After a professional conference in New Jersey had wrapped up, I had scheduled a day to explore Manhattan on foot. An advantage that I had was that I could cover a good deal of ground, all ends of it, in a day. That is a blessing that I feel that most people would clamor for, if they only knew what they were missing. On my trek, I found ‘The Highline’, which is miles of elevated, abandoned railway that had been turned into a park. It was full of tall native grasses and did a masterful job of letting one drift away in pretending that one was not in the middle of a city. After exploring it, I realized that I had read a National Geographic article about it many years ago.
You are more guaranteed to see the main highlights and have a reasonably good standard experience if your trip is focused and planned. On the other hand, wandering is more haphazard, but there is that aspect of playing the slot machine of discovery. I find pulling the chance lever on exploratory experiences so much more fun than sitting in any casino. One must be prepared to handle breaking 21 though. Some experiences end up going to the dealer, but as with playing with money, don’t bet more than you are prepared to lose. I try to keep it to no more than wasted time and an occasional mildly unpleasant experience.
The trunks of the oak trees were broad and full of scars, much like old soldiers that had seen their share of the world. The canopy above intermingled, casting complete shade and making it a pleasant and cool place to hide from the sun. It was difficult to believe that a half a block in any direction was the concrete of downtown Manhattan. Many other cities and suburbs would be wise to appreciate the value of little nuggets of sustenance such as this one block wide park. As I walked through, an elderly black man called up to me and said “three dollars to the winner”. He was sitting by himself at a permanent chess board made of concrete and tile, one of many in a line. He had the board set up with handsome, but well worn chess pieces. He motioned me to sit down. I normally don’t give panhandlers the time of day, as a rule, but I realized that he was not a panhandler. Perhaps I realized that the definition of what a panhandler is is not as clear as I thought. I had time, this looked interesting, I could play chess, I followed his hand motions to my seat. As we started playing, he asked me “do you know where you are?” He moved a piece. “Somewhere in Manhattan, I’m just visiting for the day” I replied while moving a piece of my own, taking much more time than him. I had a very good opening game, one that often impressed, but it almost always fell completely apart once the battle for control of the middle of the board was not the main focus. “This is the park, and these were the tables, that Bobby Fischer would sneak off to when he was a child”. His body moved very slowly as he reached for the next move, but he took no time to think. Every time my hand would leave a piece, the slow motion reach would start immediately. He was an excellent speaker and gave me a complete sitting tour of the place, which was quite rich and interesting. It seemed like the game lasted for the exact amount of time for the complete history of the area to be told. He wrapped up the tour by saying “checkmate”. Was that a coincidence, or could he toy with me for the allotted time of lessons to be conveyed? He smiled, I paid him $3, and walked away feeling like that had been the best $3 I had ever spent.
Later in the day, I came across another one block, by one block park, shoehorned into an urban area. This one was in the middle of a high end business district and was more of a sculpture park. What was very unusual was that it was completely full of people, with a ring of police, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder all the way around it, but on the other side of the street. That means that there were a whole lot of them. The police were not stopping anybody, or doing anything, other than standing there, on all sides, and looking rather menacing. Apart from those motionless ones on the outskirts, it looked rather inviting, so I walked in. The atmosphere was a hybrid of low key party and a somewhat disorganized conference. Some unknown person had just made a large pizza delivery, and it was clear that everyone was welcome. Someone else was giving a talk while using a makeshift sound system. Even after listening for a bit, it was not clear to me what she was talking about. About one quarter of the crowd was listening and three quarters were continuing with their subdued party. It seemed a rather bizarre and interesting situation but it was time for me to move on, as I had no clear idea what it was about. As I was walking out past the perimeter, I decided to talk to what looked like the head policeman. I didn’t see how this would be a problem because he was just standing there, motionless and doing nothing. I figured that he must be terribly bored. I said to him “this seems pretty peaceful”. In those words was hidden ‘what are so many of you doing here?’. I don’t remember what the words of his reply were, but I remember that it was verbally polite, but in them, was not hidden, ‘get the hell out of here’. It was so completely comfortable in the crowd and so different at the perimeter. A couple of days later, I found that I had wandered into “Occupy Wall Street” at its beginning, just before it got famous. I feel lucky. My Blackjack hand had come up 21 for the day.