Three Sunny Days in Seattle

The sun was still setting early as if it was winter, and the high grey sky paled to pewter then charcoal when the street lights flickered on. The coolness of the ground seeped up through the lush green shrubs and somehow the flowers glowed vibrant and full. I looked out of the front window of my small house in Columbia City and marveled at the fullness of the green, even in the dark.

A light rain fell, misting up the windows. The heat clicked on, and across the water of lake Washington the twinkling lights of Mercer island could have been stars.

Laying in bed as the night grew colder I pulled my heavy blanket to my chin and thought about my work agenda for the next day. I fell asleep wondering if I had any same-day deliverables.

I woke the next day in the usual pale grey light. By the time I dressed and exited my house and headed towards my car parked at the curb I realized that the sun was out. It was bright on the horizon somewhere behind the trees, but it was bright and warming. Steam lifted from the roads and grass. There was fog between some trees.

Huh, I said to myself. Sun in April. Looks like it will be a beautiful day.

Riding up the elevator at the office building the half dozen of us talked about the sun. We each remarked on the beauty of the light and how it will warm up the day. Someone joked about taking the day off to enjoy it.

There were small conversations about the sun throughout the morning, leading up to lunchtime. Everybody ate outside, along walls and on benches, sitting on their bags to prevent the dampness to seep up from the masonry. The whole city of Bellevue was outdoors and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. The sidewalks were crammed with people strolling slowly in their sleeveless vests and waist-length shells.

Back at my desk, the sun reflected off of the windows of the building across the way. I went to pull down the shades and my office cube neighbors erupted with, “No way!” By 3pm a quarter of the office left early. By 4pm the office half had left, by 5pm there was me, and a few other easter-coasters who hadn’t yet been in the PacNW long enough to understand the high value of these precious daylight hours.

I drove home, back over the route 90 bridge towards Seattle and the light was radiant and heavenly. As I turned off of Mercer island and towards the tunnel that bore under the east side of Seattle the highway slopes down towards the lake. As I drove the light glimmered across all the small waves, it was blindingly bright. Mount Rainier was visible and present and majestic to the south, out of scale with the rest of the world around it. The fish swam to the surface of the lake, bolting from the cold depths and leaping into the sun. They sang and squealed with joy. I sang too.

The stars that night were glorious although the night was cold.

The next day, it was sunny again. My neighbors across the street were outside pointing at the sky. As I open the door to my car I said good morning. They both looked at me, muted at first and said, “This is so usual. We might stay home today.”

Half of my office took the day off. My friend, an ex-pat from Chicago tapped me on my should at my desk. He said, “You realize there are never, and I mean never, two sunny days in a row in April. It’s unheard of.”

“It’s beautiful here in the sun.” I said back. Over his shoulder was a view of the Olympics in the distance. Sharp and snowcapped. To my right were the Cascades. The Puget sound sat in the center of a giant torque-spring bear trap, surrounded by the jagged teeth of rock and stone. It was so breathtakingly beautiful I understood why everyone lived here.

Wednesday was another sunny day. I received an email just before I was going to leave that house that the office was closed due to the sun. The simple note from our considerate CEO stated simply that it was to beauteous of a day to let it slip by. Especially for those of us who were vitamin D deficient. She closed her email with smiley face emotion.

I went into town, everything was closed. The bank was closed. Many of the restaurants had only a few people on hand for staff. Caravans of cars passed by with canoes and skis strapped to their racks. I sat outside at my favorite bakery, sipping on a cappuccino. The cool air blew the swirls of steam from the mug until they evaporated in shafts of bright light that piled through the gaps between the buildings and the trees.

“You’re not from here are you?” The waitress asked me.

“No, I’m not. Why?”

“Because you’d be doing something other than sitting here if you were.”

“Like what?”

“Being outdoors.”

“But I am outdoors.”

Later that day, back home, I sat on my my front steps and my retired neighbor waved to me from his driveway.

“Beautiful day.” He said,”Never seen three days of sun in a row in April. Maybe in February, but never in April.”

“That’s what I hear.” I said.

“There’s nothing like Seattle when it’s sunny,” his smile so wide his teeth glinted and shone. Up above a flock of birds circled and swerved across the bright blue sky. The day was so clear I could see their lined feather and their small solid eyes. They dashed among the tall green trees and flew out of sight, over a hill, and into the evening when the clouds would return.

Life is Short

It was a warm, muggy August day, last summer. As I walked home from the train station, taking the simplest route down the straight avenue that led from town to my house, I saw a couple in the distance. At first I thought it was a father and a daughter. They were walking in my direction, I was walking in theirs. They slowly came into clearer focus.

