“They say that carrying bags is good exercise,” said the poet Jon Cotner to a young woman on the subway, a large shopping bag slung over her shoulder. She looked back at him curiously, then smiled. “Oh yeah?” she said. Five others, including this reporter, had joined Cotner on his expedition, pretending not to watch but taking mental notes on his vocalization, demeanor, bodily gestures, delivery, and success at creating “good vibes.”
This was no New Age happening. It was a Spontaneous Society walking tour—the first of four that Cotner will lead within the aegis of Elastic City, an organization that sponsors unique walking tours. Today, Cotner had given us each two simple lines to repeat to strangers that were intended—through this spontaneous commenting—to generate “good vibes” with the people around us and also render us more aware of our environment. For the first twenty minutes of the tour, which started at the Hungarian Pastry Shop near Columbia University, we had watched Cotner say to one or another person, “That’s a good looking dog,” “That’s a good spot for a text,” “That looks pretty cozy” (said to a person pushing a carriage), and “I hear it’s going to rain cats and dogs.” As Cotner demonstrated how to convey those lines with the requisite eye contact and hand gestures, he got mostly smiles, and laughs, with a few smirks and/or neutral statements of agreement.
“In this fleeting existence why would we want to use speech to spread humiliation or harm,” the poet said loudly as he led us through a stretch before the tour started. It was raining lightly. “The American poet James Schuyler once complained, ‘There’s far too much genius in this world and not enough amiability.’”
While Cotner had prepared a “magnificent walk” along Riverside Drive for the first Spontaneous Society tour, a flash storm at 7pm caused the trip to be slightly more, well, spontaneous. We ended up at the indoor mall at the Time Warner Center, near Columbus Circle. Cotner told us that the lines he had given us had been “rigorously tested” and “99% effective in terms of replacing urban anonymity with something bordering on affection.” He had tested these lines himself thousands of times, over several years, in numerous cities.
At first his lines spoken from our mouths sounded clunky, like when I said loudly to a woman carrying an umbrella, “I hear it’s going to rain cats and dogs.” She ignored me. “I don’t really say ‘cats and dogs’ in that context,” I told Cotner when he asked if anyone wanted to swap lines. We mixed it up. Some of us got new lines. Tested them out. At the Time Warner Center, when I got a man to laugh when I caught him texting by a stack of books at Border’s, I was hooked. We honed our craft at the bookstore and hit the ground running at Whole Foods. In the Dry Goods Aisle, James Yeh of the Faster Times yelled out spontaneously to a store clerk who had jumped on a cart and sailed through the aisle, “That’s a great way to get across the store.” Later Yeh would generate good vibes around the soup station by telling a woman about free samples of the lobster bisque.
The experiment bore a striking resemblance in spirit to the dialogue that Cotner carries on with Andy Fitch in Ten Walks / Two Talks. That book, as stated, contains two dialogues between Fitch and Cotner as they traverse Central Park from the Harlem Meer to Belvedere Castle, discussing everything from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to the smell of the hip cream used by Cotner’s then roommate, an octogenarian woman, letting their environment shape the movement of their discussion. “Their meandering is an aesthetic and intellectual stretch, since they walk and think artfully, poetry in motion,” stated Lynne Tillman about the book. “Maybe 21st Century dandies or rootless homeboys, they observe the unexpected in urban landscapes, notice people stunned or easy.” Similarly, this exercise seemed to ask us to observe people, to catch them at just the right moment when they might be receptive to a “gentle intervention.” Or as Eileen Myles stated, “When Jon and Andy walk around Manhattan talking about things I feel like they are a moving page from that very fine idea in which small talk is large and nothing is more interesting or more entrancing than allowing the city to model for you.”
It was as though, through our small talk, we were operating under Oulipian constraints. With a simple goal, and by these simple verbal acts, we didn’t have to worry about rejection or to concern ourselves with anything but developing a heightened awareness of our surroundings, perceiving whether people would be receptive to our acts or were simply trying to get from point A to B at any given moment, adjusting our delivery, and gaining as a result the awareness that we could generate positive sentiments by something as small as a compliment, a shared thought about the weather, or simply the confident willingness to hold eye contact rather than let it go. Staying in a tightly formed group—Cotner took pains to keep us all together—gave us permission to say things and to reach out in a way we might not have if left to wander around on our own.
Though the lines did for a good part of the tour tend toward the goal of abolishing the “distance between us and the world” and creating “a moment of understanding,” passersby were not always tickled. When Cotner said to a group of men smoking outside of a bar, “That looks like a good place for a smoke,” one man, not amused, shouted out. “What did you say?” He followed us around a corner and repeated more forcefully, “What did you just say to me?” to which we all quickened our pace, got stern-faced, and dispersed our attentions to seem less group-like, less in collusion. “As the ancient Greek poet Sappho reminds us,” Cotner later said around a table when revisiting the pros and cons of the day, “when some fool explodes rage in your breast, / hold back that yapping tongue.” And with his characteristic Haiku-like non-sequiturs, Cotner further explained, “This project aims for ultimate communication. These lines are imperfect.”
As with magic, which is considered black when practiced on another party without his or her knowledge or approval—even if the intent is to heal—our practice mirrored a dark art, though the effect we were intending was simply the creation of good vibes. It can be argued that people have a right to refuse good vibes. As one commenter, RadioSilence, stated on the culture site, Boing Boing, about Cotner’s conceptual walk, “I really don't want, and am not inviting, people's opinion of my ice-cream/dogs/baby.”
But the good vibes were received, as Cotner had suggested, with nearly perfect effectiveness, and, what’s more, returned with similar success. Members of the tour got smiles, friendly conversation, and even compliments from people they hadn’t approached. People in the group noted how they felt more “open” to other people after the experience, and how they were surprised by how often their statements were met with smiles or laughter. James Yeh said that as a result of the experience, he could see himself possibly making this a more regular practice. Jen, another member of our group (all of whom felt affected and bettered by the experience), said she had been most pleased when she got a smile that suggested she had managed to surprise someone with her statement. Like when she complimented a woman on the color of her shirt. “I can’t remember what color it was,” she said. “But I remember the smile. The smile was good."