Special Issue: FREEdom on 14th Street
To Be FREE To Be
A bike chain lock has an obvious raison d’être: to prevent any unauthorized riders from utilizing the bike to which they are assigned and provide peace of mind to the bicycle’s owner. Without a bicycle to secure is the bike lock set free, suddenly kicking up heels (or links) without responsibilities or a care in the world? Or is a cycle-less bike chain lock bereft, set adrift and rudderless? It is unclear if this bike lock has been forsaken or simply strayed from its life path to devote itself to this lamppost on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue. An abandoned bike lock finds itself in an awkward and, indeed, perilous situation. Severed from the vehicle that defines its very function, it is imbued with a sense of defeat and is at risk for crippling injury. An abandoned bike lock invites sympathy and, perhaps, consternation. Considerable effort will be required to remove it from its perch at the base of the lamp post and no one holds the position of City Bike Lock Remover. This bike lock, however, defiantly deflects pity, reinventing itself as a lamp post lock. It has started a new chapter that is stationary rather than mobile, changed course from an active role to a more passive one, decided to flow with the waves rather than battle the current. To all outward appearances the bike lock has made a real go of it and seems to have achieved considerable success, embracing the changed circumstances to make lemonade from lemons. The rusty patina of the exposed links indicate extended exposure to the elements. The bike lock has accompanied the green lamp post through at least one face-lift, as evidenced by the flecks of green paint peppering its surface as if undergoing the equivalent of a blood pact to declare its allegiance to the base that it encircles. Nonetheless, the futility of the bike lock’s new mission cannot be overlooked. The lamp post is in no danger whatsoever of being snatched from its perch. And, even if there was a mad street light bandit on the loose, the bike lock would offer little protection, despite its menacing grip. We would not expect Mr. Universe to lift a paperclip or an ice cube to chill ice cream or a lion to nibble cheese. Nonsense! So, why should a bike lock waste its muscular links and Master-ful padlock. Possibly the bike lock does not long for its key or yearn for a wheel. Quite possibly the absence of familiar purpose and without a small metal instrument to shift its bolt, the bike lock has a new lease on life. Perhaps this bike lock holds the allegorical key to freedom from burden and hardship. After all, not every bike chain lock sips lemonade beneath a bright and glowing light.
Typically modest and unassuming, free-floating letters of the alphabet are pervasive, though often overlooked for their ambiguity in the absence of any colleagues. However, the companionless letter, while enigmatic, also asserts a plucky purposefulness. Accordingly, it is more likely than not that there is a reason behind the inscription of a single red Z on the picket of a solid metal tree guard along a 14th Street sidewalk. This handwritten Z signifies information, however elusive. Letters are not generally prone to aimless wandering of their own accord, so an encounter with a lone letter invites speculation. Perhaps it is an initial announcing that Zack intends to adopt this tree picket? Or, maybe the tree picket is simply an innocent bystander – a convenient place to express a Z. Maybe the Z refers to the tree specifically—could it be a water-elm or Zelkova and a local tree enthusiast with a poor memory affixed the Z as a cue to assist in recalling the tree’s botanical name? Possibly there is a zoo in the near vicinity? The sketchy uncertainty of this Z’s form seems to indicate that it was a spontaneous Z. Was the creator of the Z somehow impaired, clumsy, or hurried? (It has been suggested that there it is the remote chance that this is not a Z at all but a very wide N masquerading as a Z by playing on our expectations of text orientation. This theory was acknowledged but dismissed.)
As citizens of an alphabet, letters are vested with a set of rights, duties, and responsibilities that is nearly entirely collaborative in nature. The spindly little lines that symbolize the articulation of everything we know cluster together in various configurations to form words that impart linguistic content and, in doing so, realize their purpose as a collective. A solitary T, for example, cannot accomplish much. But give that T an O and, presto!, we have a unit of language that carries meaning. Throw in a couple Ss’ and that T is the proud leader of a word, a coherent semblance of letters with specificity and intention.
The interactive nature of letters is so fundamental to their existence that when the individual letter is encountered and devoid of any recognizable context, it often performs in a systematic capacity. When numbers won’t do to reference some sort of sequence, letters step up to the plate with their fixed order implying a hierarchical relationship. As a system of signs, lone letters could be discussed at great lengths in the context of semiotics. But a semiotical examination would risk reducing our Z to a floating signifier – a sign without a meaning. And this is not our Z; though rather disheveled in form this Z can have confidence in its insistent red coloration. This Z has meaning—we just don’t know what it is.
