Open-Air Musings In The City by Nathaniel Parker Willis

From the window at which I sit, I look directly on the most frequented portion in Broadway—the sidewalk in front of St. Paul’s. You walk over it every day. Familiarity with most things alters their aspect, however. Let me, after long acquaintance with this bit of sidewalk, sketch how it looks to me at the various hours of the day. I may jot down, also, one or two trifles I have observed while looking into the street in the intervals of writing.

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Eight in the morning.—The sidewalk is comparatively deserted. The early clerks have gone by, and the bookkeepers and younger partners not being-abroad, the current sets no particular way. A vigorous female exerciser or two may be seen returning from a smart walk to the Battery, and the orange-women are getting’ their tables ready at the corners. There is to be a funeral in the course of the day in St. Paul’s church-yard, and one or two boys are on the coping of the iron fence, watching the grave-digger. Seamstresses and scholmistresses, with veils down, in impenetrable incognito, hurry by with a step which says unmistakeably, “Don’t look at me in this dress!” The return omnibuses come from Wall street empty, on a walk.

Nine and after.—A rapid throng of well-dressed men, all walking smartly, and all bound Mammon-ward. Glanced at vaguely, the sidewalk seems like a floor with a swarm of black beetles running races across it. The single pedestrians who are struggling up stream, keep close to the curbstone or get rudely jostled. The omnibuses all stop opposite St. Paul’s at this hour, letting out passengers, who invariably start on a trot down Ann street or Fulton. The Museum people are on the top of the building drawing their flags across Broadway and Ann, by pulleys fastened to trees and chimneys. Burgess and Stringer hanging out their literary placards, with a listless deliberation, as if nobody was abroad yet who had leisure to read them.

Twelve and after.—Discount-seekers crowding into the Chemical Bank with hats over their eyes. Flower-merchants setting their pots of roses and geraniums along the iron fence. The blind beggar arrived, and set with his back against the church gate by an old woman. And now the streaks, drawn across my side vision by the passers under, glide at a more leisurely pace, and are of gayer hues. The street full of sunshine. Omnibuses going slowly, both ways. Female exclusives gliding to and fro in studiously plain dresses, and with very occupied air—(never in Broadway without “the carriage,” of course, except to shop.) Strangers sprinkled in couples, exhausting their strength and spirits by promenading before the show hour. The grave dug in St. Paul’s, and the grave-digger gone home to dinner. Woman run over at the Fulton crossing. Boys out of school. Tombs’ bell ringing fire in the third district.

One and after.—The ornamentals are abroad. A crowd on St. BROADWAY. 229
Paul’s sidewalk, watching the accomplished canary-bird, whose cage hangs on the fence. He draws his seed and water up an inclined plane in a rail-car, and does his complicated feeding to the great approbation of his audience. The price is high—his value being in proportion (aristocracy-wise) to his wants! It is the smoothest and broadest sidewalk in Broadway—the frontage of St. Paul’s—and the ladies and dandies walk most at their ease just here, loitering a little, perhaps, to glance at the flowers for sale. My window, commanding this pave, is a particularly good place, therefore, to study street habits, and I have noted a trifle or so, that, if not new, may be newly put down. I observe that a very well-dressed woman is noticed by none so much as by the women themselves. This is the week for the first spring dresses, and, to-day, there is a specimen or two of Miss Lawson’s April avatar, taking its first sun on the promenade.

A lady passed, just now, with a charming straw hat and primrose shawl—not a very pretty woman, but, dress and all, a fresh and sweet object to look at— like a new-blown cowslip, that stops you in your walk, though it is not a violet. Not a male eye observed her, from curb-stone in Vesey to curb-stone in Fulton, but every woman turned to look after her! Query, is this the notice of envy or admiration; and, if the former, is it desirable or worth the pains and money of toilet? Query, again—the men’s notice being admiration (not envy) what will attract it, and is that (whatever it is) worth while? I query what I should, myself, like to know.

Half past three.—The sidewalk is in shade. The orange-man sits on a lemon-box, with his legs and arms all crossed together in his lap, listening to the band who have just commenced playing in the Museum balcony. The principal listeners, who have stopped for nothing but to listen, are three negro boys, (one sitting on the Croton hydrant, and the other two leaning on his back,) and to them this gratuitous music seems a charming dispensation. (Tune, “Ole Dan Tucker.”) The omnibus horses prick up their ears in going under the trumpets, but evidently feel that to show fright would be a luxury beyond their means. Saddle-horse, tied at the bank, breaks bridle and runs away. Three is universal dinner time for bosses—(what other word expresses the head men of all trades and professions?)—and probably not a single portly man will pass under my window in this hour.

Four to five.—Sidewalk more crowded. Hotel boarders lounging along with toothpicks. Stout men going down toward Wall street with coats unbuttoned. Hearse stopped at St. Paul’s, and the Museum band playing, “Take your time, Miss Lucy,” while the mourners are getting out. A gentleman, separated from two ladies by the passing of the coffin across the sidewalk, rejoins them, apparently with some funny remark. Bell tolls. No one in the crowd is interested to inquire the age or sex of the person breaking the current of Broadway to pass to the grave. Hearse drives off on a trot.

