Strange Travels, Part 3: Science on Sunday in SoHo

My adventures in NY, continued: Sunday Morning

I say the last of my farewells, and lament that I can’t see all my sciblings again before I leave. With plenty of time before my flight, I decide to go wander around New York a little bit. It turns out to be a natural choice... it almost feels as if I’ve found my own unique path in this city of five million people.. For instance, I stop near NYU to look at some paperback books displayed on a rickety card table along the sidewalk. There seems to be an unusually high number of philosophical pieces, I note, as I purchase a book on metamorphosis. The book is calling to me... after all, that’s what I’ve been thinking about, of course. But, as I look up, I see the building above me has its own special welcome. "To Science and Art" it reads.


It isn’t just the little things... the whole city is like a giant fractal, with scaling patterns in everything: the architecture, the urban gardening, taxis flowing along the streets in complex adaptive rhythms, the seemingly infinite variety of people, and even the smells, which can range from pastries to piss to roses in a single breeze.


New York has embraced the beauty of its chaos... perhaps far better than my own hometown. The city seems to have a much lighter population density of homeless people than Denver. It made me feel like we’re missing something with our sparse diversity, something that literally leaves people out in the cold.

One scene stops me in my tracks. A bicycle leans against a "NO parking anytime" sign. A transient sleeps in shadow beneath a sculpture, and more strikingly, beneath a giant, gleaming bank. Maybe I’m the only one standing on the sidewalk who notices the unsettling irony. There isn’t anything I can do, except observe the scene and walk on. The only thing in my pockets is a credit card, which seems to be more fitting of the bank in the background, rather than the guy in the shadow. When did it become this way? What good is plastic money if you can’t pull it out to help someone? Not that this guy was even asking... he seems simply grateful for to be able to nap in the shade. Still, I feel the urge to do something, even if I can’t help him. I decide that I’m supposed to write about that unease... and not just in my blog.


While can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that I am the one carrying the plastic, not sleeping on sculpture, making me the less-adaptable one, I realize I can’t spend my day obsessing about it. This isn’t the time to dwell on someone else’s story, is it?

So, the next thing I know, I’m performing one of the most shallow acts I could possibly come up with: sampling perfume. Maybe it isn’t completely shallow, though, I realize, standing there in the lovely perfume and tea shop. Scents can bring comfort, maybe satisfy some pheremonal urge. Scents and sights, be they comforting or disturbing, noxious or heavenly... they all are a part of our strangely beautiful but chaotic world. I eventually decide that I haven’t bought perfume in a decade, and anything I bought would last another still. Pampering can’t hurt every once in a while. I buy a bottle of "Chinatown"--which would later be the cause of my bag being flagged at the airport.

I’m able to put some of those thoughts out of my head as the rich art scene surrounding me begins to sink in. I’m suddenly in SoHo, the art district south of Houston street. There are galleries and artists working on the street all around me. But all the troubling scenes, starving artists, perfumeries and galleries slip my mind as I turn the next corner, and see this flag:


It’s open. The Evolution Store (full of "Science and Art in SoHo") turns out to be incredible. Skulls, mounted insects, mineral specimens, fossils and more... I wander around for what seems like hours, before buying a replica of a velociraptor claw for my son, a t-shirt, a carved stone fish, and naturally, a fox penis bone. (I’m a slightly sick science geek, what can I say? Plus, the fox is traditionally a symbol of cunning, so now I can say I have a tricky dick lying around at home.)


The store is wonderful, but I’m not sure that they really want me to stay there all day, so I leave, and decide to check out some of the "regular" brand of SoHo art. I’m not disappointed.

i-71517fa8cf08ff6ca228e241243d15b7-earlsoho.jpgOne of the first artists who catches my eye, Patrick Earl, is displaying his work right on the street. In this display, he has a series of small square "stores" with various themes, each containing an expressive shopkeeper. Something about the people in his little storefronts strikes me, like they each have their own personality, befitting the advertisements and advisements painted on their walls. My favorites are definitely "Life Coach" and "Club NO", although I’ll also love the "Get Heavy Used Bookstore" when I visit Earl’s website later on. (His site, which he hands to me on a pre-made, hand-sketched business card, is where I borrowed the picture to the left; it’s well worth a visit.)

"I don’t really know any of these people," the artist tells me, "I just paint the stores and they’re the ones that are supposed to go in them." (I’ll confess, he says something to that effect; I’m paraphrasing, not carrying my notes along with me.)

It’s funny, because I was thinking the same thing about the characters in the fictional stories I sometimes write. They just belong in the stories, and the stories are always built on the same framework, ideas which write themselves. I’d just finished reading a little Stephen King, and I noticed he’s been saying something to the same effect for years. I rather wish he wouldn’t... it tends to give people this false assumption that a writer can see how things are supposed to be. But we just discover how weird they can get, not anything with useful certainty. Isn’t that life... or chaos?

i-60952de6dccaf0f283006977e2919916-sternny.jpgAnother artist, Isack Stern, appeals to the photographer in me. His works, as large as Earl’s were small, seem to capture that very fractal essence I’ve been observing in New York. Some of his work shows elegant ocean waves, but the one that takes my breath is a New York skyline, set behind a pond in Central Park. He used both digital photography and old-fashioned film and darkroom techniques to create it, using an airbrushed, rosy look to color an otherwise monochrome image. Printed at a scale that dominated the sidewalk, it is a wonderful effect. There seems to be great depth between the skyline and its reflection in the water. ("Reflections are complex, aren’t they?" I’ll think, looking again at it later.)

Finally, I wander back to Union Square to get my luggage, but not before stopping for a slice of pizza. That turns out to be is as delicious as I had hoped, if not a little large... like the size of a mini Manhattan island. My feet are finally, after weeks of walking, starting to hurt. More than that, the ideas in my head are falling into place, looking like some sort of plot.

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Wow. One of the things about living in NYC is that sometimes you need an outsider's perspective to remind you what an awesome place this is. Thank you - and I'll be visiting The Evolution Store just as soon as my paycheck allows...

Thanks for "taking me along" on your travels! That was lovely. And I'm glad you got to enjoy that slice of pizza - I know you were longing for it!