They weren’t a father and daughter. They were two men, walking with their arms interlocked. Their posture was similar to a father walking his daughter down a wedding aisle. They walked slow-paced, each step careful and considered. The taller, older gentleman on the left stood firm, head high, shoulders back. The shorter, younger man hunched. He was leaning into the older one appearing to take comfort in their closeness, until I realized that the older man was having difficulty walking. The younger man was supporting the older man. The younger man was wearing a robe, the older man was wearing a loose fitting t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans. They both wore sandals.

When they were within half a block of where I was walking it became clear the younger man was a buddhist monk, wearing an orange and rust colored robe. His head shaven. The older man had the undefinable look of age. He could be 70, he could be 80.

When we were within ten feet of each other I could see the older man’s eyes. They twinkled with a wetness that could be confused for tears, but were probably a sensitivity to the bright light of the day. The younger man looks at me, sizing me up. I could have stood aside to let them pass, but instead I said, “Hello, I live just down the block, who are you?” which might have sounded rude, but I did my best to make it sound welcoming.

The older man stopped though the monk seemed to tug at him to keep moving. The monk looked up at the older man’s face to check for a signal. The corner of the older man’s lips twisted up in a modest smile. The monk then looked at me and said, “This is Rinpoche, he’s a world renowned scholar, a friend to the Dalai Lama, a friend to heads of state. He’s a former monk, he was a monk like I am. He is my mentor.”

“He was a monk?” I ask.

“Yes, he decided to retire from being a monk on his 94th birthday. He had joined the monastery when he was a child.” Rinpoche then stands even straighter, pushing his shoulders farther back and begins to wiggle his arm away from the grip of the monk.

“Wow,” I say, “that’s a dedicated life.” Neither of them reply. Rinpoche continues to look in my direction though his eyes appear to be focused on the distance behind me. The monk looks directly into my eyes, then looks past me, as if waiting for my permission for him to continue with his walk. I think about 90 years in a monastery. 90 years doing anything consistently. I think on my life and the stops and starts, the zig zag path, the mindless commutes, and the daily routines.

I ask one more question, “Rinpoche, after being a monk for so many years, since you were a child, why did you decide to stop being a monk?”

His lips straighten the smile away and his face tenses up. He has a difficult time speaking. He takes a breath and his eyes shift to mine. As he answers the monk begins to take a step past me, pulling at the arm of Rinpoche.

As he too takes a step, putting him directly at my side, he whispers near my ear…

“Because life is short.”

The Light Phone and the Simple Personal Network

The Light Phone is an early indicator of a greater shift towards “Simply.” In this shift, however, we will not give up the feature-rich and deeply intelligent mobile devices (such as tablets and smart phones). What will happen is a smarter way to use the embedded technology within these devices, plus the power of the cloud, to create micro and macro networks of tools and services that create an increasingly personal response from technology.

Think in modules and nodes…the home becomes a node, the car becomes a node…the smartphone becomes a node. Networked to these connective points will be a new series of tools and services. The smart home, with tools such as Nest or Hue, are established indicators of the potential of node-based “Personal Networks.” We’re shifting from the Personal Computer to the Personal Network. (Thinking of this philosophically, this trend mimics the impact of Social Networking on our culture…this shift in physical technology could be a reaction to the shift in the intangible technology of Social Networks).

In the era of Personal Networks, we could be realizing one of the century old (if not older) design principles of “clean and functional” and also satisfying an initial tenet of technological advancement…Simplicity.

So what does this mean?

It means your smartphone will become a node, an anchoring point in your Personal Network. A tool, such as the Light Phone, would be a simple-function expression of one of the technologies embedded in your phone. Way back in 2013 Google and BERG were developing a tool called the Connbox, “…a prototype device that connects live chat in a more physical way.” It seems this device (and BERG) were too early. BERG closed down in 2014. (A potential pitfall of BERG was their interest in developing tools that were less about simplicity and more akin to quirkiness).

The great potential of a Simple Personal Network will be its ability to harness the power of technology without the weighty burden of complexity. It will allow the freedom to choose to utilize the deepness of cloud services if you want, while also being able to chose the opposite. To be “light,” and simply use a phone for a voice call.

