This morning on my way to the train I found a used copy of Infinite Jest, which I've been thinking should be my next long book to read, on the street. Then, rereading Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting" on the train, I came across this:

"Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against a complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world."

I love these serendipitous meetings of thought and occurrence. They remind me of my place as a little pebble of the endless stream of time and consciousness. I also read this line from Goethe, along with quotes from Ulysses, Ovid, Jung, and Mother Goose, in the tiles lining the long, dank underground walkway that snakes between the F and the 7 trains under Bryant Park:

“The unnatural—that too is natural.”

The tiles that surround the quotations, with mosaics and designs of tree roots and rock, make the whole corridor seem as much a part of the underground ecosystem as a well or an underground stream. The rush-hour flow of variant life-forms in the subway can sweep a soul along like a poor blue crab in flood tide, but at 6:00 this morning I still had time to tip the accordion player a buck, even listen to a whole song before getting to the 7.

The movement of New York City—24/7 public transit, city blocks that rarely look the same from year to year with new buildings going up, businesses closing and others springing forth eternally from the human breast—is simply an intensification of the cycle of birth, death, decomposition, and rebirth one can observe in the larger world. And anyone with a shred of perspective knows that death is itself a natural process—as long as it’s followed by regeneration, the process by which a species or a city carries on its strain after the death of individual organisms or organizations within it. If an environment becomes unsustainable for the organisms inhabiting it, though, death is in fact the end.

Not inclining toward any particular spiritual doctrine, I sometimes am bent over beneath the weight of my limited time among the living. My family gives me comfort at home, but my time on the train, walking the city streets, intensifies this sense of my own small place in the cycles of time and space. Finding a small book—or in the case of Infinite Jest a large book—with a familiar cover but an unknown interior is just as gratifying a pleasure as seeing a familiar face, in that it reminds me that I'm not alone on these streets, carried along by the pull of time and the tides of routine.

OK, back to work.

AuthorJohn Proctor