in Midtown was following its predictable pattern: high-heeled women scurried back into revolving doors carrying bags of pre-made sushi rolls, and pin-striped men lined up at pushcart vendors, impatiently waiting for Styrofoam containers of Halal meat. In the courtyard, the outer benches swelled with fellow sun revelers, and clusters of co-workers vied for the metal tables in the center. The scene was entirely typical.
Except for one person.
At first glance, he looked like an ordinary Midtowner: coordinated shirt and tie, recent haircut. He was young, in his early twenties, with a chiseled profile and a boy-next-door smile. Your basic Prom King. He stood in the exact middle of the courtyard, directly in my line of vision, gazing up at the windows of an office building.
Then he took off his tie. Due to the pleasant weather, other people had removed cardigans or suit jackets. But he removed the tie with great effort, like it was weighted down, and he had a hangdog expression on his face. He looked back up at the office.
Next, he unbuttoned his top shirt button. He paused, then moved to the next button. Then the third. He opened his shirt, shrugged his shoulders back and wriggled out of the sleeves, revealing a white undershirt.
Intriguing. That is, if you noticed what had been happening. So far, almost none of the al fresco diners had even glanced in his direction. Audience failings aside, the young showpiece continued. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He read a text message, then looked back up at the office, shaking his head. Although I couldn’t see into the windows from where I sat, it was clear he was receiving orders from a peanut gallery above.
Whoosh! The undershirt came off in an over-the-head forward swoop. There he stood, pretty boy with a bare, gym-toned torso glinting in the sun. But I found my lunch neighbors’ behavior even more peculiar.
A trio of twentysomething girls sat less than 10 feet away, stabbing at lettuce leaves with plastic forks, huddled in conversation while completely unaware that lunch came with free entertainment. A man near me leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees—he was so intent on not letting tomato sauce from a chicken parm hero land on his pants that he never looked up. One girl did notice—she pointed and snickered—but quickly turned back to her friends.
The puppeteers sent down their next set of instructions. Prom King tied his necktie around his forehead like a banshee. He then turned and performed a few lethargic catwalk struts. This last act apparently satisfied whatever dare or lost bet or hazing ritual he’d been subjected to, and he slunk away, re-assembling his clothes in transit.
I pondered his possible aftermath on my way back to the office. The obvious goal of this dare/bet/hazing was to publicly embarrass him. Clearly, the reluctant exhibitionist had the last laugh. If only a few people saw him, how embarrassed should he actually be, since no one seemed to notice?
This haze of anonymity is something New Yorkers appreciate. The eclectic, the odd and the outrageous mix on city streets to such a degree that we have become indifferent to differences. But at what point does polite dismissal cross over into cognitive blindness? A few weeks after the striptease, another Midtown event prompted this question.
I was heading down Seventh Avenue during the evening rush hour. A thin, dark-haired man was kneeling on the sidewalk. He was clean and neatly groomed, wearing crisp business-casual office garb. I’ve seen people suddenly bow down on the street, praying to Mecca and the like. Only this guy wasn’t praying.
He had one leg tucked under him, with the other splayed out in front of him and a bare foot propped over a subway grate. On the bare foot, he was clipping his toenails. His deft hands semi-circled over the big toe—snip, snip, snip—the discards falling to their fate in the subway tunnel below. I paused to watch the swarms of people nearby.
There was the ritual executive stampede toward the subway lines that fed into Penn Station along with a few tourists who’d strayed north of Times Square. Directly around the man, nobody slowed or stopped. The foot traffic moved by like a gurgling stream passing over a boulder. It was understandable—people had places to be—and it’s not like it would make sense to call 311 to report: “There’s a man clipping his toenails.” But just a mere half block away, oblivion had taken effect. People focused on watches, cellphone conversations, the balancing act of too many bags; but they never saw the man kneeling on the street.
Of course, this emergency pedicure seemed bizarre. The man was too well pressed to be homeless. So what toenail predicament couldn’t wait until he got home? Or at the very least, why not choose a discreet doorway instead of a flooded sidewalk? But upon second thought, his reasoning seemed disturbingly logical. Why shouldn’t he groom himself wherever and whenever the mood struck? Who’d even notice?
Melanie Schutt splits her work time between writing articles and running a marketing & copywriting business. Read more at www.mediabistro.com/melanieschutt