I was watching some very young kids playing on a pier next to the Hudson on the Jersey side a couple of evenings ago. Summer evenings are great for watching people in a place usually as cold as it is here all year round. The air was balmy and the mood pleasantly mellow.
One tiny person toddled over and stopped right in front of me and just stared for several minutes. At that age, the world is full of amazing wonders. It looked like s/he would like to say something but didn’t quite have the words for it yet. Another kid, barely older, followed this one to see what was up. This second one had the confident air of command. “Say hi,” ordered the second to the first. “Ba ba” was the response and they both dawdled along to more important work.
There were adults accompanying kids. Some were in their twenties and thirties, talking loudly and sitting in groups, enjoying the summer evening. There were all kinds of people. There were those I privately called the lecturers, accompanied by others I always thought of as gullible students. They’d look at the Manhattan skyline with an air of confidence and say, “That’s the Manhattan skyline.” They’d look at the sign of a fish crossed out on the wooden pier and observe “That’s a fish crossed out by authorities. No fishing here.” Or they’d look at a bench and explain, “That’s a bench to sit on.” Somehow, they always found people who would listen.
There were many tourists, recent immigrants and just visitors from other countries who thronged here for the magnificent view. They were all ready to hear and absorb. A bench was never just a bench for them or a sign never just a sign but a keepsake to take home.
There were the loners too, people standing alone at the corners and edges against the railings next to the river, simply facing the water and staring into the distance. Perhaps these people were talking to themselves in their heads, I thought. There were others who were indeed talking to themselves, or so you’d think until you saw an electronic device somewhere close to their ears or mouth. And then there were loners like me sitting and watching.
When it’s a Friday evening, people are relatively relaxed, especially at dusk. If you took the time, you’d see silhouettes all around against the water when the light disappeared as in a shadowy puppet show. You’d recognize the loiterer, the lost, the determined, the disgruntled, the leader, the follower, the herder or the despondent simply by looking at the way the shadows held themselves in the groups.
If you were right where I was, behind the people you’d see a large hotel with a million windows glowing magnificently against the darkness. Each lighted cubby-hole in that long stretch of the building would no doubt carry on another set of people’s existence given away by blue/ yellow flashing lights of a TV or purple moving lights signifying the dance floor.
Shadows are the best for watching people. It’s easier to see the interactions between people when the light is low enough to obliterate individual differences but strong enough to highlight general types. Put people against one another and they will interact.
During the workday, the obscure wallflower has to work at being aggressive. The cocksure person has to try diplomacy. The perpetual worrier has to don chirpiness. But their interaction is a little more natural and a little less guarded at this time of the day next to this vast water body when the day is not quite gone and the night is not quite here, when the work personality is free to leave and another has not quite settled in to replace it.
On Friday evenings, on the Manhattan side of the river, outside the doors of innumerable pubs and clubs and bars, and outside people’s living rooms and the ballrooms of hotels, a moment of anxiety takes over some for a second. People pause for a moment to shed their workday selves and put on a more casual personality, albeit equally carefully constructed. The passage from one mode to another is not always painless. But here, next to the river, especially on the Jersey side right now, people seem to not care as much about who they are partially hidden by the darkness.
A place of beauty has to be necessarily a joy forever. The Jersey City waterfront is a great place to observe art and authenticity co-exist at dusk especially in the age of the ubiquitous digital camera and the amateur photographer with the desire to capture the passing moment with his tripod. In the innumerable flashes lighting up the twilight at intervals, one moment, a group huddles together anxious to fit in the frame. Another moment, they are all smiles only to have that smile disappear the moment the flash disappears. It is remarkable to watch the kids parallel this donning of personalities on and off much faster and far more effectively than the adults.
As I look around, I wonder. Do we have a choice about who we are or is choice just an illusion? Are we all trapped in our personalities perpetually flitting between a set of characters destined for us, one set replacing another? Or do such twilight moments provide an opportunity for art to recede and something akin to authenticity come out in the semi-darkness? Can it be captured at all?