Small-Town Crier

Every once in awhile, I’m reminded that deep in its soul, New York is really a small town. Like the day that I lost my friends’ cat. She slipped out an open door at my apartment one evening while I was cat sitting and after a sleepless night worrying that maybe she’d hopped the garden fence and gotten trapped in the condo construction site a few doors down, I turned to the neighborhood’s go-to resource: posting flyers on lampposts, signal boxes and trees along the street.

It seems counterintuitive in these days of instant communication, but the best way to spread the word about what’s happening the neighborhood is still to post a simple, low-tech flyer on the lamppost. It’s the way we find out about stoop sales (each and every one “huge” and “fabulous”), block parties and movie shoots that will affect parking, warnings to neighbors about street crime and heart-wrenching images of missing persons. The very low-tech process makes sense in a city of walkers, where information can be easily passed along to those whose daily activities take them along similar paths. And it’s not just my current Brooklyn neighborhood. Flyers were popular ways to announce parties and gallery events when I lived in Chelsea; flyers encountered on a stroll through the Upper West Side recently revealed that one particular block had experienced a wave of brazen daylight robberies.

Of course, there are the more prosaic lost eyeglasses, jewelry — and pets.  I was still taping the very first flyer to a light pole in front of Key Food when two men stopped to take a look. One of them, black Labrador in tow, kept pace with me a block or so afterward, offering sympathy and a tip about how cats never went far. I got a lot of best wishes on my search that day, starting with the counter guy at the copy shop as he handed over the stack of flyers with a parting, “Good luck.” And there were the assorted others who saw me taping up flyers and getting drenched in a sudden rainstorm, feeling a bit like Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the last scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, searching for Cat down an alleyway in the pouring rain. One young woman broke away from her friends, who were heading in another direction and kept calling her back, just to take a look and say she’d keep an eye out.

The number of flyers has dwindled somewhat in recent years, aided by whatever mysterious forces remove them from the posts where they used to remain layered in colorful collages, to the point where it was difficult to tell which events were upcoming and which were weeks old. I wondered about that after the cat fiasco played out and I went around to take down my own flyers, finding that some had been maliciously ripped off and thrown to the ground. Who would do that? And why? I’d seen no sign of the neighborhood’s self-designated lamppost patrolman, who wanders the streets on weekends, viciously tearing down just-posted notices about bake sales, school benefits and tag sales, all the while muttering under his breath about illegal activities. Maybe people are just tired of the clutter. Park Slope’s plethora of street posts was even parodied a few years ago by an artist who went around putting up flyers for “Lost Pen Cap” and “Lost Pencil,” complete with a hand-drawn illustration and little tear-off tabs with the contact number to call with information.

Of course, there are other forces at work. Instant messages and Internet posts, like the hyperlocal pet-rescue site that helped out by posting a photo and description for me, pass along tips at the speed of light. Their collective usefulness is of little doubt in situations when time is of the essence — like a lost diabetic pet. responded quickly to my initial inquiry and within minutes of posting a lost notice, I got a couple leads from well-meaning, if ultimately unhelpful locals who passed on info about cat sightings a half-mile away.

Still, the street flyers remain a first line of offense, an easy, effective way to act as town crier and call out an announcement to neighbors on surrounding blocks who might need to know, or have information to share. My own story ends rather anticlimactically. After dashing about in the rain, the cat was found in the house the next evening. She’d been hiding in the basement all along. But the rather frantic 24 hours had a satisfying longer-term result. The cat was safe, and I had a confirmation that the small-town neighbors of New York are in it together, still looking out for each other.