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The Words on the Street
In New York, 96 Reasons To Lower Your Gaze

By Mija Riedel
Special to The Washington Post
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.

Rene Descartes's quote -- "The reading of good books is like a conversation with the best men of past centuries" -- is illustrated with nine men wearing stiff suit coats and top hats, engaged in animated discourse among themselves and oblivious to a bustled woman standing alone off to the side. Willa Cather's two lines are repeated till her panel overflows with her words: ". . . there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before . . . there are only two or three human stories . . . ."

The Descartes panel, along with a Gu Cheng poem and the sandy, wavy imagery illustrating Georges Braque ("Truth exists, only falsehood has to be invented") are the sculptor's favorites. LeFevre has been making site-specific sculptures since 1984; all told, he has 127 projects around the country. Most are bronze, terrazzo or concrete set in pavement, and many are, like Library Way, a series of panels with text and images.

The following Saturday, I returned to browse Library Way without the stampeding weekday crowds. No delivery trucks crowded the sidewalks. No heels shuffled, tapped or clicked along the concrete. I strolled around each plaque as if it were a flower bed. The bronze images and words were cast just high enough to register faintly through the soles of my shoes.

In front of the Dylan Hotel at 52 E. 41st, a doorman in his mid-twenties with a longish crew cut and polished black lace-up shoes lingered on the steps. At his feet were the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."

I nudged the plaque with my toe. "What do you think of these?"

He shrugged, "They're nice. This one's the best," he nodded toward Jefferson.

"Right in front? You're not tired of it?"

"It's the only one I've read, but it's the best."

A few steps ahead, just beyond the defunct Farmers' Loan and Trust office, another panel pictured the crumbling, crater-pocked surface of the moon with a view of Earth and North America. "I want everybody to be smart," Garson Kanin had written, "as smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in." Chained to a nearby pole was a shopping cart draped in plastic bags, rope and green tape that sported a sign of its own, written on cardboard in ball point pen. "Repent. Judgment is coming."

The windows of the Library Hotel at 299 Madison Ave. pulsed with strips of color, its floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with leather volumes and gilded spines -- "The Iliad," "Callas," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." In front of a nearby office building, I discovered Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee: "Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you'll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you'll be in as much trouble as I am!"

Inside a lobby at 41st and Park, a uniformed woman said, "People talk about them. All the time. They take pictures. . . . I've read 'em all. My favorite is the one about problems with," she paused, "something and chickens."

After pausing by my favorite Tom Stoppard -- "Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light" -- I tripped across the oldest author on Library Way. Between the 20th-century Beaux-Arts style library and the smiling people on beach brochures in a travel agency window, the bronze panel depicts a page torn from the 2nd century A.D. appointment book of Marcus Aurelius.

His panel reads like an emperor's to-do list. Amid meetings, parties and scheduled appearances at the Coliseum, Aurelius had tried to find time to "check out a new chariot." As I looked over his hectic calendar, full of scrawled, last-minute additions and changes in plan, I realized not much had changed in 19 centuries.

Library Way is located on the north and south sides of 41st Street, for two blocks between Fifth and Park avenues. For more information and to view the plaques, check outwww.grandcentralpartnership.org/.

Brochures are available at the Friends of the Library counter on the first floor of the New York Public Library (41st Street and Fifth Avenue).

San Franciscan Mija Riedel last wrote for Travel on California's Seal Beach Inn.

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