The Words on the Street
Sunday, October 30, 2005
In New York, the wittiest, wisest ideas lie underfoot -- literally. All you have to do is look down.
I was heading west on East 41st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues, scanning the pavement for open cellar doors and rickety grates, when I walked across a bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk. Roughly 2 1/2 by 1 1/2 feet, it illustrated in low relief a molecular diagram built around nine words: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
A pair of black sneakers crossed the panel (titled "Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980"), then white high-tops. The unexpected appearance of Rukeyser's words beneath my boots stopped me in the middle of the sidewalk at the height of lunch hour.
Intrigued, I moved on, keeping my eyes to the ground. At 41st and Fifth, beneath a dallying pair of moccasins, another plaque resembling an open book proclaimed: "Library Walk. A Celebration of the World's Great Literature, Brought to You by the Grand Central Partnership and the New York Public Library. Sculptor: Gregg LeFevre."
In the two blocks of 41st Street between Park and Fifth avenues, LeFevre's 96 plaques quote 45 writers (11 women, 34 men) from 11 countries spanning 20 centuries. Each is illustrated with images inspired by the text. The Grand Central Partnership (GCP), a nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing the neighborhood around Grand Central Terminal, conceived the project in the early 1990s. Quotes were submitted -- many by New York librarians -- and selections were made by literary experts convened by the GCP, the New York Public Library and the New Yorker magazine. After 10 years and more than $100,000, Library Way (its official name) was dedicated in May 2004.
On this cloudless afternoon, sunlight glinted on the edges of a third panel depicting a row of books, two rooster bookends and a quote from E.B. White: "I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens." A pair of pointy, patent-leather pumps stopped short where concrete bordered bronze.
"Oh! Sorry," said a female voice. The shiny black stilettos pirouetted left and disappeared.
Across Fifth Avenue, students and laptop-laden researchers climbed the main stairs of the library, dodging the tourists being photographed between its iconic lions. I ducked in the front door to inquire further about the panels. Both volunteers at the Friends of the Library counter paused, clearly surprised that someone had noticed the plaques.
"Did anyone else stop?" said one Friend, who wore the heavy, half-frame reading glasses that every child recognizes as visual shorthand for "librarian."
"No." Then I remembered the moccasins. "One paused."
"New Yorkers," she sighed, flipping through piles of brochures. "They're too busy." After a minute she located a thin brochure and passed it to me. "More people should read them."
Later that afternoon, I did just that, spending an hour on the GCP Web site studying photos of each plaque I'd missed, by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Gu Cheng, Lewis Carroll and Wallace Stevens.