Photos Standa Merhout
Makeup Artist Renee Garnes
Styling Eryka Clayton
Art direction Tommaso Nicolao
Digital artist Jeffrey Tomaka
Models Ashley Karah @Ab-Models & Michelle Dantas @The Industry Model mgmt
I notice her at Uniqlo while I’m looking for a light jacket to wear in spring or fall. She’s an attractive woman, dressed incredibly simply. More neutral than casual: a white t-shirt, blue jeans, gray Converse. She looks about thirty, with clear skin and long hair; her bangs have been slightly ruffled by the wind, although it may be simply due to lack of interest. The light from the neon fixtures embeds overhead glints off her lip gloss, creating fascinating refractive patterns. I notice her within the chaos of the vast warehouse just as one notices a stranger’s face in the crowd: a sound in the silence. I observe her almost involuntarily for a few seconds as she feels the fabric of a skirt.
The energy that a stranger’s gaze can generate is surprising. Embarrassment, modesty, fear, shyness, shame: I don’t want to trigger any of that. For a moment I worry that she might turn her head and fix her eyes in mine, so I avert my gaze and allow the thought of that face to disappear.
I leave the store a few minutes later. The sidewalk on Fifth Avenue is a river of bodies. Tourists of all ages: old people, young people, newborns. Businessmen in suits whose colors range from gray to black, moving through every possible shade of blue. I walk toward the park, thinking about humanity and the enormous difference between the anonymous masses and a familiar face. I think: a myriad of strangers take up less space than a single individual with whom we have shared just one glance. Perhaps all of humanity is condensed and fits into that one silent exchange.
This thought deserves to be fleshed out, but, in my mind, that topic of reflection is overpowered by the visual appeal of the store windows.
Fifth Avenue is a triumph of creativity, where each store offers up spectacular sets glorifying luxury products. Bags, shoes, perfume, jewels, watches: life is breathed into people’s dreams in the scenes taking place in the few square feet of the window. After just a few strides, the surreal inflections of Sacks’ windows capture my attention. These little theaters have it all: the narrative wisdom of Broadway musicals, the expositional rigor of a contemporary art gallery, the flawless execution of ephemeral sculptures that will last for only a season. The lyrical expression of an object conceived, produced, displayed, and sold. The comedy of marketing.
I observe all of this as I dodge committees of Asian tourists, French and Italian families, and striking Eastern European couples, all exhausted after a tiring day of shopping. In a moment of distraction between one store and another I randomly look north and spot the green tops of the trees that mark out the entrance to Central Park. They look like the light at the end of a tunnel in the chaos of that crowded street. A reachable destination, a free port. I’m at 54th Street and I speed up, quickly scanning the shop windows of Harry Winston and Massimo Dutti. At 55th Street it’s Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani’s turn. At 57th Street a red light and a swarm of yellow taxis force me to stop. The countdown on the stoplight begins and lets me know one thing for certain: I have twenty seconds to focus on the jewelry in the Tiffany window display.
For a moment I think about the dark halls of New York’s Museum of Natural History, where precious stones of fairytale worth are displayed on black velvet that absorbs any reflection or refraction. How many times had I visited those halls to admire Indian sapphires and blue diamonds? Those small, rough objects that man had elevated to the status of power symbols, that spurred man to murder and love. I look at the window, which displays a small necklace full of precious stones, and I think: all that is rare has value. That is how simple human existence can be. The key to success.
I ignore the countdown and enter the jewelry store.
Subtle accents of the aquamarine color always associated with Tiffany’s are present all over. I begin to walk around beneath the vaulted ceiling, observing the pieces of jewelry that follow, one after the other, in their glass and steel cases, finally stopping at a tiny necklace bearing the image of a clock. Then the voice of a woman by my side distracts me. I hear her ask something to the shop attendant in front of me. I keep my eyes on the display case and see the shop attendant slide the jewelry out, remove the necklace pointed out by the client, and hold it out to her.
I look up and see her: the woman I had noticed at Uniqlo. Simple and beautiful in her white t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, her lips shining with a layer of lip gloss. She is still her, and I am still here.
I see her hold the piece of jewelry, a thin, plain gold chain whose pendant, however, is an impressively large diamond.
“Okay,” she says. “This one will do,” I hear her tell the shop attendant.
“Wonderful,” the shop attendant answers. “I’ll wrap it for you. In the meantime my colleague can see you over there for payment,” I hear him say, observing that he himself is surprised by the rapid sale and the client’s confident decision-making.
She answers him with an agreeable smile. Then I see her put her hand into the back pocket of her jeans and take out a black credit card. Only now do I realize that she doesn’t even have a purse.
I’m less than two yards away from her, and I can watch her out of the corner of my eye as she pays. I’m fairly certain that she doesn’t even look at the price before signing the receipt. Then I turn my head and see the shop attendant engaged in an intricate wrapping process. The piece of jewelry is placed within a rigid case, which is then wrapped in aquamarine tissue paper and placed inside a little bag of the same color, marked with the refined font of the Tiffany logo.
I follow the shop attendant’s hand with my eyes as he holds the bag out to the client: an exchange of goods. The woman’s fingers close around the bag and my gaze keeps going, sliding over her thin arm, her strong shoulder, and then her neck and her face, observing her eyes, which match Tiffany’s signature color: aquamarine. At this point I expect her to turn her head a few degrees and fix her gaze in mine, but instead I see her thank the shop attendants and walk away, a serene smile lingering on her lips. The whole scene could be summarized in just one word: serenity.
