Ephemeral Attraction

What would you call someone who derives a vital thrill from the
beauty of passing strangers? Before you answer, consider this: a
perfect body, waiting at a corner for the light to change. Consider
the faultless, curving neck, tan and strong and graceful. Or think
of a well-muscled forearm, two bar stools down from you. Or a
beautiful accent floating over from a stranger’s flickering tongue,
twisting familiar words into music.

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.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.