Long flights of massive stone steps that grace buildings of an earlier era–they offer opportunities for viewing the world below on city streets and sidewalks. Several such flights stand out in cities like New York. Their upper reaches provide not only a place to rest and perhaps enjoy a brown bag lunch, but serve as excellent observation posts for watching passersby. The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side draws many people who, on leaving the museum, sit down to rest and simply observe the scene below.
Other stairs ideal for observation are those that lead up to the imposing entrance of the New York City research library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, the one with the two massive stone lions in front. Those stairs are popular with library users and pedestrians alike, and there you see more of a mix of people--well to do, poor and whatever lies between those two polarities. With the buildings across the street conveniently blocking the setting sun, the library’s stairs offer a place of refreshment at the close of a hot summer day.
My third and more frequently visited set of stone stairs, though, remains the one in front of the main post office building on 8th Avenue and 33rd Street. Imposing Corinthian columns stretch across the upper entrances to the building itself. Since I often say mass at a nearby church on Sundays, I occasionally climb the two dozen steps to the top and, if early for my scheduled mass, may sit for a few minutes. It is the one Manhattan post office that remains partly open on most holidays, and I notice well dressed people mounting them to make use of the postal services inside. But the steps also serve as a kind of refuge for mentally troubled and homeless people. They walk over from nearby Penn Station which serves as a refuge for those dependent on their restroom facilities, including the sinks for makeshift bathing. Looking down on the life below, some of them perhaps experience a brief sense of taking part in mainstream life. But that is a life from which the wider world largely excludes them.
George Anderson, S.J.