New Jersey Postcard: Five Guys/Sex Pistols

I was at Five Guys burger joint this weekend, here where I live now, in New Jersey, in a strip mall. As I sat down and began to unwrap my sandwich and pile of french fries the Sex Pistols begin to play Anarchy for the UK over the speakers. In The queue at the counter is a woman and her biker boyfriend. She turns to him, poking a finger in his chest and says, “Hey, it’s the Sex Pistols.” He shrugs. I turn to Sheila, and she smiles back at me and we sing along, nodding our heads, sodas in hand. Our daughter asks who’s playing and I say out loud, “the Sex Pistols,” and she blushes. “Really, that’s their name?” I say, here, let me show you some pictures and I do a search on my phone. Then I get a little sad. Realizing I’m at a Five Guys in a strip mall and not being very punk rock. I think back to when I thought I was punk rock and all I can think is that the earth has spun so many times into the future that punk rock has caught up with burger joints. That the swirling of eras has blended into layers on layers of context and meaning and I’m getting all existential about meaningfulness and reality. I begin to wonder what if, what if. At that moment my daughter flips my phone around to show me a picture of Sid Vicious. She says, “Who’s that? He’s super cute.”

Brand Storyteller? Here’s the pivot you should make to stay ahead of the curve.

Brand storytelling is the majority now, where is the emerging opportunity?
While we are deep in the era of brand storytelling, the next wave is emerging. Many of us in the storytelling profession are eagerly shifting our brands and clients away from static “push” marketing and towards the dynamic and agile verve of brand storytelling and “engagement.” Yet, even as we shift our brands into the new world the next step has already arrived. It’s the nature of our time, the cycles evolve and decay quicker.

The Next Step
The next step is about taking real actions. Doing something and taking actions that spur the genuine stories brand storytellers aim to create. Think of “taking action” in comparison to the current mode of ideation and using creative resources and strategic inputs to develop stories. Your new aim should be to do something your communities would gain value from (anywhere on the spectrum from creating a joyful moment to providing well being to delivering customer satisfaction). The action you take will need to make a genuine impact, and it needs to relate to who you are and what you do.

Creativity and insight lead the way forward
Creativity is still one half of the strategic yin-yang, insights are the other, but your role now is to not only think up and develop the best story, or the stickiest story, or the cleverest one…the role now is to create and develop the actions that spur the stories to be told, shared, and remembered.

We have updated storytelling mantra to guide us
Show, don’t tell. Do, don’t show.

Brooklyn Postcard: The day John Turturro was at the cafe

“How could you not invite me?” says the one young-woman with her back to me. She is speaking very blankly, strongly, in a near monotone, to her “friend.” I can’t tell if she’s being natural or practicing a line in a play. Her voice has a plain low note as if she’s impersonating someone. “I’m so upset with you,” she states with a silent pause between each word.

It was a sunny autumn day. The sun dappled its way through the shapes between the leaves, which were just turning from green to orange.  I was sitting outside, in a prime seat in front of a local favorite café near where I lived in Brooklyn. Patrons pull and drag the outdoor seats around to create seating clusters. You really can’t get that far from anyone.

“I thought you were going to be out of town, it didn’t occur to me to invite you,” says the “friend.” She is facing towards me and has the look of a sad poodle. Her wild and long corkscrew curly brown hair covers her face down to her nose. She sweeps her hair away to reveal the soft tears that well in her eyes as she answers these seemingly prepared questions.

I close my eyes, listening to the much-too-obvious back and forth of their conversation and envision their banter as a one-act play, way off-Broadway in a poorly constructed stage set with cardboard props.  The two actors would sit on unmatched second-hand chairs.  The upholstery is threadbare with visible springs and stuffing and stains. The one other person in the small theater, who must be an off-Broadway maven with the interest to sit through this dialogue, would lean over deliberately and whisper to me, “See, the set is meant to echo their relationship.”

“Well, I’m not sure what you can say to make me feel better, “the monotinist continues, “See if you can make me feel better. You are not making me feel better and I demand to feel better.”

I began to wonder if this wasn’t a one-act play, but was some form of domination routine, a public humiliation that would be converted into something more corrupt later. The off-Broadway maven wags his finger at me and whispers, “No, it’s the underlying unrequited theme of our era pulsing through these two characters.”

“I’m not sure I can say anything more than I have already said, I’m sorry, you’re a really good friend, it was an oversight I guess,” the sad one replies.

“An oversight? I thought I was your best friend?”

“You’re very important to me, our friendship is important, please accept my apology”

“You’re not making me feel better.”

I open my eyes. The sun is glorious. To my right a beige-clad couple plops a short stack of faded paperbacks on the narrow table we share. She holds one open on her lap, the cover folded over and wrapped behind the main body of the book. I give the couple names. She is Rebecca, he is Duncan. They settle on a crossword to solve.

