Guest Post: The City of Surprises

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We New Yorkers are notoriously in a hurry, rushing between skyscrapers that loom large and billboards with the power to turn night into day. But in this city of the fast pace and grand gesture, there is much reward when you slow down and look closer. When you do — here, like anywhere, really — life gives you little gifts. And an entire city becomes remarkably intimate, stunningly beautiful, surprisingly funny.

Just yesterday, my gaze coincided with a butterfly settling on my office window. A brief visit, but time enough time to see the sun through the brown and orange wings like tiny stained glass.

On a walk home, past a pocket-sized park blocks from any other, one firefly blurted out his visible glow of greeting. And, each Spring, if you look skyward above the roar of Canal Street, chances are good you’ll catch sight of a sparrow nesting in one of the traffic light stanchions. Not as newsworthy as the Central Park hawks, but still sort of remarkable, really. In no small part because those sparrows aren’t really much different than any of us who make our own home here, tucked away as we are in our own little nests.

In other moments, this isle of commerce and industry also reminds us that it is very much an actual island. From my office, I have been surprised to see the unmistakable shadow of a seagull wheeling over the brick wall a few yards away, every bit the double-crescent shape we’ve all drawn as kids in some Crayola beach scene. Once, returning to my desk, I glimpsed the brilliant white mass of a cruise ship playing a slow game of hide and seek with me from between the landlocked buildings. (Yes, there is a river just over there! And an ocean just beyond! How amazing we ended up here, although that river, that harbor, are exactly why we did…)

The surprises are not always reminders of our island geography, or how brilliantly Nature adapts, or how kind She has been to let us share this place. Sometimes the images are purely cinematic: seeing two men practicing Judo in an all-white showroom normally reserved for high-end retail fixtures. Their own white garb made them all but disappear, disembodied hands, heads and black belts floating in the space like a high tech magic act.

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Yesterday on the way home, I saw a kid with a surfboard, nonchalant among the commuters. On the subway recently, I sat across from a tiny curve of an elderly woman in a graphic polka dot dress, beneath an ad featuring the posterior of a woman in equally graphic black and white stripes, with a headline that screamed “Does my butt make this room look small?”. Where is Weegee when you need him?

These moments do indeed register like pixel on disk, even without your Canon Elph. They are sublime and ridiculous, a living stanza of a complex poem, part of some sitcom joke, the odd sequence from a music video. But if you rush through it unseeing, you miss the poetry and punch-line of it all.

Perhaps I am lucky to notice things because I am a transplant, and although here for over ten years, I am in many ways still a tourist, and tourists are generally lucky to have wide eyes for the new. Perhaps I notice because a RISD education taught me to “reward the reader for continued attention,” and I like to hoard that reward every now and then. Perhaps I notice because I grew up in South Florida, where the only way to catch the change of seasons (other than “Hurricane,” and other than through the arrival of Christmas catalogs) is to leave yourself open to the tiniest change in the humidity, the slightest shift in the light. And where you eagerly search for variety in the relentlessly flat landscape of the Everglades. And guess what? You find it, in all its (sometimes tiny, always outrageously diverse) glory. But you have to put on the brakes and get out of the car to see.

What does this all have to do with apartments? Maybe that butterfly proves how powerful just one organic element can be in a room of rectangles. Or maybe it will inspire a palette of woodsy brown, brick red and a punch of sun-drenched orange. The surfboard kid? Maybe a reminder that the most buttoned-up interior can stand a jolt of relaxed chic.

Look closer. Wherever you live, from the tiniest amount of attention, you will find big rewards. Who knows what it will inspire?

Patrick (the other one)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.

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