Archive for the 'New York Lessons' Category


New York Lesson No. 332: Boss

The way strangers address each other in New York, if at all, follows a high degree of variation, depending on the situation — from the carnival-barker lurings of Italian restauranteurs along Mulberry Street to the colorful and often violent invitations from one fender-bent cabbie to another, the nod of a mail carrier to the blank stare of a neighbor.

What passes for polite forms of address in this town varies from community to community. But one constant I have heard among men time and again is the odd honorific “boss.”

It is at once colloquial and coarsely formal. As a term of address it suggests respect, as one stranger respects another, but it is not as stuffy as “sir.” I feel ridiculous and self-conscious when someone my age or older refers to me as sir.

“Boss” is in another class altogether, at least a full step up from “dude,” and not as juvenile as “mister.” It is friendly, like a light jab on the shoulder. It feels comfortable. The odd thing is, unlike “sir,” being addressed as boss does not carry any indication of social superiority.

From the convenience store clerk: “Do you want a straw with that, boss?”

From the guy at the pizza shop: “Eh, boss. What can I do for you?”

From the friendly-looking old man slowly walking across the street, one hand on his cane, the other raised in a shaking fist, while I was searching for a parking spot last night: “Hey, boss! Lights! Put on your fucking lights!”


Open Doors

An optimist would say that when one door closes, another one opens up.

A New Yorker might say, rather, that when one door closes, I’ll just, um … stay outside, I guess.

Despite there being a row of unlocked, fully functional doors — say, at a subway station or a library — they will stream through the single door that happens to be open. Spending any time in public spaces with New Yorkers, one will undoubtedly recognize this peculiar behavior repeated over and over. Rather than boldly striking out and pulling open a second, third — dare I say it — fourth door, they rely on someone else holding the door for them. Telemarketers are less direct in their opportunism.

And just as certainly, when I throw caution to the wind and open my own door, a stream of commuters falls into line behind me.

Flocks of geese are less stringent in their formation. Hives of bees are less singular in their purpose. Oceanbound bales of hatchling turtles are less predictable.

And how many times, when I am leaving a building and someone else is arriving, will that person slide past me to enter as I open the door to leave — often with the effect of actually obstructing my exit? What is more rude: To assume I have opened the door for them, or to refuse to say thank you.


New York Lesson No. 333: Neighbors

New York has a lot to teach me about how to be a good neighbor.

The morning after a rather long night not long ago, I stopped in at the corner bodega near my office for a Diet Red Bull. It’s a disgusting way to wake up, but coffee makes me jittery sometimes.

After having been a customer for two years now, I enjoy a certain a mount of familiarity there. I’m just another regular from the neighborhood, but it’s nice to be recognized. New York is a small town when taken neighborhood by neighborhood. You can feel pretty anonymous on crowded streets of the Manhattan workday, but you’ve got your deli and your cleaners and your coffee shop, and before long, folks in those places start to smile at you for real.

As I entered, I nodded at the cashier.

“Eh, boss,” he said.

I set the can on the counter. “Two dollars?”

He turned to his boss. “Two? Two-fifty?”

The boss looked over at me. “For you,” he said, his face widening into a grin, “two dollars. Because you are the best in the neighborhood.”

It was just silly. Nothing, really. The price probably really is two dollars. But things like this never happened at the suburban grocery stores of my childhood. As an adult, I find I’m often embarrassed by hospitality and friendliness. Sometimes I want to be anonymous.

I was raised a “bad” neighbor. Nothing against my parents; we just didn’t mix much with other the other families people living complete, unannounced lives across the yard and on the other side of the street. It just never came up. They were they; we were we. In the suburbs, our doors may have been unlocked, but our curtains were closed.

My mom occasionally availed herself to the babysitting talents of a few of the other moms when necessary, but even that limited interaction was short-lived. And it involved money. We were aware of the various divorces. (There was a mysterious rash of them in the mid-90s, as if families all through the neighborhood suddenly and simultaneously woke up from a dream.) I myself babysat for a few of the divorcées in the neighborhood. But we never had block parties. We never pooled our garage sales. The kids traveled in packs by day, but they returned to their quiet homes by night.