Rebecca provides Duncan with each hint, aloud, tilting her head towards him, squinting her eyes and I can see the spider web wrinkles above her cheekbones. Duncan looks up to the sky while mildly patting a shorthaired lapdog. I name the lapdog Cardigan. Cardigan’s attitude fluctuates between exhilarated tail wagging and face-hiding embarrassment.

Each time Rebecca asks Duncan a question, Duncan twists up his mouth, pauses in reflection for about five seconds, and then dramatically turn his gaze to Rebecca with a wide smile and says, “You know, I don’t know that answer, what do you think love.” He lingers on the word love, it sounds like, “laauuhove.” His teeth glitter. Reenergized from his passing the question back to her, Rebecca rolls her right shoulder from back to front, pulling up the sleeve of her bulky pressed wool beige jacket, giving herself enough flexibility in her arm to plot out the all caps in the available boxes.

“SERPENTINE!” she exclaims, “It fits!”

But her joy is short lived, she’s on to the next hint, reading it to herself her lips tremble slightly. She slouches a bit, with some worry over SERPENTINE as it relates to the next set of overlapping squares.

“What’s a four letter word for an all night party?” Rebecca asks Duncan. Cardigan wags his tail. Duncan raises his face to the sky and Cardigan hides his nose in Duncan’s coat.

“Bender?” Duncan asks the sky.  Cardigan looks at Rebecca.

“Bash?” Rebecca replies. Cardigan wags his tail. Rebecca looks down at the folded paperback, “But it seems to begin with an R. That’s strange.”

I shift my head, slightly, to see if I can view the four-letter frame.

“What’s a four-letter word, beginning with an R, for an all-night party? Maybe it’s a typo?” Cardigan is energetically wagging his whole body.  Cardigan looks at me, bright eyes, tongue slightly ajar. I sip my double cappuccino.

All of the outdoor seats at the café are taken. We co-customers crowd onto the short benches and loose-legged seats, each with our coffees, some with small plates of half eaten pastries. I notice, that they, like me, briefly shift their gaze towards the couple with sly bemused glances. Their heads do not move, their eyes do.

“How do they not know that word?” I say to myself, and Cardigan the dog seems to be reading my mind. I wonder if I too am moving my lips. He is marching his short legs up and down, aiming towards my chair. Duncan grips him by the narrow back half of his body, keeping him in place. Cardigan looks at me confused as to why he is not advancing.

It was at this moment that the punk rocker with face tattoos makes himself known. He was sitting on the stoop of the building to the left of the café. His face tattoos are subtle. He has two sliver faded green moons, like thin smiles, drawn just above his cheekbones yet set directly below each eye. There were some fragments of a tattoo that leaked out from under his green army-issue cap. It was hard to tell what it was.

He was laughing at erratic intervals. At first I thought maybe he was listening to a podcast, but then I notice he is half hiding a small bottle of local “Brooklyn” brand whiskey between his heather grey wool gloves, and it was halfway finished. He turns sharply to meet my gaze, he holds up the bottle for me to see, and raising his eyebrows, which lifted his cap, he says, “Want to embellish your beverage bro? It’s a fine whiskey.” I smile back, and shake my head. Sharing a swig would be an entrance to a much different afternoon than I had planned.

The local ladies from my old neighborhood would sit on vintage folding chairs in front of their stoops to take in the summer sun. They’d flag you down as you walked by as they always had something important to share with you. This one lady who regularly wore a bright yellow and white flower printed dress with thin yellow halter straps across her tanned shoulders exclaimed to me while holding both hands up, palms towards me, “Young man, don’t forget, in New York it’s easy to make friends, but you can never get rid of them!”

I notice the punk rocker is also intrigued by the passive-aggressive conversation of the monotonist and her friend. He tries to softly whisper a question to me, so they couldn’t hear it, even though he’s about ten feet away from me.

“Do you believe what they’re saying?” I turn my head towards them and they both look at me. One with piercing eyes, the other with a smirk. I then turn my head back towards the punk rocker.

“No,” I silently mouth back.

“Wha?” He replies aloud, holding his arms wide, pushing his head down into his neck like a turtle.

“No.” I mouth silently while shaking my head, but everybody sees me now.

Duncan and Cardigan both give me a quick questionable glance. Duncan drops the look from his face once he realizes I am chatting with a drunk punk rocker. Cardigan again tries to march towards me. I have the inclination to pet him, but I don’t.

