The Rhythm of New York

A love letter to the city where you earn your keep.

Words and pictures by Rob Engelsman


I need something to hold on to
While the world is spinning ‘round and ‘round
It could crumble any moment
I keep my feet on solid ground, for now
— “Blak and Blu”

i

I’m walking east on Houston behind a woman on her cell phone. Her pace is deliberate, and she navigates the sidewalk in her sweater and long skirt like she’s been taking this route for years. “Let me start be saying she’s not gonna die,” she calmly yet firmly says to the mystery on the other end of the line. “But, mom has cancer.”

She goes on, not allowing a word in from the other end of the phone. “My brother was crying, of course. He was terrified about the years of burden and suffering.” We’re stuck at a light now. She readjusts her bags as she speaks. “I didn’t get upset, you know? Those are the facts of the situation.” She goes on about her mother’s resilience, her wish to keep things low key. When the light turns green, she shoots across the street into the early October evening. I cross behind, but lose her in the crowd. Her conversation drifts into the maze of pedestrians.

A few blocks later I stop in a park and grab an open bench. A father and son are shooting hoops on a basket directly in front of me. They’re playing with the sort of vague rule-following that a dad uses to teach his son the right techniques while still allowing him to cheat a bit, too. “Noooo, you took three steps there,” the dad notes in a British accent. The son sighs, passes him the ball to check it back into play. They go back and forth, more missed shots than hits. There’s a collision, and the son ends up on the concrete. He shakes his head, gets up and motions for his father to play on. Seconds later, he steals the ball, lofts a lay-up, and scores on his old man. “Shit,” the dad says. “You’re getting better at going to the right.”


They say New York, among other things, is a city that never sleeps. To me, New York is a city where you earn your sleep. There’s an aspect of living here that forces us to keep up, to not break, to hold our ground, even though the constant sensory overload of New York City means that no emotional state is ever far from our grasp. We go from seeing sadness on one block to triumph on another. We don’t bat an eye that the New Museum is a few steps from Bowery Mission, a contradiction whose living and breathing examples cross each other’s paths every single day.

When someone claims to be a true New Yorker, it seems to imply that they’ve figured out a way to avoid permanent cultural whiplash. That means keeping our eyes glued ahead, our headphones plugged in, and our feet firmly planted in something… anything… we can to get through the day. Yet every morning the sun rises, and millions of us wake up with the sense that today is our moment to take that solid ground we stand on and push just that much farther up the hill.

Woke up in New York City lying on the floor
Just outside of Marcy’s — West 54
You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night
You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night
“Bright Lights”

ii

When Gary Clark Jr. performs live, he sings the second verse to his song Blak and Blu before segueing into his hit, Bright Lights. “I keep my feet on solid ground,” he croons. “For now.” Blak and Blu is gentle and reflective. It’s a private monologue as we traverse the city’s grid anonymously. Bright Lights is the triumphant “for now,” the cliff we leap off in our effort to make an impact on the rhythm of the streets. “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night,” Clark implores throughout, and for many of us, this idea is what has brought us here. There is no better place to make your name known. There is no better time than now. He pounces on the solo as if to exclaim that this is New York Fucking City, capital letters all the way.

iii

I’m standing at the back of the platform at 34th street waiting for the Q. There’s an MTA worker standing with me. He motions to me and I pull the headphone from my right ear. “When I open this,” he says while pointing to a padlocked door, “they’re gonna come scurrying.” He means the rats. There are always rats back here. I nod to imply it’s not a big deal. He slides up to the door and bangs it twice. We both look to the bottom of the door. No movement. He bangs a third time. There’s a pregnant pause, and then a rat runs out across the platform. Then another. He puts his key into the padlock, turns it, and opens the full door. Another two rats run by. A third runs away when he throws trash into the room. “Did they teach you a special process for that?” I ask, chuckling at the idea. He nods. “It’s my first day at this station, but they do a month of training. This trick was the first thing they taught us.” It’s completely absurd, but it also completely makes sense. He locks the door and wishes me a good evening as he heads back down the platform.


I’ve met a lot of people in New York. Cab drivers, homeless men on the subway, trash collectors cleaning up after the homeless men (and others) on the subway, and my fascination with each story comes from placing them in the broader context of this great big mess. The domino effect of “without this, we don’t have that,” is both magnified in a city but also minimized because of all the bright lights diverting our attention. Not everyone in New York is gonna end up with their name known. Barely any of us will, really. But impacting the living, breathing machine of New York doesn’t have to come on a grand scale. It can come from any of us.

The truth is that we need the New York of Blak and Blu just as much as we need Bright Lights New York. There’s an ever-so-delicate balance in this place, and we each play a role in keeping each other on an even plane. It’s an imperfect balance, sure, but it’s an essential one. Our circumstances may not look the same, but when that guitar riff drops and we find our “for now” moment to leap into the unknown, I’d like to think the rhythm of New York is cheering us on.

iv

At his recent show in Central Park, Clark Jr. cruised his way through Blak & Blu before a short pause as a young boy came out onto the stage with a guitar. A murmur swept through the audience. Sensing the confusion, Clark Jr. walked to his microphone. “Y’all think this is gonna be cute,” he scoffed. Soon, the guitars were set, Bright Lights began, and the little kid with an afro mimicked the polished guitarist’s chord progressions. When the first chorus wound down, Clark Jr. turn his head to the right and nodded. Then, he stopped playing guitar altogether, and the little boy came to life. An unknown kid owned Central Park for the next six minutes, and Clark Jr. rarely bothered playing a note the rest of the song.

The crowd filed out of the venue with varied expressions of shock and excitement. As they headed into New York’s streets, they were all trying to figure out the name of the kid. True to Clark Jr.’s words, we were going to know a name by the end of the night. We already knew his, but the rhythm of New York demanded we learn one more.


Listen to Gary Clark Jr.’s live renditions of Blak and Blu & Bright Lights.

Watch 11-year-old Brandon Niederauer melt faces in Central Park.

Read some of my stories about people I meet and things I’ve seen.

Follow me on Twitter.

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