The two shop attendants who had carried out the sale exchange a knowing glance, shocked by the ease of the transaction. They hadn’t needed to explain or convince her: they merely went along with a planned decision.
I think: all that is rare has value. That is how simple human existence can be. The key to success.
After a few seconds I turn around and see the woman leave the store. So far, nothing has occurred that would make me think that she has noticed me. In her eyes, I am the crowd, the anonymous masses, whereas she is the one. She is the sound in the silence.
But none of this matters. I am not in love; I am not imagining scenes of my potential future life with her. I simply noticed her; nothing more. I was going to the park after work one summer Friday, and, on a walk that could have been free of any kind of obstacle, I encountered one. But it was fleeting, and, in fact, as soon as I see her walk out of the store’s revolving door, I gradually begin to think about other things. Of course, my interest had been piqued by the ease with which she had spent such a sensational amount of money (five thousand dollars? fifteen thousand? fifty thousand?), but now that she is out of my line of vision, the thought of her begins to disintegrate.
I also leave the store, and I continue walking north. A bench, I think. I want a bench. I want to sit and think about humanity. Because, in my mind, that is what New York is: humanity. I don’t want to think about jewelry and luxury products. I don’t want to think about traffic. I want to think about the individual who emerges from the masses and the masses that erase the individual. To put it briefly, I want to sit down and do nothing, because it’s Friday, because I’ve worked all week, and because, right now, nothing else is required of me.
I cross Central Park South, preparing myself to leave the concrete jungle for the forest’s greenery, when I hear the unmistakable sound of the ice cream truck. It’s past six, but the sun is still projecting sharp shadows on this late August evening. In a bit I’ll want a drink, but right now maybe it’s time to eat some ice cream. I walk toward the truck and observe the illustrated menu, which displays an assortment of multi-colored popsicles. None of them seem particularly inviting, but something draws me to those vivid and childish colors, to the occasionally psychedelic curves of those products’ various shapes. The Rocket, Spidey, Cyclone… each popsicle seems to have been dreamed up as a way to communicate a complex, epic narrative that has space for both heroes and anti-heroes. Each popsicle is a weapon: a foam sword to defeat nightmares.
I have never done this before, but for some reason I buy The Rocket, a popsicle shaped like a three-color rocket in pink, orange, and yellow. I draw an involuntary equivalence and associate the colors with flavors: strawberry, orange, and lemon. It’s food, but it’s also a sculpture. Its purpose is to quench thirst and fill stomachs, but it’s sold as a visual experience, as the protagonist of a compelling story.
I throw out the indulgent, polychromatic wrapper and enter the park, walking down toward the pond that outlines its southeastern border. In the end, I sit on a bench next to the path that circles the pond’s mirrored surface. The muffled sounds of the city mix with the buzz of the cicadas and the song of a very white-haired man who accompanies himself with just his hands clapping out a rhythm. For some reason the whole area is almost deserted. A tourist couple does not stop to look at the new skyscrapers reflected in the pond. A mother and child do not stop to throw breadcrumbs to the ducks hiding among the aquatic plants.
The singing man and I are the only two people who are not just passing through. I sit, popsicle in hand, staring out at the pond. He sits with his back to the pond, his hat resting on the ground.
Then I notice a third person a short way off, partially hidden next to a tree on the little beach that allows closer access to the water. White t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, small Tiffany bag: her again.
The girl looks out at the pond and, once again, I can make out an expression of great serenity on her face. Now I feel uncomfortable: I’m afraid she thinks I’m following her. I’m afraid she’ll notice me, but I can’t seem to look away from that now-familiar figure. Then I see her open the Tiffany bag and take out the tissue paper with the jewelry box inside it. I see her unwrap the tissue paper and put it back in the empty bag, which she then rests on the ground. I see her open the jewelry box and take out the precious necklace, hold it between her thumb and index finger and let it dangle in front of her eyes. She looks at it with pleasure for a few seconds, as if the object provoked happy memories within her. The facets of the diamonds generate flashes of light that once again reflect off her glossy lips. Then I see her lower her eyelids, and with a controlled but energetic action she throws the precious diamond into the center of the flat pond.
The gold and diamond object pierces the surface of the water with a dull splash, provoking only slight ripples.
I stay still, shocked by the scene I have just witnessed. She stays still, observing the gently rippling water. The white-haired man keeps singing and clapping his hands, passionately intoning the notes of a Gospel hymn.
When the girl turns around I am filled with terror: I don’t want her to realize that she has been seen. I lower my gaze and begin licking the popsicle, but at the same time I distinctly hear her walk in my direction. When she is just a few feet away from me, I can’t help but glance toward her. Her gaze meets mine. A marvelous calm spreads across her face and, in a flash, I feel incredibly at ease.
“Looks really good,” she tells me with a childish air, pointing at my popsicle. “The Rocket, right? Where did you get it?”
I look at her with a hesitant smile. “There’s a truck just outside the park,” I answer, pointing toward its location.
She gives me a knowing glance, and then I see her disappear along the path toward the exit with the elegance of a tamed animal. I realize that the singing has stopped, too, and in the place of the white-haired man there is now a family taking selfies with the city during sunset as a backdrop.