On a recent late summer afternoon, I stood at the bus stop of the #M11 at 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw an object fall to the ground and, despite the relentless urban din, I heard it land about ten feet away from me. I looked up and saw two teenaged boys on a terrace above Citibank and realized that it fell from one of their hands. My instinct was to retrieve it and toss it about 20 feet up, if I could. They gestured that I not do that and then held their index fingers to their closed lips to ask that I say nothing.
I looked at the item. It was a folded dollar bill. By color and marking, there was no doubt it was money. I could see it from a distance and watched -- as the boys did from above -- as people walked past it and over it.
Any of you who take buses in New York know that the city’s bus service has deteriorated in the past year or so. The bus sign indicated, if I recall, that a bus would come at 4:30 pm, another at 4:45 pm and another at 5:00 pm. So, while watching the dollar with one eye, I looked up the avenue with the other to find an M11. This is not a route out-of-towners know. Real New Yorkers use it and there is a convivial esprit de corps on this line because we know how unreliable its service is.
In New York we have an expression, “banana buses,” to indicate those buses whose travels bear no relation to the posted schedule. Instead, like bananas, they come in bunches. The weather was pleasant, so I stood for more than thirty minutes until three M11s arrived together. In the meantime, I quietly joined the boys in their research project.
When I wrote my very first post for this blog (you are reading the 59th), I emphasized how passionately I feel about how most of us barely use those divine gifts that are our senses. [I can hear some you say, “What does Fred not feel passionately about?” Answer: Anything named Kardashian]. I thought of that blog post again, with remorse, because I saw that most of my fellow New Yorkers are walking around in an enclosed stupor of their own creation.
On that day, many ears -- two ears per head -- were plugged with “ear buds” that pumped in sound from some kind of MP3 player. Many were so loud that I could hear the music from several feet away. Often, these earbudniks bobbed their heads around, eyes glazed, as they ambled forward. Many other people were walking with heads down, talking on their phones and being completely detached from their surroundings. Eyes of pedestrians who were not talking were fixed on little screens of Androids, iPhones or just plain old cell phones. Those few people who were not looking at a screen while walking were staring blankly down or up but not really taking in where they were and where they were headed. Many sipped coffee from huge cups or soft drinks from bottles or cans. Pedestrians barely missed colliding, seeming to have just enough radar to avoid contact.
This being New York, there were people of every race, religion, sexual orientation, political party and national origin. There were, I am sure, people of means, but also quite a few people for whom even a dollar would have made a difference. People walked past the dollar, occasionally stepping on it. A woman stood near it, picking recyclables out of a trash can. She stepped on the dollar twice. Dogs on leashes sniffed it but their masters took no notice.
The teenagers watched from above in amazement. It took a full 28 minutes before an elderly African-American man moving slowly spotted the dollar, looked all around, and then picked it up quickly and pocketed it. The boys shook their arms exultantly. I wondered if they had bet on how long it would take for someone to pick up the dollar. Two minutes later, the banana buses arrived. The first was packed, the second had a few passengers and the last one was empty. That is the one I chose. Meanwhile, most of the 20 people at the stop (none of whom saw the dollar for the 28 minutes it was near us), crammed into the first bus. They were not paying attention. My empty bus bypassed the first two and got me to my destination quickly.
What is the point of this essay? It has become sadly evident that we live in a society where people do not pay attention. This has profound consequences for our success as a nation, for our holding public officials accountable and expecting them to be public servants. Ten years ago, right after 9/11, there was solidarity in our sadness and resolve. We looked at one another, sought interaction and attempted to provide kindness and human warmth as we could. It lasted about a year. Then, with hardening realities and war on the horizon, many of us (not just New Yorkers, but all Americans) retreated to the drone and visual overstimulation of television, to the constant sound that passes as music, to the ear-splitting noise that we reprehensibly allow ourselves to live in.
Cities such as New York and London have horrifyingly loud sirens on emergency vehicles. New York has public transportation that makes an undue amount of extra sound at high decibels. It puts many people on edge, which is why so many of us are looking for ways to tune out. By contrast, Paris and Vienna have vehicles and conveyances designed not to jar the nerves acoustically. Garbage in Paris is collected at hours when most people are awake so that their sleep will be undisturbed by the loud crashing and gnashing one hears in Manhattan.
Apart from indifference to the noise and sensory abuse few people try to remedy (and which is affecting our hearing, nerves and blood pressure), we are permitting the uglification of much of visual landscape everywhere in the country. Franchising makes everything look like everything else, and many people think it is a virtue (“We have a Walmart and a Starbucks in our town, so we have achieved status,” goes the reasoning). I was recently in Pentagon City, Virginia and saw a collection of big-box stores and food chains that could have been almost anywhere in America, including part of historic cities such as New York or Boston. This collection of garish sameness induces a malady I call “mallsia.”
Now I hear (because I protect my hearing) you say, “what does this have to do with opera?” The answer is that most opera audience members I witness and converse with do not activate their eyes, ears and other senses to fully take in the experience. The numbing from the outside world has been brought into the theater. Senses have been overtaxed outside and people fail to sharpen them before the curtain goes up. So opera becomes a blur of beautiful music that is vaguely heard rather than listened to. Scenery and action passes before us rather than really being seen and perceived, and all of the other sensory experiences that happen during a performance barely register. I find that older people, even those with compromised hearing and vision, take more away from an opera, orchestral concert, play or lecture. This is because they grew up in a time when senses were more engaged.
This sensorial dulling in young and middle-aged people means that some opera managers and directors feel they have to ratchet up the visual (and sometimes acoustical) stakes with stimulating bling to make people think they actually had an experience. How many people can sit still and really take in the sound of one singer’s voice?
If we do not reclaim and empower our senses to work to the fullest, all kinds of aesthetic experiences -- and pleasures -- that once were accessible to us may be lost. Think I’m wrong? I’ll bet you a dollar that I am not.