Chain reaction

Yesterday I was looking for a silver chain as part of a present for a friend. Not a piece of jewelry per se — I already had the thing I wanted to hang on the end of the chain. I just needed the chain itself.

So I walked into a jewelry store in the neighborhood, one that Google Maps had told me was a likely candidate. The nice woman there said that they don’t sell silver chains. They only sell complete pieces of jewelry.

Normally, she said, she would send me up to the jewelry district on 47th St. But yesterday being a Saturday, none of the places up there were going to be open. So she suggested I go to the KMart on Astor Place.

That seemed unsatisfying to me. Big box retail outlets are so generic. Somehow, the energy seemed wrong for what was supposed to be a personal gift.

Besides, I was on my way to check out a multimedia yoga class in mid-town, for which some friends of mine had created procedural interactive music and computer graphics. I thought surely there would be someplace along the way that would do the trick.

Now here is the interesting part: Because I was looking for a specific type of store, I found myself looking very carefully at my surroundings, far more than I usually do. I started noticing cafes, music shops, convenience/liquor/hardware/stationery stores, a Salvation Army drop-off center, and lots and lots of other things besides.

It wasn’t that these places hadn’t been there before, just I had never really noticed them. For some reason, having a “mission” was making me hyper-aware of my surroundings. Even when it came to places that were completely off of that mission.

I wonder whether there is a general principle here. Perhaps when we are focused on finding something, we switch into a general mode of gathering information from our surroundings. Maybe there is a specific mental mode of “looking for things”, a legacy of evolution, that activates some salient part of our brain and causes it to kick into high gear.

It turned out that the woman was right. I found no shop yesterday between Greenwich Village and midtown that carried silver chains. Although I did discover lots and lots of other cool places, some of which I plan to go back and visit.

That evening I went to the KMart on Astor Place, shortly before closing time. Sure enough, they had exactly what I was looking for.

Which I guess shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, if you want to buy a chain, what better place to look than a chain store?

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