At that moment, the punk rocker jumps up from his spot on the stoop as a well-bundled novel reader vacates the seat next to the two young-women. The punk rocker drops his green denim satchel on the crooked slate tiles of the patio, and engages the two, “Hey, I’m going to get a coffee, do either of you ladies want something?”

“No thanks,” they said in unison, about two octaves higher than the voices they had been using for their conversation.  The co-customers take notice to their new tone by shifting their eyes onto the faces of the two young-women to gage their sincerity. Then all eyes shift back.

“Ok, then,” he said, “can you watch my bag?” without waiting for an answer, and as he makes his way towards the door of the café the temperature of the air shifts, it grows warmer as if a late-summer breeze from 7th avenue had wafted its way down this side street to warm up this autumn afternoon, bringing odors of food, leather shoes and truck exhaust.

The punk rocker freezes in his spot, turns his head 90 degrees to look up the street and says, “Oh man, this neighborhood is hysterical.”

We all follow his sightline up the hill, turning our heads, but not our bodies, towards 7th avenue. Sauntering down the street towards Café Regular was the locally homegrown actor John Turturro.

As John Turturro reaches the area just in front of the cafe, I aim my eyes to meet his eyes and provide a head nod. He obliges, and in that slow moment of locking eyes all time and space froze. I could see each strand of curly hair on his head, where the grey mixed with the black. I could see the pores on his face. I could see the low tint of his teeth in the thin space between his lips, the lint on his overcoat, the wrinkles of his hands. I entered that moment with all of my belief that he would become my best friend and then he spoke to us.

“Hi,” he snorts, not looking at anyone in particular, and lifts his right arm slightly to half-wave.  His head slightly lowered on a tilt as if expecting someone might throw something at him.

Then, the punk rocker jumps up to engage John, either because he is drunk or because he is a punk rocker.

“I’m a film producer!” he exclaims, and the air shuts tight into a sudden quietness, the birds stop chirping, all the traffic stops.  The punk rocker continues… “I am a film producer and John, can you help me get my film made?”

We all hold our breaths. The gasp is audible. The dozen or so of us outside, and the dozen of so of us inside are all waiting for John’s answer. It could go either way. Is this the moment of discovery we’ve all dreamed about, where the big time homegrown celebrity gives back some of his hard won glory to his community?

I close my eyes. Feeling the warmth of the sun on this autumn day. I channel my inner enthusiasm for this moment back into my soul, meditating on this specific bend in the universe. Sinatra’s voice echoes across the Yankee stadium in my mind, “If you can make it here…you can make it…” In my meditation I envision my co-customer’s faces. They all alight with joy, a reinforced belief in the human spirit.

My meditation continues, I envision what will happen next, believing that I can impact this moment by thinking deep positive thoughts…

“Yes!” shouts John Turturro, “Yes, I will help you. Join me inside for a café au lait!”

We, the customers outside of the cafe wouldn’t be able to believe it, but would half-expect it, because John is from Brooklyn and we live in Brooklyn and Brooklyn is currently the most magical place on Earth.

We would all jump-up with joy cheering for John Turturro, half spilling our coffees and plates of pastries.  A montage of his life spreads across the wide screen. Here he is as a young man, here he is in his first movie, here he is running for Senate, here he is winning, here he is at the UN solving world peace, and then here he is, greyed and wise, sitting with us, telling us his most favorite and precious story about what it’s like to work with the Cohen brothers…what it’s really like, and we cant get enough of his story.

In my meditation I envision that my co-customers react to his generosity with their own requests.

“Can you help me too, I’m a writer.”

“Can you help me, I’m a musician.”

“I’m an actor…” The missives continue.

As John would reach the top of the short flight of steps of the cafe, breathing in the intoxicating aroma of coffee, steamed milk, and cinnamon. All of the customers who were sitting outside would now be on their feet in a gathering crowd, all in an effort to follow him in.

But then reality would set in for John, he is just a person, even if from Brooklyn.

He’d drop his head sullenly and then raise his head with fortitude and would say in a voice reminiscent of one of his characters, most like Barton Fink, but I’m not sure which one…

“Dear friends from my beloved Brooklyn neighborhood, the neighborhood that gave me life, I cannot assist so many of you. This drunk punk rocker approached me and I chose to invite him for a café au lait. I apologize drunk punk rocker, but I truly can’t assist, I got carried away, as I often do, as you can see in the characters I portray on film and on the stage are often getting carried away. Please accept my sincerest apology, and my heartfelt gratitude for your continued support of my work.”

Feeling my meditation has turned away from the positive outcome I was hoping for, I open my eyes and to my left John Turturro briskly enters Café Regular, without having responded to the drunk punk rocker’s question. John’s coattail whisks past my ear.

