Where Broadway meets Fourth
Union Square stands at the forefront of culture and activity in Manhattan. It isn’t uncommon to see people involved in board gaming, open-mic events, activist rallies, and protests. However, what makes Union Square unique is its encapsulation of social and political sub-cultures and how they’re implemented together. The Square has seen an astounding amount of political activism dating back to the early civil war era (Nelson, 1). Today, it maintains its versatility in the political arena while thriving in vastly different categories. It has a year-round Greenmarket; started and maintained purely by the community and small businesses outside the city (Nelson, 1). They supply thousands of New Yorkers with fresh produce at incredible prices (Nelson, 1). Union Square goes far beyond the simple stretches of fruit however. In 2007 a social movement and performance was conducted in the square. It involved a woman volunteering to live 3 days on a small set where she danced for most of the daylight hours. This project directly addresses the exposure of women in the public gaze and explored private space within the public environment (Amaris, 185). This project caught my attention and is an excellent example of the social change that has occurred in Union Square. I’ve been observing this chosen field-site for some time now and it’s become no surprise to see powerful and interesting things every time I visit. However, the one thing that really makes it stand out has to be its ability to create some of the top “cultural collisions1 ” of New York City (Larocca, 1). You really cannot compare Union Square to its larger counterparts like Times Square or Washington Square. They tend to be centered around things like tourist-attractions or college life. From what I can see, they’re far more focused on sightseeing and nearby interest areas such as bars and restaurants and lack the cultural activity that Union Sqaure offers. There is always a high interest level for meeting and talking to new people in Union Square (Larocca, 1). I like to say that the air is cleaner and more suitable to meeting people and engaging in conversation. This brings me to the beginning of one of my earlier adventures through Union Square. I traveled out to Union Square’s southern front on one gloomy Friday morning via University Place. It was during that awkward time of year that I’m sure we’re all too familiar with. The humidity and windiness that’s not quite warm enough for t-shirts, yet, hot enough to make you sweat underneath your coat. I ventured up the west side of Union Square Park, dodging members of the early morning crowd as I go. I walked by NYU students, young adults walking dogs, street performers setting up, falafel trucks cooking, and several produce stands. But today, I kept to myself. I looped around the park, seeing a few more familiarities: the place I get my coffee, and the place where my brother and I grab late-night food after a night out. I chuckled to myself as I swung the door open to the Panera Bread. I left with a coffee in hand and walk toward Union Square’s own, Chess Square. The tables were set up in their usual location beside the subway entrance; directly across the street from the giant green bubbleletters of “Whole Foods Market.” I sat on a ledge near the chess players overlooking the busy city sidewalks, I sipped my coffee and begun observing my old friends.
“Excuse me my friend.” Adam spoke in a calm and collected voice. Something subliminal about his voice calmed me, as if his four simple words began to calm the rambunctious city square. I began to approach Adam and his rigged tri-fold table; a chess board centered on top, clearly one of his most cherished belongings. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or a nearby bystander; his lazy eye made that quite the challenging task. I joined in the quaint collection of spectators observing the chess game between two middle-aged black men; one of which, had a massive cigar hanging from his lip. They didn’t seem to care at all what was happening around them. It was as if they were in their own utopia, where nothing else mattered; the only thing in the world was their opponent’s movements and the nylon chessboard that contained them. People joined in and receded into the surrounding crowds now and then, but the men never gave as much as a glance. The lazy-eyed man, who would later introduce himself as Adam, spoke to them in a clear but remarkably soft voice while rocking his body back and forth.
