KR OnlineNonfiction

On the Act of Arrival

Olsen 1

There is always that step, that motion, that willing of the body into a new space.

Late fall in New York City, a bright warm day following a day of rain and wind, I’m wandering midtown streets because I have a hunch, an idea I need to test, a moment I’d like to save. I’ve been watching people arrive. I’ve been watching them rise out of the ground on subway station steps, and I’ve been watching them get off trains. I have been watching faces of joy, curiosity, wonder, pain, fear, frustration, love, hope, and despair. I’ve been watching people nearly leap onto the city streets, as well as people whose baggage, literal or emotional, seems to tug them back.

Threshold. Verge. Edge.

Arrival should be a deep core joy. So it occurs to me that one step at the top of the stairs, those first few footfalls outside the train, are important to see. We set out across the universe, the galaxy, the ocean, the town, the living room with a destination in our imagination and desire. We cross space. We put ourselves at risk because we have a need to be in a new place. And then we are there. With one step we cross a border and, presto, we are someplace utterly new, no matter how well we knew it before.

Pay attention to that one step, I think. Look at the faces. Follow the eyes. The richest as well as most dangerous places on the planet are borders. Not just political borders, imaginary lines drawn by vanity and fear, but borders between land and sea, between forest and prairie, between urban and rural, between my home ground and yours. Threshold. Verge. Edge.

Angels and demons need an invitation to cross a doorway. We mark our entrances with signs, decorations, and blood to welcome or warn those who arrive. There is something about crossing that line, something about arrival we have always held sacred. In mythology there are the Liminal gods, the spirits and deities who watch over borders, walls, doorways, moats, crossroads. The list is long. For the Greeks they were Hecate and Hermes. For the Romans they were Cardea, Forculus, Lima, Limentinus, Janus, Mercury, Portunes, Terminus and Trivia. For the Chinese, different gods watched over the walls of different cities—Zhu Yigui for Xiaonanmen, Te Xuan for Jinan, Huo Gang, Yu Bo and Chen Huacheng for Shanghai. There are doorway gods for Hindus and gods for Voodoo, too.

This afternoon, in the borough of Manhattan, I watch people arrive and try to mark the moment of their crossing, the moment between there and here.

There is something about coming out of the underground. Despite small differences, every subway station is the same, the weather controlled by machines, the lighting unvaried by cloud or storm. Just like every airport is the same, despite different jerseys in the windows, despite different colors to the chairs. Just like every bus terminal is the same. But when you come out of the underground, literally rise from within the earth, you are someplace specific and someplace real. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here once or a thousand times before. The act of arrival is always time specific. This is today. Today’s weather. Today’s mood of promise or threat.

And my God, I think, what theater it is to come out of the ground in New York City. Empire State Building. Chrysler Building. Grand Central Station. Yes, whatever building that one is over there. And that one, too. Flatiron? Oh my, a push cart and street food.

I watch people come out of the subway stations. Some people see me. Guy with a camera. Threat. Mystery to be judged. Most of them do not.

They look around, inhale, smile, or grimace. Small children, old men and women, wide-eyed tourists and world-weary locals—they are all in a new place. They are changed. I cannot get over the looks of wonder and discovery. I cannot get over the looks of pain. People walk up the stairs, their faces and eyes turned toward skyscraper and heaven. Yes, they think. Here I am. The horizon is in a different place.

At Grand Central Station I watch commuter trains unload. With every one, a thousand people alight. A few of them are thrilled. Many of them do not look happy.

This is where it begins, I think. Not this place, because that can change. This moment. This arrival. The moment you know you are no longer home.

I should not be surprised, but I am, when the obvious hits me with force. It’s one thing to be an explorer. It’s quite another thing to be a refugee. It’s one thing to light out for territory because you want to, because you want to fill your eyes and soul with a light you cannot yet imagine, and something else to travel because the pocketbook is empty or the homeland is barren. This moment I am watching is either triumph or despair. It may be subtle, but it’s also true. To be an emigrant is to be at sea, a wanderer. To be an immigrant is to have arrived.

Yes, I’m know I’m overstating. But fast forward several days to when I have arrived back home. No longer in New York, I watch a winter storm cross the Dakota prairie. I look at the faces in the photographs. Every one is a face of anticipation. To arrive, I think. We use that phrase for insight, too. To arrive at an idea.

Threshold. Verge. Edge. The act of crossing. To become someplace, and thus someone else. To arrive. To emerge.

[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”4″ gal_title=”W. Scott Olsen Photos”]

W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers (NDSU Press, 2016).