The Sidewalks of New York

June 5,2002

I just walked back from the mailbox on the corner, a block away. Barefoot.

Even though I could have walked across the grass, I didn't -- the grass tickles my feet, there may be some muddy areas, and most importantly, I'm allergic to it. There's too little tactile pleasure from grass-walking to merit a nasty rash.

So I walked on the harsh concrete sidewalk - better than a pumic stone, I'm sure. I should tell Stu to walk barefoot on the sidewalks, which should wear down some of his callus issues.

I know I've talked about sensuality before, but I can't find an entry on what I find to be a shame -- that we've lost so much of our other senses to the tyranny of sight and hearing. I just read in this month's issue of Natural History that the bulk of the genes humans have for smelling are inactive or defective. To a certain extent, genes for nasal receptors are very delicate - whereas it is posited that we have 5 different types of taste buds, and we have only 4 kinds of receptors in the eye, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of possible volatile organochemicals we'd like to smell. Heck, without smell, the dimensions of our taste falls flat, which is why I. constant hay fever sufferer, use really strong-flavored sauces on most of my food (ah, Worcestershire sauce!)

Being a worker of yarn, being a guitar-player, and being a person who walks barefoot to put out the mail, I'm rather attuned to the tactile pleasures. I have been wearing brighter colors of late, but I care more about how the rayon or polyester, cotton or leather, acetate or silk, feels against my skin. I've always been grabby when it comes to other people's clothes - esp. shirts with cool textures. I like scritching the chins of my friends with really thick beards, petting dogs, running my feet over weird rugs, and tweaking my nose with the satin border of my blankie. Mmmm, satin. I also want to learn Braille eventually, and perhaps I'll bring one of my Braille books with me this summer (The Lorax, I think it is).

Smells are much less operative in my life, for the obvious reason - I can't smell. This isn't really the season for good smells anyway, walking around in NYC. My allergies are a blessing on the subway platforms, where one can smell where the homeless men have their impromptu urinals, and exactly how many people are experiencing massive deoderant failure. I suppose NYC buildings are so over-AC-ed to try to freeze the nasal receptors.

Still, in the season for good smells - fall - I can make applesauce or banana bread, and simply feed off the smell. Ooooh, nutmeg.

What has particularly brought these thoughts to mind, other than my direct experience, is the book Connections, by James Burke. In the book, Burke describes the life of an old feudal manor, with its central hearth and its floor of rushes, soaking up the sops. People openly belched and farted, pet the dogs under (or on) the tables, and in the summer, everybody hoped the flowers mixed in with the rushes would mask the putrid smells arising from the mass of bodies. As well, everybody slept in that very room, sometimes the year-round (for those old stone houses were cold), and perhaps the lord and lady would have a curtain to wall off their feather-tick bed on the floor, but pretty much everyone was there. Though movement was limited, the closeness of human relations then is unimaginable for most of us with our private bedrooms and bathrooms. The destroyer of this snug community was the invention of the chimney and fireplace, so that one could have a heat source in one's own room -- as well, increases in production (and die off in labor, thanks to the Black Death) meant instead of the shared benches and tables, any person - even a peasant! - could afford to have their own, personal chair. There were poets of the time who decried this loss, and saw the separation of the presiding lord and lady from their feudal subjects as indicating a breakdown in society.

Now we live in a society where it is inexcusable to emit a smell (actually, those wearing perfume are in the losing category -- perfume is being banned from many closed workspaces), a society where it would not be unusual to never feel the warm asphalt under one's toes (the favorite part of my walk -- though the sun isn't really out, the road surface is warm, for it holds heat much better than the light , reflective sidewalk), a society where it is considered inhuman to have a group of people share a single sleeping space (as happens with migrant workers).

I'm not saying the present is better or worse. But I agree with Burke, and especially with Margaret Mead, that we live in a society where technology has made it so that one wants regularity, homogeneity, and above all, the comfort associated with these things -- we want to tame reality so remove the surprises. As I told a fortune teller in Hyde Park - I want to be surprised, I don't want to know the future. The products we make for ourselves, to entertain out of novelty, actually =reduces= surprise. That is partly the result of email and cellphones - no need to wonder where anyone is - partly the result of the internet and blogging - no need to wonder as to what others think.

There's still plenty of surprises out there. It's just interesting that often in history, technological innovation was stymied or opposed because of the surprises it would bring -- skilled craftworkers in Europe destroying automatic looms and preventing the development of standardization, whereas in America it was promoted simply due to the =lack= of skilled craftsmen. Now an increase in technology is seen to be a reduction in uncertainty.

Anyway, just a few thoughts, as I felt the seams in the sidewalks, cracks digging into my feet -- seams and cracks I trip on when I wear my Birks.

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