• Ryan Manuel

New York City is a Meme.

New Yorkers receive more daily messages than the USPS at Christmastime. From street art to ad campaigns — Manhattan metropolites successfully communicate with each other in unique ways. If you lived without internet access or television, the city would still let you know what is happening in the world. New Yorkers keep in touch without even trying. Our city is a living, breathing meme. It’s always telling a story, challenging the mind.

Aimless walks help me detach from the toxic cyber world we are shamelessly addicted to. However, when I try to unplug, I often find the city sending more petty, political messages than the Instagram stories I just closed. In a recent wandering session, three separate, non-cohesive messages stood out amongst pedestrian traffic. They each told a story, making my mind spin in a comforting sort of way. The first was on a sidewalk, the second on a billboard, and the third on a garbage can.

Manhattan’s pavement stretches 13.4 miles from north to south. The streets are an open canvas for all who inhabit them. The mere ground can tell a story. Sometimes sidewalks say “protect your heart,” or in a pandemic, “stay six feet apart,” but in Hell’s Kitchen following the insurrection on the nation’s capitol, the ground screamed in Crayola chalk, “REMOVE HIM NOW.” New York City is filled with art, my favorite form of political expression. It can be as simple as chalk on the ground. We often prepare ourselves to experience art forms by going to museums or theaters, but New York likes to throw art at us from all corners at all times. New Yorkers have a choice to take it in or tune it out. From a single subway trip, you can witness graffiti on platforms, “subway showtime” on poles, quirky ads on train walls, fashion statements from neighboring commuters…art is everywhere, and it is always telling a story. It can either help you escape reality or slap reality across your face. “REMOVE HIM NOW” was a reality slap, but a comforting slap. A slap that confirmed the like-mindedness of other New Yorkers.

Somewhere along the west side bike trail lies a Manhattan Mini Storage, keeper of the best cynical advertisements. Throughout autumn, their highway facing marquee stated, “VOTE because Russian lessons are expensive.” Since New Yorkers took note and voted, this storage company of glorified closets changed their billboard to read, “NYC has fewer closets, but our kids aren’t afraid to come out of them. SPACE FOR ALL.” As I giggled under my mask wishing I could hug the queer intern who came up with that line, I felt an instant sense of comfort in community. It’s the same comfort I felt banging pots and pans for healthcare workers or toasting to democracy in the street with strangers. New York has an electric, communal energy that personally ignites when you least expect it. It can happen by just reading an anti-homophobic message on a billboard.

Trash receptacles typically do not stir intellectual thoughts, but New York is weird and will make you do that. Somewhere on 8th Avenue, a waste bin states, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.” [This replaced the 2019 receptacles that said, “Embrace the absurd.” Little did we know the absurdity 2020 would introduce.] During a time that questions the sustainability of the human race, this silly garbage graphic put everything into perspective. For a split second, it put me at peace. Think about your own life and where you are today. Despite living in a world of asinine-dumpster-fire-human-behavior, I guarantee you there are plenty of things making up our lives that our ancestors dreamed about. Are we really what they hoped for? Or have we let them down? As I kept walking, I began to question what my own dreams are for future generations to come. What will New York be like a couple of centuries from now? Would we be proud of it? Will it still inspire others like the side of this waste bin inspired me? Why am I having these thoughts from just reading a garbage can???

The next time you step outside, stop and look around. Read as many things as possible. Words are everywhere. Art is everywhere. It’s real. It’s comforting. It’s New York. We’re seriously living inside of a beautiful, political, artsy, thought provoking meme. I swear of it.

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