When I had closed my eyes to bask in the short serendipity of this Brooklyn mojo, I hoped that some of my co-customers, besides the drunk punk rocker, would raise their voices, or at least raise their eyes.

Not so. They went on with their semi-private afternoon plans of coffee, conversations and crossword puzzles as if John Turturro, the homegrown local talent, was just like everyone else. Just like us, the modest lot of us sipping our coffees outside on a fall afternoon.  My meditation didn’t manifest into a public celebration. Disappointed I take a slow sip of my nearly finished, now cold double cappuccino.

I look for the drunk punk rocker. He’s slumped down into a worn rattan chair. He has his eyes and attention on the monotonist and her friend.

“I worked with Brad Pitt once,” he says to them and they turn their heads towards him, but not their bodies, “He was cool. He trusted me because I asked him, like, honest questions. He didn’t trust anyone else, like, just me.” His whiskey bottle was near empty. My double cappuccino was too.

I re-enter the café. John Turturro was now snug-fit onto a stool along the far wall, his back to the entering customers. His gangling limbs bent tightly to fit the cozy space of the narrow counter. He hunched over his tablet reading something that had a bright glow.

I order a double espresso, telling the barista I could use the same cup as before. I hand him my paper cup, soiled with a caved and sunken meniscus of milk foam and cinnamon along the bottom.

I turned to look back outside. The punk rocker bounds up the stairs, having built up his muster to approach John Turturro again. He stomps over to John and whispers in his ear. John shakes his slumped head, each of three times stating a strong but somewhat exhausted, “No.” Dejected the punk rocker returns to his seat outside. He glances at me as he walks out, “Hysterical man, this neighborhood is freaking hysterical.”

I retrieve my coffee in its dirty cup from the kind and confident barista and head back to my spot outside. I notice my co-customers are all again glancing sideways at Rebecca and Duncan and their lapdog Cardigan, now with a more intense focus than before. They are stretching their bodies to move their faces closer to the couple, as if they are preparing to pounce.

“What is a four letter word for all-night party?” Rebecca again asks Duncan, her head tilted towards him as if he’s the sunshine that makes all of the plants grow. Again Duncan raises his head to the sky and Cardigan hides his face.

The entire available community of co-customers, dog-walking passer-bys, families with strollers, kids on scooters, passengers in the cars waiting for the light to change, renters and owners of the apartments and brownstones that ring the café from down the block as well as across the street…all lean even further into this simple, humble, weekend conversation of a couple who might have planned this specific autumn afternoon of joyful serenity during a text message exchange as Friday faded from the week.

Rebecca asks the question again, “What’s a four letter word for…”

And before she can continue, the entire block, including the now very visibly angry punk rocker and the emotionally charged monotonist and her friend at the table to my left, even the locally home grown actor John Turtutto, erupt louder than midnight sirens, louder than the subway screeching to a halt…

“RAVE! The fucking word is RAVE!”

The Beautiful Impact of New York City Transit Signs

Growing up in and around NYC, the Subways and trains become part of a rite of passage. Taking the subway by yourself becomes a milestone, a badge of honor, in one’s pre-adolescent development.

The signs and symbols which guide and direct you took on greater subliminal meaning. They became icons of the culture you were developing in your young mind, tied to your maturity, signposts to your freedom. In some cases the transit symbols became labels for the genuineness, the claim of being from or part of NYC. In the 80’s there was a great punk-rock band called “Token Entry.” The icon for their band branding was the token entry symbol from the subway. Everybody who was “hip” wore that shirt. It interesting to note that approximately 20 years post-Token Entry the MTA sells distinctive t-shirts which show the numerical or alphabetical symbol of the train line of your preference.

But, looking deeper, there was a “hidden driver” in place to seed and spark these symbol adoptions to occur. In the case of the New York City Transit Authority symbols this hidden driver were two designers: Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda.

“In 1967 the New York City Transit Authority hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design a signage and wayfinding system that would solve the problem underground…The work they delivered, the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual, succeeded in that goal and, perhaps unintentionally, the Standards Manual became one of the world’s classic examples of modern design.”

An original version of this manual was uncovered recently and there is a Kickstarter to have it scanned and printed in a limited edition. The two current designers who discovered this rare book initially launched a website about their unique find with photographs of the book’s pages. The site was overwhelmed with interest, which led them to create the printing project via Kickstarter.