My world didn’t extend far beyond those kids and whatever life-threatening mischief we could conjure in the woods that surrounded the subdivision. It certainly did not include my friends’ parents. Parents of other kids were, without exception, formidable and utterly foreign. They occasionally drove us places. And if you couldn’t avoid it, they would sometimes talk to you. But one was always quiet and still in their presence. One did not address them directly.

So now I find myself not talking to my neighbors. I see them in the laundry room, in the elevator, on the bus. I may smile or nod. I may hold a door. But do I ever talk to them about so much as the weather? Rarely. Sometimes I feel like I should, and other times I think, what’s the point? We live in the same building — so what? We don’t choose each other. But the people in your neighborhood — the barber, the goofy guys at the bodega, the lady in the bagel shop — there is some choice involved. We make these people part of our lives on purpose. Yet I stumble whenever my barber asks me something besides “How short do you want it?”

On the bus recently a guy standing right next said to a woman just boarding the stairwell, “Sorry, we don’t let opera singers on this bus.” She recognized him and laughed, and they began a conversation — on either side of me — about some show they were rehearsing. I was jealous of their neighborly familiarity. Minutes later, the bus driver accidentally blew past a stop and a little old lady in one of the seats near the front said to him, “Lenny, you forgot me.”

“Oh, sorry, dear,” he said. He stopped at the corner and let her out. The opera singers continued all the way to the last stop. I walked from the bus to the subway and continued my silent journey.


New York Lesson No. 332: Morse Code, Radiator-Style

I thought it only happened in movies, but as of last night, I am officially a witness to a tenant communicating with the super by banging on the radiator.

Usually on film, the character bang-bang-bangs on the thing with a wooden spoon or wrench or something to create as much ear-splitting racket as possible. This person was relatively conservative, with his economical single, clear, solid clank! every 20 minutes or so.

The correspondence was simple but unmistakable: “Turn on the bloody heat!”

I can’t say how effective this method of communication is. It’s sort of like sending pulses out into space in the hope that extraterrestrials will receive them and good-naturedly bounce them back to us before they are flummoxed by broadcasts of the Spice Girls or Hitler. I don’t know whether the super received the message or not, or whether it induced him to fire up the boiler, but I certainly heard it loud and clear. And so, I suspect, did everyone else in the apartments below me. And though my hooded sweatshirt, warm-up pants and wool socks testified to my agreement with the tenant’s position on the matter, I would rather he had clanked on the super’s lobby apartment door than send the message via my living room as well. After all, if any one of us on floors one through five had any control over the situation, there would have been no need to bang in the first place.


New York Lesson No. 331: Thin and Gorgeous

There’s a notion in places like Minnesota and Michigan that people in New York are all thin and stylish. “They all walk everywhere, and they’re all gorgeous, and they all dress in black and look fabulous.”

This is a ridiculous myth. And thank god. Otherwise I’d stand out around here like a pimple on Madonna’s ass.

Daily I see plenty of fat people on the subway who don’t know how to dress. My roommate, an apparent slave to the rumors of the Midwest, says, “Yeah, but those are all the tourists.” I might believe that if these people weren’t on their way to and from work.

Yes, New Yorkers walk more on average than people in most cities in the country. Yes, we are not as fat as Mississippians. But the Naomi Campbells and Beyoncés among us are few and far between, at best — even in Midtown or SoHo or the Village.

I saw Sandra Bernhard in an interview going on and on about how New Yorkers have a great sense of style that no other place in the country can match, and I couldn’t help thinking: “What bullshit. Where do you hang out, lady?” And that’s it. Yeah, there is a small class of people in certain neighborhoods in Manhattan — and by “New York,” unfortunately, she of course narrowly means Manhattan — who push the edges of fashion trends. Of course, Bernhard hangs out with these people. In these places. This is the New York she knows.

The New York I know — the New York most New Yorkers know — is a New York of tank tops, Old Navy t-shirts, frayed jean cuffs, house paint-spattered work boots, dirty fingernails, monochromatic business suits with unimaginative neckties and shoes that don’t match the belt, guts hanging out of ill-fitting halter tops.

