NYC Phenomena Series
(This series of articles highlights the intricacies and idiosyncrasies from the rather unseasoned observer of the natural New York City urban habitat, in all it's agony and glory)
One thing you learn quite quickly in New York is that eye contact is your forbidden mistress. You look at adverts or read a book or sleep on subways, you stare straight down on sidewalks, and you never look at someone crossing the road in the opposite direction--if it's absolutely necessary to look up and see someone's countenance, you only stare ahead as if looking through them, miles forward, to a place where they conveniently don't exist. If you do happen to catch the eyes of say a fellow passenger or street stranger, they will do one of two things: continue to stare at you the whole time (causing serious anxiety from the fear of being abducted, stabbed, or otherwise), or they will give you a glance of absolute abhorrence, followed by a turn away that signifies the total abandonment of accepting you as a member of the human race. Neither is a chosen happy consequence, and so the majority of New Yorkers, save your panhandlers and those who wandered out the psych ward, adhere to the rule of no eye contact. That's fine in a city that does have a large percentage of weird, scary, and quite literally mentally unstable people mixed in with the rest of them.
But for all a New Yorker's obsession with non-ocular communion, there is one sacrilegious activity commonly practiced, all day long, everywhere. We're talking about the stare down. This "stare down," or alternatively "stare up" is somewhat consistent with the aforementioned lack of eye contact because eye contact is not a prerequisite of the technique. Let's highlight it's attributes, shall we?
The Stare Up, or Stare Down takes on two forms. First, it can start with the visual scan of the feet, and move up to at least the torso or neck, or alternatively, the stare can begin around the neck or torso, and scan downwards. (There is no conclusive evidence that either starting point signifies any sort of feet or neck preference.) Second, the "Starer" as we shall call them, slowly and deliberately moves their eyes either up or down, taking in your body, clothes, demeanor, posture, etc. It's like an eye-based x-ray, except the results can only report on the clearly superficial. Third, the result. By the end of the Stare Up or the Stare Down, the starer will have made a value judgment of the "staree." A cold glance, or grimace, never bodes well, and usually translates into a mute "who do you think you are," or "god, what the hell?" A smile, on the other hand, either signals that the person has been caught in the act of the stare down and is embarrassed and trying to make a mends, or they are sexually attracted to you, or Platonically approving of you.
The rules of the stare up or down complicate depending on the respective sexes of the starer and staree. Results aren't conclusive, but heterosexual men are either much better at hiding the stare down of other men, or they don't usually stare at men as much, unless in a directly competitive situation. This seems stereotypical and gender-biased, but unfortunately, we have noted that a larger majority of New Yorkers seem to adhere more to gender stereotypes than we are happy to admit. Any situation in which straight men stare down women, straight women stare at men, lesbians stare at women, and gay men stare at men, can be seen as less of a New York practice than just more of your average sexual pursuit--and usually these stares are only completed if the starer likes what they see. They usually end in approving nods or flashy smiles.
No, what really gets our proverbial goat is the aggressive stare up or down. Coming from a female staree perspective, the amount of other female starers far outweighs the male starers. Yes, the man handing out papers by the subway entrance every morning gives an approving nod and says "good morning beautiful," to all women he stares at, but that is not anywhere near as offensive as the cold stare downs regularly received from other women, usually while walking down the street. These are purely driven by competition-- and they usually take on a sinister aspect. After the full body scan, the starer's eyes are disconnected and disapproving. In fact, take any positive word, place the prefixes "dis" or "un" in front, and that's an accurate estimation of how you think you're being perceived, and how the starer wants you to feel. The competitive nature of New York is understandable--people compete for jobs, for apartments, for lovers, for the last ticket to Rent--you name it. But why do we insist on competing every second, even during the most mundane activities, and in an area where clearly there is no winner, and who would even care if there was? Now, the starer is not the only one in this equation--a staree is responsible for how they themselves feel, and the only who can make you feel rotten is yourself (usually). And by observing who does the stare up and stare down, it's quite easy to tell who lives and works in NYC, and who is a tourist (although usually the I Love NY t-shirts and fold-able street maps are another glaring giveaway).
NYC is not known to be a city of brethren or "sisthren", and it seems after a while of occupancy, everyone starts to conform to the same localized New York city norms. The stare is reinforced, and reinforces all the other competitive drives of the city, and that large and ravenous animal is not going out to pasture anytime soon. If only, instead of staring in disapproval, we could really see what was around us. Competition is good, but it has it's limits, and usually that limit is right around the boundary between joviality and anger.