The “wave” of impact from these simple designs has lasted decades. It has undulated, but each time the wave peaks it appears higher than before. I’m curious to see how this book will impact new generations. In the meantime I’ve seen handfuls of utilizations, including the new team of designers hired to redesign NYC parking signs, and the “way finding” sign team, that follow the guidance of this book rather then take a new direction.

I loved my Token Entry t-shirt, or maybe I loved the well designed symbol that had a look and feel to last centuries.

Moving day. Brooklyn. 6/28/14

The dispatcher at the moving company (we’ve used this company twice before) recommended I grab either of the parking spots that bookend the hydrant across the street from our apartment. The tone of her voice made me sentimental for rotary phones.

The truck will fit if you can hold one of those spots. Watch your street. When a spot opens up, move your car there. It will be much easier for you.

Each of the past five days I would check a few times a day. Parting the antique shutters. They click and chatter when I open and close them. Then, the day before moving day the spot opens up. I’m outside, packing my car for the first trip to our new house. The buds drop from the tulip trees, light green snow. They get stuck in your hair. I run across the street and stand in the vacancy. Buds escape my feet.

What to do now? My car is packed, the roof rack is packed, ready for a trip. I can’t park it. I look around for trash cans. I ask my neighbor whose daughter is our main babysitter, she’s sitting on her steps, sunning herself while gazing deeply at her computer.

What do you think? I ask.

I’m not sure, she replies, shielding the sun from her face with her left hand.

I notice one of the old school locals, Eli, is painting the stoop steps a few doors down. He’s on his knees, halfway up the steps, running a paint roller from side to side.

Hey, can I ask you something? I ask in a respectful tone.

Eli has been quietly witnessing the situation and has already figured out the answer. Barely meeting my gaze he extends his arm. In his hand is a key ring with a million keys. One small copper key protrudes from his pinched thumb and pinkey.

Here’s my keys to my gate. Go get the cones. Nobody will move the cones.

Thanks man. I say. Trying to keep my cool.

Don’t mention it, he says.

I look up and across the street and more of our neighbors are outside. Each surmising what to do.

Eli’s letting me use his cones. I express to the small set of watchers, trying to mute my glee. Everyone nods.

Eli, how will I find you later? I ask.

What for? He asks, startled, not wanting any part of any part of anything he’s not part of.

To give you back the cones. I reply.

Nah. Just throw them over the gate. He chuckles, letting me know I’m the rookie, I’m not from here as much as he is from here. He’s right. I’m from here, but I brought the rents up. Making the rents go up is the new Brooklyn. Making a Brooklyn for everyone is the old Brooklyn.

I put the cones in place. My neighbors nod in acceptance and I drive the first batch of my stuff to New Jersey. Everyone waves.

I return to Brooklyn later that night with an empty car ready for a second load. I drive up to the hydrant, expecting to see the cones, and there’s a black Volvo there. Parked with it’s back wheel on the curb. Dents all over. Dirty.

I pull up in front. Exit my vehicle and review the black automobile. From across the street a neighbor recounts my experience loud enough for me to hear.

You get Eli’s cones. You place them to hold the space. When you’re out, someone moves them and takes the spot. You come back, no place to park. No place for the truck. Must be a jerk.

I raise my arms up. Yup, I say. I stare at the car. I find the cones wedged near the curb.

Did he leave a number on his car? My neighbor is now standing beside me, shaking his head. Can you tell whose it is?

No.

I’m going to post this to the block list serve, he says. Let’s see if anyone knows whose car this is. He reads aloud as he types, one black Volvo, license plate…parked in front of…please move…ok, posted.

Thanks. I say. I’m going to go back to packing.

You’re welcome, he says, we’re sad to see you go.

The next morning. Which is today, the day I am writing this, the movers arrive early. They call my cell phone. I think it’s my alarm. I click it off. They call again. I click it off. They call again. I answer.

Jason, this is your driver. We’re here.

You’re early.

As planned.

They double park the truck. This causes some caustic jeers from passing cars and delivery trucks. Slowly nearly all cars blocked in between the truck and the sidewalk depart. All except one.

If this dude moves this one car our lives become a whole lot easier, the moving team lead says. I nod in agreement.

Just then, across the street, Eli appears, looking at the black Volvo. He shakes his head. Then shrugs.

I run over and ask, do you know whose car this is?

Sure, says Eli.

Who?

It’s J, lives around the corner. Must have gotten home late. You know J, he’s got his hair to his shoulders?

J? Yes I know J. J is the guy who is always saying hi to Sheila. Smiling from across the street. Crossing the street to talk to her. When I encounter him on the sidewalk I swear he crosses the street, turns the corner, goes a different direction. We call him Iggy Pop as his face somewhat resembles his face. I can kinda see it.

