This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
The India Street exit of the northbound Greenpoint G station has two convex mirrors mounted at the exit. Or entry, depending on your point of view. They are both around seven to ten inches in diameter, lined with a strip of black rubber around the edge. They have recently been replaced, but the dark lines of grime linger, outlines of their larger predecessors. The mirrors are as entrancing as Escher’s Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror and as banal as they appear in a ULINE catalog. Their faces display a dim, warped reflection of reality. Portals for seeing beyond the eye’s capacity.
Human vision has an arc of 120 degrees, but most of that is peripheral. If the primary function of the brain is to develop locomotion, the eye’s proximity reveals its importance in navigation. The peripheral vision is not very sensitive to color and shape like central vision, but it is excellent at detecting movement. This is the kind of movement that catches you off guard. It keeps life exciting. It keeps life going in general, as it insulates from collision and other dangers. But sometimes in the labyrinth of the subway station, tunnel vision takes hold. The full arc is lost, central vision is all we have. We can only look straight ahead.The horde squeezes into the stairwell without knowing what’s coming around the corner. Thankfully, there’s a safety mirror there, mounted in just the right spot to restore the order.
The first mirror faces the turnstiles at the mouth of the corridor leading to the stairs. It is the point of relief. It marks arrival, either to the station or the destination. The second one is on the wall of the landing between flights. It holds the passage into and out of. It’s the opaque place of waiting to be somewhere else. It offers the choice to file to the right just in time to avoid a crash. Travelers look into both mirrors directly, but hardly ever notice them. They negotiate with each other without ever having to pause.
Convex mirrors followed the advent of glass-blowing in Medieval-Renaissance Europe. At the time, it was easier to produce a curved surface than a flat one. Their shape came in handy for those who needed to have their eyes everywhere at once. For the domestic servant, the convex mirror allowed a discreet survey of the dining room at a distance. For the banker and the goldsmith, the convex mirror provided watch over goods vulnerable to theft. In the domestic realm, the mirrors became known as l’oeil de sorcière or “witch’s eye.” It was believed to protect one from malicious spirits and general evil. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait shows the witch’s eye in its prime, watching over the backs of the newlyweds from the far end of the room.
There are 8.6 million people negotiating the subtle matrix of public behavior in New York City each day. This is the place where anything can happen, and we flock here to indulge in the novelty. The city spills its cornucopia of unknowns with the caveat of rigorous order. Avoid chaos and catastrophe by identifying the patterns and keeping up. The gaze is averted by default, but the eye is perpetually alert. The New Yorker is looking down to avoid stepping in god knows what. The New Yorker stares into space instead of the strangers’ armpit greeting their face on the rush hour train. The New Yorker is looking up, darting under ancient fire escapes. The gaze is averted by default, never exchanging gratuitous contact with other eyes, but always deftly tracking. We seem to see everything here, absorbing the spectacle of our togetherness without looking straight at it.