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The Strange Sensation of Place

May 27, 2012

It’s strange to suddenly realize that you haven’t been noticing the world around you.

I don’t mean in that grand revelation way, I didn’t suddenly have some sort of epiphany this morning where I realized everything I needed to know, and all the steps I needed to take to achieve my dreams. I merely noticed that I hadn’t been noticing.

People that know me, know that I try to be observant of the world around me. Mostly in the form of situational awareness, and more importantly by keeping tabs on the random people that pass around me. I like to watch people, and I try to understand who they are just by listening and watching them. It’s Holmesian in a sense, and it’s a trait that I also share with my father, who when people find out that he changed careers to become a chef often say, “Oh so you were a cop, first?”

Yet, as I came into Jamaica station from the elevator that carried me up from the bowels of the subway, I was suddenly struck with that fact that I hadn’t taken note of the station as a place in months. It was one of those little moments where I suddenly realized I wasn’t appreciating the world around me, and that I had no sense of the place.

Sure, I know where the garbage cans, bathrooms, and so on are. I know which tracks will generally take you where at certain times of the day but I had no sensations that I associated with it. Having a sense of a place goes beyond just factual information, and into how the place looks, what it evokes, what it means to the people passing through it, and how it appears to senses beyond just sight.

Jamaica is a surprisingly large hub for New York City despite being so far from Manhattan. Two large subway lines, the J and the E, both path beneath it in a two floored station. The subway station itself is different from most, as well. Then there is the sky train to JFK airport where countless numbers of people fly in and out of the city on a daily basis. In Jamaica, there’s always different languages being spoken, and far beyond the normal collection you get in New York City, because foreigners on vacation are always passing through; heading out to the eastern ends of Long Island or the heart of Manhattan. The Long Island Rail Road itself has all but one or two lines passing through Jamaica, men and women commuting from suburbia constantly passing through its smoothly curved architecture. It’s a place of constant change.

Yet, its steel frame will stand for who knows how long.

Under the light passing through the large plates of glass that stand over the train tracks, I noticed the beauty of the station’s wide subtle curve, and the modern calmness to its structure. That ever so slight bend in its construction that gives a pleasing nature to something that was built to serve a practical purpose. While I stood next to the escalator, a place where I lean against all the time, I suddenly found myself, as if for the first time, getting a tactile sense for the place.

This is the sort of thing that happens to me every so often, and I’m sure it happens to other people. Some treat it as a huge revelation, and use it as a moment to suggest we all need to reflect on our lives and where we’re going. While I agree with the sentiment that people should reflect more, today I think it’s important to just remember that the areas we pass through and inhabit are more than just set pieces for our lives.

A place is something distinct.

I think of my alma mater when I think of this. One night, I had a similar revelation while standing upon the Sunken Garden, a large field of grass between six academic buildings that has been sunken several yards beneath the rest of the ground. That night, I realized that I had no tactile sense for a place I stood in every day, and so I moved about in the dim of the night touching trees, and brick, and lamp posts.

Yet, the Sunken Garden is far more than just the sum of its parts. It’s not just a quad where people relax, or study, or pass through. It’s not just the feeling of a tree or brick work, or a place where professors lectured on nice days. The Sunken Garden was a place that was all of those things and more. It pulses with the memories of countless members of the William and Mary community. It stands before the oldest building on the campus, the wings of which open up like arms to welcome its students, past and present, home.

We can lose that in the hustle and bustle of the everyday. Once again, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reevaluate our lives and orient ourselves toward understanding place as a concept. I’m just saying that we do need to remember, sometimes, that places are more than just what we see.

Such thoughts, should never strike us so strangely…

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