Eli turns to look up the block, he raises his chin, squints. Gazing across his terrain.

Yup. He says. That’s J’s car.

He shrugs again and heads back down the block.

It takes all four movers to lift and carry our piano down the stoop. They struggle and bend and crouch and pull. It’s wrapped and strapped and contains a billion or more combinations of sounds, songs and soul.

We’re not piano movers one says out loud.

You are now, says another.

Update: A New Era of Design and Nourishment

We are within an overlap of two eras:

  1. Disruption
  2. Post-Disruption

The Disruption era is/was so strong, that similar to the impact of Modernism on global social/global/economics, it is a “Post-” era versus a newly named one (Modernism shifted to Postmodernism).

Disruption (as an era) has shaken off the emotional force of Nostalgia, specifically off the back of Progress. One goal of Disruption was to remove the emotional connection to the past and replace it with a rational celebration of the new (similar to Modernism). As example, retro design, remakes of “classic” films and TV shows, and turning childhood books into movies are symptoms of the friction Nostalgia creates between the past and the future. As example, critics loved the first generation iPhone (no one complained it didn’t have the same look/feel of old phones), but vendors still arose to provide retro gadgets to modify it so it would. Disruption has worked incredibly hard to separate Nostalgia from an appreciation of what’s  “Good.”

Post-Disruption is an era with a focus on building stronger foundations in the new global reality created by Disruption. It’s an adoption of the the lasting forces of Disruption as a new normal, but within two distinct paths towards the future:

  • Neo-Modernism Design Driven: To continually reinvent the present through new systems and technologies in the service of solving issues (both global and local). This requires both solving current high-profile technological issues (health, energy) plus inventing new opportunities and markets (innovations) and therefore magnetizing communities around these new innovations
  • Neo-Renaissance Nutriment Nourishment: To provide foundational support (both global and local) that fosters the betterment of livelihood. Similar to the above, but with a focus on the basics. It is a new investigation of how to build a “Good” future (social and economic) that learns from historical lessons without the friction of Nostalgia to impede progress

Looking at our current experience, these two forces are unbalanced…maybe they aren’t meant to be. The force of Design is outweighing Nourishment. Both are growing. Either way, people, governments, and businesses should be considering these two paths when planning for the next five years, and beyond.

Social Strategy Lessons from the Bagel Shop

The proprietor of the local bagel shop is a wise communicator. I admire and learn from his soft-style marketing and sales techniques. They can be adopted/integrated as part of a core Social Communications strategy.

There is typically a long line from the front door to the back of the store. The counter to order your bagel and other items is at the back. Customers walk past all of the offerings before they reach the counter (sort of like exiting through the gift shop at amusement parks).

All throughout this process the proprietor engages with the customers. Sometimes it’s a simple, “We’ll be right with you folks!” other times it’s, “Don’t forget dessert, your family wants dessert!” My favorite part of this routine is the in-the-moment (real time) marketing “experiments” posted on the cases.

This weekend there were two:

1. New York Met’s Special “Sweep” sandwich. The Mets had just swept the Yankees in four games; kind of unheard of in these parts. For Mets fans this is sweet revenge as the Yankees typically gain the lions share of praise in the NYC area.

The proprietor chose to create a real-time product, using ingredients he already has on hand, that fits within his menu.

Here’s the other one. This one is more experimental. In this experiment the proprietor is inventing a new offer through a mixing of two current products:

2. The Coney Island Stuffed Knish.

Branding a knish as “Coney Island” is a whole other discussion (see Mrs. Stahls), but the proactive ingenuity of combining two current offerings into one to test its reception is something that we can all do on a regular basis. Plus it adds some unique flavor to our communications plans. Call it a mash-up. A mash-up message.

Here are the key take-aways from the bagel shop when seen through the lens of a social communications professional:

  • Display your advocacy (don’t hard-sell your services): The proprietor doesn’t broadcast the types of bagel and prices to his customers. He assures his customers that he cares about them.
  • Be in the moment: Discuss current events through the lens of your comms plans and brand narratives.
  • Mash-it-up: Refresh older items by reframing them through a mash-up into something new.

And there’s one last one…

  • Be personal in a personal wayWhen a customer is paying for their transaction the proprietor makes sure he says something unique and uplifting to his customer. Though he’s been shouting messages for all to hear, at this moment he quiets his voice to create a connection with his customer. He shifts his perspective, playing the role of a fellow customer, “oh, you got the humus, that humus is delicious, good choice.”

Enjoy!