Standing in contrast to the handwritten Z is the clean, sleek solitary D that occupies a professionally manufactured plaque on an otherwise unmarked street-level door. This lone D is smooth and slick, exuding a cool assertiveness that declares intention. It obviously has a mechanized genealogy leading to the assumption that there are others just like it, that the message it conveys is being simultaneously conveyed elsewhere in the world. Indeed, one does not have to stray off 14th Street to discover a similar free floating letter—an S. Though further down the alphabet and turned out in a different color scheme, the similarities to the D are striking. In particular, the circumstances of each letter’s immediate surroundings cannot be ignored—both are situated firmly on a square of a contrasting color and both are permanently installed on an otherwise unremarkable door at street level. But despite these indications of a shared origin and a related occupation, is this D capable of advancing our understanding of the S and vice versa?
We are intimately familiar with free-floating letters as forms; we taste them as they mingle on our tongue, hear and see them bundled up in words every day performing the most profound of functions: communicating. But what are we to make of letters that strike out on their own, isolated on a tree picket or reclusive on an otherwise unadorned door along 14th street? We could relegate these free-floating letters to the background, allowing them to blend in to a visual noise unworthy of contemplation without any promise of the satisfaction of explanation. We could trust in the workings of the world to carry on assuming responsibility for orphaned letters of the alphabet, providing context, meaning, and purpose. We could attempt to rally a groundswell of support to introduce the word ZDS as the foundation of a new vocabulary. Or, acknowledge other solitary letters in the hopes of someday understanding what it is they spell.
Which Way to Go?
For all of its clout as a universally recognized symbol of direction, the arrow is a modest icon visually. Of course there are arrows parading around adorned in flouncy embelleshments. But all the arrow requires to gets its point across is a simple line topped off with a triangle. Though its features are minimal and its basic design flat and spare, the arrow imparts powerful dimension and the implication of decisive motion. Perhaps the arrow’s greatest distinction lies in its unwavering and steadfast dedication to the suggestion of a trajectory. A trajectory cannot gaurentee a destination or a diliberate route but it certainly presents a chance at circumventing the chaos of aimless wandering. The presence of an arrow indicates the possibility of a future place, that is “there” to one’s present position of “here.” But, let us be clear, the arrow is not to be confused with a promise. Rather, what the arrow brings to the table is guidence to the meanderer and reasurrance to the more purposeful path taker.
Pointing in every direction—up, down, left, right, north, south, east, west, heavenward and hell-bent—arrow symbols occupy a variety of surfaces peppered along the street known by the number that is divisible by 1, 2, 7, and itself. They can be viewed scrawled on sidewalks, flashing in neon, embedded in door mats, adhered to construction fences, printed on sign posts, and stamped on curbside service structures. Some are officially established and some are scribbled and scrawled. There are arrows for everyone and no currency need change hands in order to take advantage of this bounty of directionals. But it is not the affordability of these arrows that leads to temptations of overuse; it is the seduction of the arrow’s sage guidance. It should be noted that for all of its wisdom, the arrow is incapable of conveying meaning on its own. It is highly dependent on a set of circumstances to activate its signification. Without a causal relationship to reveal or a destination to indicate, the arrow is little more than a triangle perched upon a line. Also, the slightest shift in the arrow’s position can mean the difference between arriving at an intended destination and embarking on a journey around the world. And the spindly little arrow cannot be held responsible for lost footholds. It is powerless against mischievous gusts of wind, misinformed sign painters, and temporary changes in traffic patterns caused by parade routes. Likewise, the arrow cannot be held accountable for general monkey business.
With so many arrows on 14th Street available gratis, there exists a multitude of possible journeys. The question then becomes, where how far do we want to go? Do we take the arrow at its face value or do we follow its direction only insofar as that direction corresponds to our initial navigation? The arrows could lead to a perpetual treading back and forth over the threshold of a certain specialty grocery store, an unexpected dip in the Hudson River or an immediate need for a rocket ship. Or, the arrow could guide across the street to avoid construction, at which point the arrow’s function ceases, merely a useful interruption that is no longer relevant. Will the arrow be understood casually as a matter of convenience or is it a signal that should be followed with complete commitment and without deviation? Though the arrow is a beacon of some assumed authority, it is also capable of stoking embers of smoldering doubts to evoke the questions that accompany latent disquietude. But even a querying arrow propels us onward as we progress along in time and space. The plethora of arrows along 14th Street underscores this progression as a continuum. The arrow flaunts the chance to change direction at any time.