Walking through Times Square today, I was nearly run over by a hearse. Of course, some of the blame rests with my distraction. I stood there on Broadway, waiting to cross 42nd, my neck craned to fix a bewildered gaze on the spectacle above me. My eyes brushed across the Pollock-canvas draped over the Westin, the five-story can of Diet Coke, Madame Tussaud’s outstretched arm, a billboard showing a cougar stretched across a reclining woman (Advertising jeans, or cat food? I mused faintly), with the rumblings of ten thousand taxis, and the tittering of ten thousand tourists buzzing in my ears. Like a man with his head under an open fire hydrant, my brain could do little but choke and splutter beneath the torrent of color and sound. The signs flashed, the billboards swirled; Times Square spun above me like a mobile over a cradle, and I stared up with obedient wonder.
I chanced to see the traffic light turn red, and took three, unthinking steps into the street, where the squeal of tires and the shriek of a car horn jarred me back to life. Tensed for impact, I glanced right to see the hearse skid just feet before me, rumbling and bucking in rebellion. I suppose the driver thought to beat the light, perhaps racing towards the 9A to head upstate for the weekend; clearly, he forgot that death takes no holidays.
Frozen with shock, I could not stop a few of the unprintable words rolling inside my head from trickling out of my slack jaw, while the driver responded with some encouragement of his own, punctuating every syllable with emphatic jabs of an upraised finger. I shook life back into my limbs, and quickly plunged forward into the river of suits and cameras that swept around me.
I made it perhaps a block before my body mutinied against me: my stomach ran laps around my abdomen, my heart sought to crack my ribs with its beating, and sweat cascaded through the crevices of my hands. “I almost died”—I began with a whisper that rose quickly into a terrified giggle as the inanity of death by hearse while contemplating ambiguous advertisements gripped my larynx, and sent chills down my spine.
Suddenly, the Square took on a sinister character: the billboards’ glared with the light of a hundred fires consuming the heart of New York, and the clamor of traffic and tourism had the panicked quality of civilians fleeing a catastrophe. Everywhere I looked, glass doors swung wide like the gaping maws of beasts, emitting blasts of hot breath into the faces of the shoppers they swallowed in droves. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, blotting out the oppressive thoughts, and continued forward, resolving to keep my mind at the street-level for the rest of my walk.
Barely a block later, an incongruous sight arrested my progress once more. A lone homeless man stood on an island of solitude amid the flood of humanity, an outstretched hand pleading soundlessly for help, as the multitude swept by, giving him a wide berth: Moses could not have divided that sea any more thoroughly. An enormous image of Jay-Z, advertising his clothing brand, loomed directly above the man; many of the passerby studiously focused their gaze on the brooding rapper, rather than face the gritty reality that confronted them on the sidewalk.
How can we live like this? I wondered. We see so much, but we know nothing. We’re children looking at pretty pictures, wandering through a world full of speeding hearses. I saw person after person choose passive indifference, and I felt a strange sort of courage.
Gingerly, I stepped into the void surrounding the bedraggled figure. His eyes narrowed, he asked, “How you today, boy?”
“Grateful,” I replied. “Can I buy you some lunch?”