Nice shoes, though.

OK. No matter what borough they live in, New Yorkers pay far more attention to their shoes than someone in, say, Minneapolis. I’ll give you that. People in this town may have shitty jeans, but they’ll have fierce shoes.

Apart from that, this panacea of fashion is something I just don’t think exists outside of the imagination.

Anyone who tells you otherwise probably did not grow up here and desperately wants to cling to and be associated with an illogical, unattainable ideal. Indeed, most of the people who will tell you this are themselves fat and fashionless.


A Lesson Learned

I walked into Kossar’s this morning on the way to work, asked for a single everything bagel, and dug out my wallet. To my horror, I discovered not a single one-dollar bill. Just the dreaded twenties. The blood drained from my face as the bagel lady grabbed a square of tissue paper and fished out a bagel.

“Nevermind,” I said. “I don’t have any small bills. Nevermind.”

“Huh?” she said.

“Nevermind,” I repeated. “No small bills.”

She glanced down at the bagel she was just about to stuff into a paper bag, looking somewhat put out, then back up at me. She seemed on teh verge of saying something. Rather than let her offer to give it to me on credit, as she had done once before to my humiliation, I threw open the door and leaped out onto the sidewalk.

As I high-tailed it the hell out the there, I hated myself quietly. So stupid! I thought. I almost didn’t even go in — why did I have to get a bagel anyway? Why didn’t I check my wallet first? As the self-admonishment faded, I recognized a weak buzz of pride from within. I can learn from my mistakes.


New York Lesson No. 330: Blame it on the Train

It was one of those “duh!” moments when I realized an important piece of mass transit physics. Let’s call it the Law of Conservation of Trains. When standing on a 7 platform in Darkest Queens waiting for a Manhattan-bound local train (for example, as I often do), and three Flushing-bound 7s and two Manhattan-bound express 7s pass before a jam-packed Manhattan-bound local finally pulls up, it’s important to remember that the converse phenomenon is absolutely just as likely to occur at some point. It only seems like the dark cloud is hanging over you, because you never see the experience of the people waiting for the Fluching-bound trains until you are that person. You only see the bad-luck story when it’s you, but you may rest assured it happens to every blessed one of us.

This leads to another central truth of subways: Never content yourself with the notion that the trains are late — unless there’s a mass transit strike, or an overturned and brightly burning diesel truck under the elevated tracks, or some other Act of God. No. It is your own stupid fault for getting there later than you meant to. In fact, on time is usually impossible if you are not early. The one fact about subway commutes that will never let you down is their unwavering unluckiness. (This has the benefit of making the lucky times seem so much more magical.)

I am from mass-transit-be-damned Detroit, and even I know this. The fifth or sixth or seventh time I was late to work, it struck me that, yeah, I’m really just an idiot, and I really just need to leave the house earlier, and none of the dyed-in-the-wool New Yawkers I work with is going to have much sympathy for the corn pone Midwesterner.


New York Lesson No. 328: Umbrella Graveyard

As cold weather siezes us by the short and curlies, I begin to see more and more the signs of winter. I have lost count of the number of single gloves I have found littering the sidewalks and subway platforms of New York. Makes me sad, really. Sometimes I see a complete pair left behind by a passeger in a hurry or a distracted mom or a fussy child. But when I see one glove, it reminds me of when I lose one glove. It’s an incomplete loss; I’m left with one glove, which I can neither use nor bring myself to throw away. (It’s a perfectly good glove.) I’d rather lose two gloves: They’re both gone for good and I know where I stand.

The dead-glove phenomenon reminds me of the springtime equivalent: abandoned busted umbrellas. New York sidewalks become a graveyard of umbrella carcasses whenever it rains. First, it must be noted that New Yorkers will pull out their umbrellas at the first sign of any precipitation, be it a single drop (probably from someone’s high-rise air conditioner, anyway), a misty drizzle, a light snow flurry — whatever. (Those of us from Michigan and Minnesota wonder: “an umbrella in the snow?“)

They’re ubiquitous and cheap, and therefore easy to leave behind. How they miss the garbage cans on nearly every corner remains a mystery to me. Maybe the useless, impotent spines of a stripped and torn umbrella, shreds of soggy fabric flopping in the wind, are more demonstrative. You can count on it — someone right here earlier today had a hell of a time. Right here. You can almost feel their anguish, their rage, their frantic searching for a 99-cent store, their wet pant cuffs and sopping socks. It’s a testament to man’s struggle against nature. Poetry, almost.



