Wandering About the East Village
Tibor R. Machan
It was a very mild, pleasant Sunday afternoon and my older daughter and I were spending a couple of hours walking about in her New York City East Village neighborhood. After a bite of lunch we took in some of the shops, not so much to spend the required $20 I heard everyone is likely to part with once leaving home in this part of the world but to do what I like to call museum cruising. Yes, even when I have no interest in shopping, I do enjoy checking out all the goodies offered for sale in the hundreds of places that feature thousands of items that come from the commercial motives of people. Not just commercial motives, of course. A goodly portion of what's for sale is probably born out of a sense of creativity, with the idea of selling following as more of an afterthought. Like all those paintings and sculptures in Soho. Or the jewelry on display in the umpteen boutiques.
While I have no objection to malls and often use them, as I do other places of commerce, for purposes of spying on the creative genius of humanity, these little neighborhood market places in New York's innumerable corners are especially user friendly. I once lived in the City, back in the winter of 1965, when the great black-out occurred and I had to walk nearly a hundred blocks to attend classes at NYU every day of the week. Ever since then I have realized that New York's alleged tough guy reputation was a crock. Yes, when riding the subways few people smile at one another. Who has time and emotional energy for spreading oneself thin among the mass of humanity rushing about on the subway system?!
But when you visited small stores next to your apartment house in the West 80s or East 70s, a distinctive atmosphere of village life emerged and still does. Folks talk to each other easily, pleasantries are by no means shallow but specific to the interests of those who encounter each other while breakfasting, lunching, dining, shopping, looking for knickknacks or necessities.
At a plant store we entered, for example, the man who was helping my daughter find some herbs spotted the wristwatch I was wearing, a huge, black face/white hands Chottovellie e Figu number, made in Torino , so he brought out to show me his $18,000.00 diamond studded wristwatch he received from his girlfriend recently. We, total strangers, chatted it up a good bit and then said a friendly good bye.
One of the main objections to commerce, voiced by the likes of Karl Marx and his contemporary fans is that commerce is vile, or as Baudelaire says, "satanic," because it is egoistic, because it is motivate from self-interest. Commerce is also supposed to involve exploitation, alienation, fraud, trickery, and such, lacking in anything ennobling. What a crock all that is!
Instead, of course, even at its most ferocious commerce is mostly peaceful, civilized, and even friendly, albeit focused more on fulfilling one's own rather than other people's interests. Sure we all want to make a deal. But just as in competitive sports everyone would like to win even as most parties are good natured--"sportsmanlike"--so in the market place, unlike in politics and diplomacy, folks tend to keep in mind they are engaged with others human beings who share their own concern for getting ahead in life, for making a decent living. And this does not usually lead to resentment but to empathy.
On our walk about the East Village I just found it very encouraging that while Senators Obama and Clinton were showing the nasty fallout of even the most democratic of national politics, the commerce being conducted seems to have nothing of that kind of acrimony about it, quite the contrary. Not that there aren't people who can undermine the utter humanity of the free market place. No human institution is free of villains. But contrary to how the literati among us depict it, commerce does not seem to be filled with the least appealing of human tendencies, quite the contrary.