Five and after.—Broadway one gay procession. Few ladies accompanied by gentlemen—fewer than in the promenades of any other country. Men in couples and women in couples. Dandies strolling and stealing an occasional look at their loose demi-saison pantaloons and gaiter-shoes, newly sported with the sudden advent of warm weather. No private carriage passing, except those bound to the ferries for a drive into the country. The crowd is unlike the morning crowd. There is as much or more beauty, but the fashionable ladies are not out. You would be puzzled to discover who these lovely women are. Their toilets are unexceptionable, their style is a very near approach to comme il faut. They look perfectly satisfied with their position and with themselves, and they do—(what fashionable women do not)—meet the eye of the promenader with a coquettish confidence he will misinterpret—if he be green or a puppy. Among these ladies are accidents of feature, form, and manner—charms of which the possessor is unconscious—that, if transplanted into a highbred sphere of society abroad, would be bowed to as the stamp of lovely aristocracy. Possibly—probably, indeed—the very woman who is a marked instance of this, is not called pretty by her friends. She is only spoken to by those whose taste is commonplace and unrefined. She walks Broadway, and has a vague suspicion that the men of fashion look at her more admiringly than could be accounted for by any credit she has for beauty at home. Yet she is not likely to be enlightened as to the secret of it. When tired of her promenade, she disappears by some side-street leading away from the great thoroughfares, and there is no clue to her unless by inquiries that would be properly resented as impertinence. I see at least twenty pass daily under my window, who would be ornaments of any society, yet who, I know, (by the men I see occasionally with them,) are unacknowledgable by the aristocrats up town. What a field for a Columbus! How charming to go on a voyage of discovery and search for these unprized pearls among the unconscious pebbles! How delightful to see these rare plants without hedges about them—exquisite women without fashionable affectations, fashionable hindrances, penalties, exactions, pretensions, and all the wearying nonsenses that embarrass and stupefy the society of most of our female pretenders to exclusiveness!

Half-past six and after.—The flower-seller loading up his pots into a fragrant wagon-load. Twilight’s rosy mist falling into the street. Gas-lamps alight, here and there. The Museum band increased by two instruments, to play more noisily for the nightcustom. The magic wheel lit up, and ground rather capriciously by the tired boy inside. The gaudy transparencies one by one illuminated. Great difference now in the paces at which people walk. Business-men bound home, apprentices and shop-boys carrying parcels, ladies belated—are among the hurrying ones. Gentlemen strolling for amusement take it very leisurely, and with a careless gait that is more graceful and becoming than their mien of circumspect daylight. And now thicken the flaunting dresses of the unfortunate outlaws of charity and pity. Some among them (not many) have a remainder of lady-likeness in their gait, as if, but for the need there is to attract attention, they could seem modest—but the most of them are promoted to fine dress from sculleries and low life, and show their shameless vulgarity through silk and feathers. They are not all to be pitied.The gentleman cit passes them by like the rails in St. Paul’s fence—wholly unnoticed. If he is vicious, it is not those in the 6treet who could attract him. The “loafers” return their bold looks, and the boys pull their dresses as they go along, and now and then a greenish youth, well-dressed, shows signs of being attracted. Sailors, rowdies, country-people, and strangers who have dined freely, are those whose steps are arrested by them. It is dark now. The omnibuses, that were heavily laden through the twilight, now go more noisily, because lighter. Carriages make their way toward the Park theatre. My window shows but the two lines of lamps and the glittering shops, and all else vaguely.

I have repeatedly taken five minutes, at a time, to pick out a well-dressed man, and see if he would walk from Fulton street to Vesey without getting a look at his boots. You might safely bet against it. If he is an idle man, and out only for a walk, two to one he would glance downward to his feet three or four times in that distance. Men betray their subterfuges of toilet— women never. Once in the street, women are armed at all points against undesirable observation—men have an ostrich’s obtusity, being wholly unconscious even of that battery of critics, a passing omnibus! How many substitutes and secrets of dress a woman carries about her, the angels know!—but she looks defiance to suspicion on that subject. Sit in my window, on the contrary, and you can pick out every false shirt-bosom that passes, and every pair of false wristbands, and the dandy’s economical halfboots, gaiter-cut trowsers notwithstanding.

Indeed, while it is always difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish female genuine from the imitation, nothing is easier than to know at sight the “glossed (male) worsted from the patrician sarsnet.” The “fashion” of women, above a certain guide, can seldom be guessed at in the street, except by the men who are with them.

You should sit in a window like mine, to know how few men walk with even passable grace. Nothing so corrupts the gait as business—(a fact that would be offensive to mention in a purely business country, if it were not that the ” unmannerly haste” of parcel-bearing and money-seeking, may he laid aside with lowheeled boots and sample cards.) The bent-kneed celerity, learned in dodging clerks and jumping over boxes on sidewalks, betrays its trick in the gait, as the face shows the pucker of calculation and the suavity of sale. “I observe that the man used to hurry, relies principally on his heel, and keeps his foot at right angles. The ornamental man drops his toe slightly downward in taking a step, and uses, for elasticity, the spring of his instep. Nature has provided muscles of grace which are only incorporated into the gait by habitually walking with leisure. All women walk with comparative grace who are not cramped with tight shoes, but there are many degrees of gracefulness in women, and oh, what a charm is the highest degree of it! How pleasurable even to see from my window a woman walking like a queen!

Excerpt From: Nathaniel Parker Willis. “Rural Letters and Other Records of Thought at Leisure.

hey there fella,

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