“Black Rook; B5 to B3”
“White Knight; E3 to Edge 2”
He seemed to be directing; probably stating piece maneuvers that he saw would be beneficial. But addressing both sides in doing so? This puzzled me. He was clearly impartial and helping both sides. The way he glanced around the circle of spectators was as if he was the prosthetic of the chess players2 . The crowd had begun to simmer down as the sun began to lift higher on this brisk Friday morning. I felt like it was a good time to begin a conversation with this interesting individual3 . The players were resetting as I spoke; doing my best to be friendly and approachable. “Good game wasn’t it?” He glanced up at me quickly, as if he’s been waiting all day for someone to acknowledge him. “You like it! These guys are best of all!” His manner of speaking seemed to suggest that he didn’t get much attention from many people in this way. I proceeded to ask him the following several short questions: where he was from, how often he came here, and what he liked about chess. I learned several things through asking these questions. He was living in Bensonhurst with some friends. He began to raise his finger to point out one of them. He then hesitated abruptly when he noticed they were out of sight. Adam had just started coming to Union Square and made a distinct effort to express how often he plans on coming back. His response to the third question is what stuck with me the most.
“What do you like about chess?”
I stated; sensing his attention starting to drift further and further away from the discussion. Adam was less conversational after hearing this question, however, I did manage to reclaim his undivided attention.
“I’ve always loved it, it brings peace brother.”
The way he looked at me was piercing, as if it was common knowledge that I should’ve known. I took heed of this slight aggravation and decided to let that horrible excuse of an answer slide. Before I could conclude the interaction with something other than a mildly puzzled look, Adam had met eyes with one of the players for the first time since I’ve arrived. It had escaped my attention that the game had ended, and a winner was crowned; clear by the half-grin stretched beneath his irregularly long mustache. I knew the eventful conversation between Adam and myself had come to its end when the two men had begun to reset the board. As if in a hurry to secure the spot, Adam walked counterclockwise around the table to take the loser’s place; who had taken a few paces toward the street to finish his half-smoked cigar. Adam was far better than I had imagined. He began slowly; waiting about twice as long as his opponent before making even the simplest move. It made me think of some sort of mocking technique used to anger opponents into making poor choices, though I would’ve been surprised by that truth. At this point, the large man with the cigar stashed what was left of the bud in his jacket pocket and returned to the tableside. I noticed both original two players were watching Adam’s moves very closely, which was different from how they reacted to him while he was spectating. Nobody said a word during the game, just the occasional “hmmm” from Adam’s opponent. I was approaching 30 minutes of observing and took minimal notes since being welcomed into Chess Square’s primary game table. But I did notice that the kiosks and markets were beginning to fill with people as the morning grew later and brighter.
The game concluded with Adam’s win. He took out a pen and paper and began to write down what I thought could’ve been the number of moves from the counter beside the board; 28. The looser stood up, met Adam’s eyes and spoke, “See ya tomorrow A .” I can’t be sure, but I thought to have noticed a smile as he said this. I returned to my coffee sitting on the ledge. I thought to myself a few things before heading up to City College, I concluded that these men were here for their own purposes. Maybe not a professional one, and maybe not one that would justify their own long term best interests or happiness. But here they were regardless – I couldn’t imagine them having any jobs to worry about. I understand that my privileges and life experiences don’t create my identity, but they can mold it more aggressively than one might want to believe. Growing up in affluent suburbs of Boston, Rio de Janeiro, and New York City for the majority of my youth and early adult life, I’ve come to understand just how lucky I am to be able to grow up where I was, and with the people that grew beside me. Of course, I understood that there was huge difference in life across the country; I was reminded of this (as most people are) when I made the move from suburban life to city life. For a large portion of my existence, I valued a small handful of specific things, things that I required and pursued diligently. I thought these things were keys to the good life. A good social life and good grades would get me to where I wanted to me. However, I believe now that I lacked much of what was needed for true happiness and fulfillment. Without specific short and long-term goals, I would find myself lacking in the years to come. I’m thankful for this realization and believe that Chess Square helped me get to this point. Hobbies and games aren’t always minute in size or importance. They can be centered around people’s lives. I’ve learned to incorporate even the smallest seeming things into my goals, both long and short. “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his labor and his leisure, he simple pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide if he is at work or play, to him he is always doing both.”