You see someone on the street or across the room in a restaurant or crowded into the corner of a subway car, and from a body or a face or the sound of a laugh a beautiful fiction develops. You nearly trip in admiration at the coyly blinking belly eye of a strolling stranger -- a wayward prince or princess from the fabled land of Ab whose favorite sexual position is the sit-up crunch. You sip your beer and make cat-eyes across the dining room at a young poetess with poems by Swinburne circling inside her head like chicken hawks. You wonder when the tiny creature crowded by the rush-hour throng into the corner of the downtown express will call out your name, because surely those little hands were meant to be held by you and you alone.
What is the word for the active pursuit of erotic reveries inspired by random faces? Your granddad might have called it girl-watching, but granddad was a sexually constipated, tonic-slurping old deacon; his characterization strikes me as much too pathetic a term for what one hopes is, at least occasionally, a two-way interaction. Girl-watching is something greasy-haired math majors do during chess-club breaks.
My friend Sabine describes the phenomenon as 'anonymous flirting' and considers the fleeting but powerful erotic tension between passing strangers to be as normal a part of urban life as hailing cabs or looking both ways before crossing the street.
Less charitable critics might say that my admiration of unknown beauties approaches a form of stalking -- an objectification of humans that betrays a bubbling psychosis. But really this is an exaggeration. If I turned and followed the objects of my fascination after they passed, then perhaps. If my fascination persisted and grew dire; if I followed them home and waited outside their doors with fistfuls of shabby Korean-deli roses -- well, then, yes. If I took photographs of them with a telescopic lens and wrote them love letters that I never mailed, if I trailed them when they went out on dates, keeping a discreet distance, consumed with jealous rage, thumbing the honed edge of a mail-order hunting knife, weeping quietly and humming 'Mi Cielito Lindo' into an ether-soaked handkerchief -- now that would be stalking.
To me, though, my deep appreciation of sundry shopkeepers, sidewalk strollers, caf? dawdlers and waitstaff has always seemed much more complicated, astounding, and innocent than the unsubtle characterizations I have heard people propound. I've come to think of it as an art -- the art of the crush -- and it is the closest thing to a transcendent experience I have ever felt.
Like many metaphysical notions, the art of the crush is easier to define by what it is not. The art of the crush does not concern the pickup game, that vulgar wolf's pissing contest. It is not about belt-notching. Nor does it have anything to do with doe-eyed infatuation.
The art of the crush is not about sex. Sex too is easy -- as simple and instinctive as shitting and, like defecation, generally restricted only to the extent that public enjoyment of it is prohibited. Sex is easy, and even the best sex is always a letdown.
The crush, in contrast, is a spell that, because it remains unconsummated, is never broken by reality's inevitable anticlimax. There is no meeting. There is no first date. There is no awkward, hairless-ape first copulation, no pillow talk; no rocky times, no ups and downs. There is no depressingly inevitable conclusion, when the relationship dissolves like a bankrupt corporation. There is only the crush -- part nostalgia and part hope; the figure approaching from afar and then receding; the infinite possibility contained within a pouting lip or a grin, within blue eyes or brown or green, within that billowing skirt or tight blue jeans.
The truly accomplished crush artist is a grinning celibate.
For the phylogenetically minded, I separate crushes into two broad categories. There are constant crushes (Eros perennis) -- landmarks of beauty that dot the urban landscape to which you return as often as you dare to recharge your soul's batteries and breathe in the sweet laughing gas of the crush. They are the shops where beautiful men and women work behind plate-glass windows like pastries on display. They are the coffee girls and espresso-jerking, cool-eyed caffeine boys. The violet-eyed bank tellers and pert-breasted waitresses. The fitness center's dreamy, cocksure muscle boys. The fourth-row-center, always-late, sleepy-eyed lit-class deity. The city's hothouse flowers.
The second category is passing crushes (Eros peripateticus). These are to constant crushes what charcoal sketches are to full-blown oil paintings -- perhaps more freely and unconsciously rendered (more purely artistic), but for that less fully realized. They are the short, sweet biographies of urban fate. The parade of unknown lovelies: Samantha Flatbelly, Billy Bungus, High-heel Jane, Roundbottom, Button-Eyes, Pouty Doherty -- urban seraphim!
In summer the art of the crush flourishes in this peripatetic form. Everyone is outside. The streets are full. Office dwellers linger in the sunshine during their lunch breaks.
Strolling through the farmers' market in Union Square or drinking a sweet, cinnamon-dusted latte in Soho, I am the happiest of men. Walking through the farmers' stands I harvest the ripe fruit of Manhattan with my eyes. Beautiful strangers approach, and I salute each one with a thousand beats of my palpitating heart. She of the short, short skirt. He of the tattered overalls. She of the jaunty stride. He with the doomed black eyes. I slurp my java, smile a cinnamon-crusted smile, and wonder what lies beyond those dark glasses reading Figaro.
From New York Press (June 21, 1995). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (52 issues) from The Puck Building, 295 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012.