April 15, 2020

In “Humans of New York,” Brandon Stanton Provides a “Most Effective” Remedy

By Stuart Mitchner

I first used the e-word in print to describe the mood during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks when New York had become the “emotional epicenter” of the nation, “America’s city.” So it seemed when passing strangers met your gaze, you connected, as if you were sharing the same loss, and every firehouse had a shrine, firemen were warriors, and cops were heroes.

The subject of that September 7, 2011 column was Portraits: 9/11/01 (Times Books/Holt 2002), the journalistic landmark that New York Times executive editor Howell Raines introduced by way of Walt Whitman’s claim that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Looking at the faces and reading “the 1,910 stories it took 143 reporters to research and write,” I was reminded of the “Human and Heroic New York” chapter in Whitman’s Specimen Days in America (1881), where “after three weeks walking the streets,” he observes “ endless humanity in all its phases,” and finds “the brief total of the impressions, the human qualities … comforting, even heroic beyond statement.” For Whitman, the “daily contact and rapport” with the city’s “myriad people” provides “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”

Whether or not New York remains the “epicenter” of the pandemic, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: Stories (St. Martin’s Press 2015) makes a “most effective” over-the-counter remedy. In contrast to the thumbnail sketches and snapshots of specifically documented individuals in Portraits, the people in Stanton’s book appear to us in the quick of the moment without names, or biographical specifics, and few clues about who they are beyond the photographer’s gift for matching uniquely expressive faces and backdrops with the choicest, most expressive comments gleaned from each encounter.

“Don’t Talk to Strangers”

When I moved with my parents from a midwestern college town to midtown Manhattan for a year, I was advised never to talk to strangers, a warning my father pointedly repeated before I set off on the subway for my first day in ninth grade: “If someone asks you for money, or says hello, or asks you a question, or approaches you in any way, just keep walking. Pretend you didn’t hear. Pay no attention.”

That ancient parental advisory, rebranded as “social distancing” in the spring of 2020, has amusing resonance now that for the second time in five years I’m finding human poetry in Stanton’s gallery of city strangers.

If anything, Humans of New York means more to me now than it did in January 2016. Throughout the book, the people Stanton photographs and converses with say things that assume additional, sometimes touching significance at a time when the media is obsessed with the unthinkable numbers generated by the novel coronavirus. Perhaps only a lapsed novelist would appreciate the usefulness of the word epicenter, not merely for the seismological implications, but because the other word embedded in it is epic, not epic the noun but epic the adjective.

My Manhattan Friend

The first time around, I approached Humans of New York as an imaginary encounter with Brandon Stanton in Central Park, which is funny because if I’d followed that long-ago parental advisory I’d have ignored the stranger with the camera. “Just keep walking. Pretend you didn’t hear. Pay no attention.” Assuming he’d actually managed to corner me, I might have begun by telling him I was disobeying my parents and then proceeded to point out how pointless it seemed, to be told to steer clear of strangers at a time when going to school meant riding the subway crosstown every rush hour morning in intimate impersonal contact with strangers of all ages, shapes and sizes, races and religions, so that every time the car swerved or lurched, you moved with them, they with you, your balance as often as not sustained by the life-force pressure of all those strangers.

I chose Central Park as the setting for my hypothetical interview because that’s where Florence and I used to play pitch and catch. We’d both worked for the same publisher until she was fired for constantly coming into my office (and everybody else’s) to talk. She lived in a small rent-controlled apartment on Madison Avenue a block from the park. If I said she was almost as good a pitcher as she was a poet, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. We played with a regulation baseball, we both had our own well-worn mitts, and she threw hard, each throw landing with a smack that could be heard at a distance well over today’s prescribed six feet, and there something like poetry in the way we kept it up even when it became almost too dark to see. She was fairly tall, lean, Jewish, and intensely neurotic (her analyst was one of the absolutes of her life). Every wall of her apartment was covered with poetry, most of it her own that she’d either penciled directly on or typed and taped to the wall.

In that imaginary interview, when Stanton asked me if I recalled any of Florence’s poems, the only one I could think of was about her going to a dentist the Friday Kennedy was assassinated. I saw glimpses of her in several of the people in Humans of New York, like the one who calls herself a spiritual healer, the one who says her therapy seems to be going well, and, especially the bespectacled black-haired woman who asks Stanton, “Should I do my dinosaur face?” When he says yes, she does it. She’s sitting on a curb near the entrance to a subway, a book open on her lap, a colorful bag at her feet, same build and taste in clothes (her jacket is a poem in itself), long legs, and a willingness to perform on the spot, to be a story or a poem herself. That she feels so at ease in Stanton’s presence shows his talent for asking the most effective questions, evidence that he’s a poet himself as well as a storyteller who shares Walt Whitman’s rapport with Manhattan’s “endless humanity in all its phases.”

A Timely Poem

I’ve found a short, all too timely poem of Florence’s titled after and inspired by Schubert’s song, “Die Forelle.” Published almost 50 years ago in Midstream: A Monthly Jewish Review, it begins:

If the stream is poisoned
Beyond forgiveness
What shall we do
With the innocent fish,
The kind onlooker,
the imprisoned poet?

These are the last two stanzas:

We can write,
But can we live?

As if the trout pondered this
As his life dimmed.

Pandemic Adjustments

Since the rules currently in place don’t permit interviews with strangers on the streets of New York City, Stanton has had to make some adjustments. As he told Yahoo Lifestyle on March 19, he’s reached out to his combined 28 million followers on Instagram and Facebook, asking them to email him their “most amazing, uplifting stories.” He says he’s received hundreds of responses and has already posted three new quarantine stories. In the course of adapting to the “new normal” along with the rest of the world, he hopes to address another issue related to the virus. “I think parallel to this pandemic is going to be the mental health crisis of people in this atmosphere; of fear and anxiety, being isolated and being locked away from their support networks, from their friends, from their family members … So I think there will be a strong need for connection over the next few months and hopefully this will just be a small part of that.”