As the traffic signal turned red, I halted on the sidewalk, expecting the cab driver to pummel through, fists waved in anger and face contorted in an ungodly portrait of self-righteous accusation.
What I saw was the breezy silence that was quite uncharacteristic of a road as traffic-heavy as 5th Ave, New York City.
The cab cruised through, the pedestrians strolled past, and life went on. I raised an eyebrow, unsettled by the absolute calmness of the whole situation. Traffic in New York must be different, I mused, already looking forward to walking across the street with no fear of cars pummeling through. I glanced over beside me and witnessed a heavily congested street bustling with buses and cars. It was a familiar sight, one I was so used to seeing in the infamous streets of Lahore.
There was something odd about the whole scene, though. I pondered for a second, trying to wonder what was missing. I realised that what I was seeing was a lack of families of five on motorbikes and a complete absence of donkey carts. The relative silence, with the occasional honk, gave an eerie sense of law and order, one I was not at all accustomed to in Lahore.
I continued my stroll and made my way from 5th Ave to 4th, across the zebra crossing. For a brief moment, I stopped in the middle to look down the road, past the lines of vehicles waiting for the light to turn green. Beyond the bored, exasperated faces that sat behind the wheel, I saw a straight column of pavement laid down for miles, with concrete blocks on either side. In the centre, where no manmade object obscured the horizon, I saw an expanse of reddish orange sky that stretched for miles in every direction, scattered only by the equally dwarfing structures in front of it.
For the umpteenth time, I stood there in awe with a semi smile on my face. I could repeat this cycle for years and never get tired. Silently, I decided that this is exactly what I would do on quiet evenings in the city.
What I took for a few seconds of silent meditation was actually half a minute of me standing and gawking at the sky, as I soon realised when I turned around to see that the light had turned green and a car was standing behind me patiently waiting for me to get a hold of my senses and get on with my business.
I shared a look with the person in the car — an employed woman in her early twenties, hair tied in a neat bun and bright blue eyes that betrayed a youthful exuberance that had been suppressed by her articulate suit.
She noticed my initial embarrassment at my lapse of concentration and gave me a knowing smile, as if reassuring me that I wasn’t the only one in New York who could still be mesmerised by it.
This silent exchange was more human than many interactions with people I had during the day. As I looked at the people walking around me, I saw more lifeless existence than human presence. People were getting to their destinations, briefcases and cell phones in hand. Like drones, there were people flooding in and out of buildings, Starbucks that were located every square block, and a whole assortment of bakeries and restaurants. It seemed like a well-oiled machine, with countless goods and services being exchanged by the second.
I looked for a sign of weakness in this methodical process that would expose these natives as human and on the same bracket as the rest of us. But everyone kept coming and going, walking past and around each other, not stopping to look or think. Everyone had something or the other to focus on.