New York Lesson No. 329: Large Bills, Small Change

I resent having no choice at 99% of the ATMs out there but to get $20 bills. I remember a time when one could get $5 and $10 bills as well as the 20s depending on the amount requested. Now, rarely, I’ll find one that dispenses 10s.

What am I gonna do about it, though, right?

All I had one morning was a $20 bill, and I really wanted a bagel. I stopped at Kossar’s Bialys on the way to work, because their bagels are lovely. I asked the baker for a sesame-seed bagel and sheepishly pulled the bill out of my wallet — “It’s all I have,” I pleaded pre-emptively. One glimpse of Andrew Jackson and she began to protest, rolling her eyes and sighing loudly.

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” she said.

“OK, I’m sorry,” I said, turning red, wanting to run. “I’ll just come back later.”

I was willing to run down to Rite Aid or something and get a pack of gum to get change so I could run back for the bagel. (They’re good bagels!) But I guess she recognized me from my many visits there, because she told me to go ahead, take the bagel, and just come back later to pay her. Because, as she sized me up and committed my face to memory, she knew: If I did not pay her, I’d never be able to set foot in that place again.

I was shamed. I had just bought a 65-cent bagel on credit.

I returned to pay her back just minutes later after getting a coffee down the block. I tried to give her a whole dollar for her trouble but she refused and gave me back 35 cents.

New York can be a small town, too.

She might have taken a $20 later in the day after collecting a lot of smaller bills and loose change. The typical purchase at Kossar’s must be less than a couple bucks per person. And it’s a pain to take a bunch of smaller bills early in the morning. I was once verbally flogged at a post office in Minneapolis for daring to use a $20 bill early in the morning.

“You know, you’re lucky we do the early-bird service. And now you’re gonna come in here and gimme a twenty? Gimme a break.”

So much for Minnesota Nice.

Incidentally, a friend of mine recently got two $50 bills from an ATM when he withdrew $100 from his account. To his gastronomical disappointment, none of the Indian restaurants in my neighborhood would take a $50 from him. So, he had to do without some really, really good chow.

…Until he came upon a Taco Bell that would take his $50.

He was forced to substitute a burrito supreme for sag paneer. Thanks, Chase Manhattan!


New York Lesson No. 327: Chinatown Bus

The Chinatown bus is the best travel deal between major East Coast cities. The network runs from Chinatown to Chinatown among the cities of Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia — and it’s dirt cheap. It’s managed by some smart, industrious, and I have to believe successful Chinese immigrants. I made a round trip from New York to Boston this week for $30.

It worked out rather nicely. Chinatown bus vets have told me stories of varying degrees of quality. Sometimes the bus is dirty or stinky. Sometimes it’s too hot or cold. I had been warned once to expect an authentic Third World experience, but I didn’t care much about comforts. I was more interested in the price tag, and I planned to sleep on board anyway. It’s not as if this was some gritty and dusty old school bus where passengers vie for space among children with dirt-smudged faces and crates of live chickens. It’s a regular coach with soft seats and overhead lights and heat. I have no complaints.

There are certain charming qualities of the service you might not find on regular bus companies. For one, the moment you step on board, the driver shouts at you, “Please sit! Sit down! Sit down now!” and honks the horn. Similarly, when the bus arrives, the driver honks and shouts, “Hurry! Get out now!” And we can always count on the mandatory stop at Roy Rogers in Manchester, CT. My friend Henry is convinced Fung Wah gets a kickback from them for delivering so much business. Maybe. I’m intrigued by their DIY system, but honestly, I’d rather have them assemble my lettuce and tomato and pickles for me. There’s a certain pretense with trying to make fast food “nice.” Let’s not pretend, folks.

the untallied hours