What I love best about the city, and about wandering around in it at lunch, is discovering the little things that don’t quite fit into the grid that the city attempts to impose upon its parts. By “things” I mean business establishments, streets or alleys or other aspects of the built environment, even people. Maybe especially people.
In physics these things would be called salients. They are the parts that stick out from their surroundings. They are oddities, but often only because they are remnants of some earlier built or cultural environment, or one that exists parallel to the mainstream. Take sandwich boards, for example.
This is not the normal channel of advertisement for corporate lunch establishments of the early 21st century. Subway and Quiznos advertise on television (or at least they used to and I assume they still do, although again — and I can’t stress this point enough — I wouldn’t know because I failed to “tech up” for the new age of digital broadcast). Corporations do things in the most efficient way to maximize the return (in dollars) on dollars invested, and the most efficient way to do that, in terms of advertising, is to attach one’s noise to the mechanisms of mass advertising.
A sandwich board is not directed at the masses. At least not television masses. It is directed at a quaint creature called the passer-by. (I love that word, and I love being that creature.) The ideer is still to reach masses of people, so their isn’t really a difference here of intent (everyone is just trying to get enough people into their eatery to pay the bills and make some profit), but by accident of size and of the sandwhich board’s physical nature, something happens that is, to my lights, beautiful.
Here in a nicked up board is evidence, on several levels, that a human being in my geographic community has been about and is trying to reach me. First, the fact that the sign is here at all means that someone toted it up the long stairway from Post Alley to the intersection of First and Columbia, opened it up, and set it down. I can see this in my mind, even if I can’t actually picture the identity of the person who did this. The sign’s presence brings with it into my subconscience the image of its placement there by someone. There and not somewhere else, in fact. Human agency in the deliberate positioning of the board is implied.
Secondly, the board is a physical thing that has been built. I assume it was a human being that assembled these boards together with hinges, one of which seems to have popped apart in the board above. Thirdly, the logo of the pizza shop is not a national brand. It is itself a salient in the topography of food establishment logos. Some person started this business and is probably still starting this business, every day. Another photo will demonstrate a fourth evidence of the propinquity of some human spirit. The picture on the board in the photo below shows the actual motions of someone’s hand in painting it. The swooping gestures visible in this sign make me feel that someone is waving at me, some jolly Cajun in an apron inviting me to “come on in! Eat!”
We’ll be talking about this kind of thing a lot because it’s the parts that stick out that make life navigable for what I call my soul. My belly could find a Pizza Hut by simply following the imperatives of mass media, nor is it picky about where it finds itself. But my soul is always looking for God, and I always seem to be lost. It seems to be a permanent condition (and it’s not necessarily the wrong condition, nor even a generally lamentable one, since it implies that there is then always a direction I can turn and move in that is Godward). As I get older I am beginning to understand that for me (YMMV) this predicament necessitates my reliance on other human beings, because — wow, didn’t mean to go here, but here we are — however God may be glimpsed in abstracts or in disembodied contemplation, it is in my human spirit relating with another’s that I most immediately experience God’s actual presence.
So the corporate mass-media-advertised lunch spots are fine for those — even me sometimes — who just need grub, but the sandwich boards placed here and there along the impersonal surfaces of the city, and other salients I encounter in life, are a trail of breadcrumbs that assure my soul that it is travelling a road that, by however long a route, leads back home.