There are age-old ways that reveal whether a pedestrian in New York City is a tourist. The accountant from Wichita, with kids in tow, has a map in hand trying to find the Bronx Zoo. The secretary from Switzerland with English as her second or third language looks with considerable difficultly at the street signs trying to figure out if she is in SoHo. A suburbanite from Connecticut is trying to find MOMA. He asks a barely interested young man perched on the steps in front of an art gallery on 5th Avenue idling his day away. These are the tourists – all strangers to us and to each other. We cannot help but notice as they come in and out of our lives in a flash. They are hard to avoid.
However, there is another type of tourist. The one who does not touch our lives as the others do. He is less intrusive. He stops dead in his tracks on a sidewalk, perhaps on 42nd Street or more likely in front of the Empire State Building. His head tilted back as if he has some sort of twinge in his neck. Eyes focused on the sky like a search light with hands outstretched as if to touch the hand of God, he looks and looks and looks.
To inhabitants of the city, this ritual among visiting strangers seems odd. Unlike an old Indian chief praying to the gods for an intense rain, the New Yorker wonders what the stranger is doing. The chief does what all chiefs do after the season’s crops are planted. Unlike the pilgrim in Mecca, solemnly positioned on the ground among thousands of others, bobbing back and forth, meditating to protect his soul and earn his rightful place in the heavens, the New Yorker is perplexed by the strangers’ actions.
It could be that these strangers, always looking up, know each other. They are perhaps part of some group and will meet up later.
They simply are not together the moment the city dweller notices one of them. They are in fact spread throughout the city: on the Upper East Side, in Midtown, down in the Bowery, at Herald Square, in the East Village, smack dab in the center of Times Square, and on Wall Street. They are ensuring. They get many different views of that which powerfully captures their attention and urges them to act in response. The New Yorker though, rushes, rushes, rushes, from the office to the lunch counter, back to the office, to the newspaper stand, onto the subway and then home. He senses something unusual, but the demands of his life do not permit him to investigate further.
There could be something of interest high above the beaten up sidewalks, spewing man-holes, clanging buses, rutted newspaper stands, steaming hotdog carts and the din of the crowd shared only by these tilted-head strangers, forcing them to act in a congruous way. It could be something mythical. It is perhaps sacred. Whatever it is that drives them to complete capitulation apparently only qualified eyes see.
A New Yorker’s rituals make more sense to the city dweller than those of the stranger-tourist. His are easier to comprehend. They are concrete. They often times generate an immediate result. He rides the subway, grabs a pretzel, and reads the Post or the Times. As examined by a local, the stranger who looks towards the sky seems to be involved in an activity similar to those of many other strangers but none of them connect in any meaningful way. The strangers lack the same bonds, familiarity, way of life, and certainly the most common of ties, habitation in the city. Each citizen of the city through convenience, hunger and thirst, government decree, or just pure necessity, takes part in rituals shared by all.
What the New Yorker who observes such behavior among strangers does not realize is that rituals do not just occur in a strictly defined space or among a particular group with multiple ties; shared rituals survive among the completely unrelated too.
In the end, all of those heavenly-facing tourists are part of a ritualistic group of strangers with sprouting communal bonds: they are those non-New Yorkers awestruck by a conspicuously large city of tall buildings. To really see these buildings in all of their glory, and in fact, to be part of yet another ritual, you must look up.
Written by Andrew Mastrandonas
Photography provided by New York Tourism