Georgie McFadden marched with purpose through the twice-baking summer heat that radiated from above and ricocheted from below off the endless pavement as he headed toward the one-hour photo shop on Third Avenue.
He did everything with a purpose, and his purpose this hour was to get an updated 1 by 1 inch ID photo for his passport, which he’d only noticed had expired three days before he was going to take his family on their annual holiday to Turks and Caicos. He always paid off-season summer rates, and as much as his wife, Lolly, objected, it was hot down there all year round, so what could a few extra degrees matter, give or take?
In a yearly ritual of thrust and parry, Lolly would wonder aloud whether the point being to escape winter was somehow being missed, and he’d counter that the point was to escape his weekly routine, touché.
He was annoyed this last-minute passport renewal process was going to cost him almost $200 on one of those online expediting sites, and even less pleased he had to hustle through the Manhattan heat on a busy workday to get the mandatory updated photo. He’d read that the customs authorities discouraged smiling for your passport photo, under the questionable reasoning that a neutral facial expression would provide a slightly closer match to the face of the harried traveler. On a scorcher like today, that wouldn’t be a problem.
Georgie was an urban planner in his mid-forties who’d arrived in the big city a decade before after escaping his previous job in Magnetic Springs, Ohio, a place where the medicinal value of the magnetic properties said to be contained in the local springs was now a bona fide point of contention for the fading-to-bust town. Currently, he was part of a team creating a new Healthy Town development on the Upper West Side, where according to the press release he’d helped write, the goal was “to create a mixed-use, sustainable environment where residents could live green in a cool, urban multi-generational setting.” He was a long way from Magnetic Springs.
With his heart still racing from all the brisk-paced walking, Georgie slowed his gait for the changing traffic light. The sidewalk was partially impeded, so he threaded his way between a lunch line at the falafel cart and a stock boy unloading crates of limes and mangos to the local outdoor market.
His pulse slowed as he reached the red light at the corner of Third and 39th, and with the smell of fresh fruit in the air, Georgie thought back to how calm he always felt after returning from vacation, and how each and every time he vowed to somehow, some way maintain that fleeting feeling of life without worries. And always, within 48 hours, he’d be back to his old hard-ridden, put-upon self.
A chattering crowd had collected at the light and he was now tightly pressed on all sides. It was an aural and tactile intrusion to his vacation reverie and it provided an instant trigger for Georgie to take stock of a hidden notion bubbling behind his heated brow. Yes, that vacay feeling was fleeting every time, but this time could be different. This time would be different! He watched the red light turn to green but stayed glued to his spot on the busy corner, alone in the wake of a surging throng, all babel and tumult, herding its way across the river of asphalt.
The light changed to yellow, back to red, then green again, and still he remained instead of crossing the avenue. He willed himself to stay put, to slow his heart rate, hoping to get that vacay feeling before vacay for once in his life. Georgie was going to spend his whole afternoon standing in the sun on the corner of Third and 39th if need be, but he wasn’t going to proceed to the photo shop until he’d taught himself to chill.
He was by this point in his life quite familiar with the term. Whenever he grew excitable, especially when it came to parenting, his youngest of three teenage boys, Riley, with the bold temerity of youth, would recommend that he chill. Most times he’d reprimand this insouciance, but on rare occasion, he would indeed chill and with barely contained sufferance spare the offending offspring any reproach. After some practice, the concept of self-restraining chill lurked in the recesses of his mind as a tantalizing option, even if seemingly unachievable as a go-to default mode.
Now, as he lolled like a buoy in a sea of concrete and eased his mind to a level of tranquility he knew only in proximity to the warm, lapping waters of the Caribbean, he grew emboldened by the possibilities. He resisted the tug of the human tide surging past him and felt elated that at this moment he was not part of the urban pageantry. He was merely an outside observer of present moments without past or future.
A silvery, patrician man in a chalk-stripe suit checks his Rolex as he hurries past two office girls in tailored white blouses, then disappears behind a hotdog cart. A heavyset mother in a turquoise muumuu struggles with her stroller to align it with the curb recess hidden in a tangle of legs. The sights are trance-inducing and Georgie can feel himself beginning to oscillate between inner and outer sensations. I worry about the way I worry. The walrus guy in the rumpled sports jacket looks as though he’s going to have a heart attack rushing to beat the light. I’d like to laugh about the way I worry. The short Asian granny with the carrying pole across her shoulders hauls giant sacks of bottles and cans and seems impervious to the heat. I need to be chill. A half-pint bike messenger delivering lunches cuts his corner close but Georgie won’t flinch or take a step backward. Better still, I will be superchill.
The M101 bus across the avenue pulls up against the far curb inches in front of the clueless crowd with their faces stuck to their cell phones. They should pay better attention, but Georgie has no control over such things. A punk-cropped blonde grooving to her blue Beats headphones sips iced coffee with whipped cream and caramel while she crosses to the fifth green light Georgie has seen, though he’s trying not to keep count.
Many of the passersby seem to be talking to themselves in nonsensical snippets of random conversation, until Georgie realizes these apparent lunatics are wearing earbuds and talking to others by phone.
There must be a worry-free zone where I can go, somewhere in my head. A pair of fussy looking diplomats, dressed in Burberry suits with tiny lapel flag pins of unknown nationality stroll mirthlessly, probably heading to the U.N., but they duck into a Thai restaurant. A tourist family of four that wait beside him are speaking gutturally — Georgie is guessing German — and he pretends that he can translate the guide-like father, “So much to see!” while they size up the towering skyline. Then they dash to beat the changing light across 39th and recede into the shimmering waves of heat radiating from the crosswalk like fading images in an old flickering movie.
Georgie’s heart rate was now slowed to the point of delivering him to a new place altogether, a hidden place whose only hint was the glow of his beatific countenance. He was beyond full vacay mode. He was beyond chill. He was superchill. And though supersizing the chill factor was kind of missing the point, missing the point was an occasional hazard for a man like Georgie, who was born with an affliction Lolly once described as jumpy genes. He tended to overdo things, even the art of chilling.
A young woman beside him takes a selfie while lifting her strawberry hair to show off a pearl earring, and it reminds him that his photo shop errand beckons. He is almost ready to leave his present place, hopefully while remaining in the present moment. To maintain a connection to this newfound oasis, he watches one more cycle of green turn to yellow turn to red turn to green, mesmerized by the color sequence playing on this strange, totemic pendant suspended high above. He is locked in and prepared to cross.
Then Georgie paused. A new thought had arrived and so he took a small step back. He imagined how it would be nice for Lolly and the kids if he were to consider planning next year’s vacation as a winter getaway, higher rates be damned. It would mean delaying that next trip by several months, but really, what was the hurry? The light changed to green. It was at least something to consider, and as he sauntered across Third Avenue toward the one-hour photo shop, he envisioned that when they took the picture for his passport, it would be difficult to avoid smiling.
William S. Rohn is a short-story writer who summers in East Hampton.