Archive for the 'New York Minute' Category


Look Both Ways

Sometimes crossing the street in New York City is a flirtation with disaster. Times Square is a far more dangerous neighborhood than many. The volume of foot traffic, taxis, delivery trucks, police and emergency vehicles — it’s overwhelming.

Whether the pedestrians are tourists or business people, most of them can’t be bothered to get off their cell phones or stop texting or look away from the person they’re telling such an important story to wait a sec, yo, you gotta hear this, wait a sec, dude! — or even to follow traffic signals. Look both ways before crossing the street? We gave up that bunk back on Sesame Street. This is New York City, baby!

That’s not to say pedestrians are always at fault. Walkers rule over drivers in a lot of ways in New York. Sometimes traveling on foot really is faster. And if it’s not, dammit, I’ll make it faster. I gotta get across the street now! So of course sometimes the motorists, the cabbies, the cops consider it their duty to educate pedestrians by giving them a horn-honking thrill, making a thinly veiled threat. My friend calls cabs “yellow flying death.”

On a rainy night this week, leaving work for the bus back to Philadelphia, I wove through clusters of spiked umbrellas and danced around puddles to cross 7th Avenue… Broadway… to the opposite corner… toward 8th Avenue. And freedom. There were fewer people out than normal because of the rain. But also because of the rain, the reconstituted city filth made any sidewalk and street an oil slick.

A very specific sequence of sounds occurs when a moving car strikes a human body. Even if you’ve never heard them before, even if you don’t witness it with your eyes, they’re distinct enough that you know instantly what is happening when you hear them. It’s not a cracking of bones. It’s not a splash of blood and wet parts.

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Four Readers

Native New Yorkers are like unicorns. Everybody who lives there seems to be from somewhere else. And everybody comes together on the subway.

I am sitting among three people with books open on their laps. To my left, it looks like this woman is reading something in Chinese, if time spent strolling through the Lower East Side has given me any foundation.

To my right, an older gentleman is reading something in English, and beyond him, someone is reading in Russian, at a guess.

I can see a woman across the aisle with what looks like a Hebrew holy book of some sort. The worn, cornerless pages looked either well-loved or tortured; I couldn’t decide. The lettering on the cover had faded into dark brown of the book’s leathery skin.

Sometimes I wonder how we all understand each other. I think maybe we never really do.


The Odors of East Broadway

Walking to my office from the last Manhattan F train stop before Brooklyn, I felt like I could imagine what the old Lower East Side was. Or maybe what it always has been — and always will be. A neighborhood of immigrants. The home of the undervalued and overwhelmed.

The social service agency where I worked was located on the eastern edge of ever-eastward-expanding Chinatown. The area is still brimming with unassimilated culture, but the immigrants these days are the young white folks from uptown, adding their soy latte paper cups and Whole Foods plastic bags to the polystyrene clam shells and broken liquor bottles of previous inhabitants’ detritus.

Every morning along East Broadway I passed several of the small food distribution warehouses that supply the innumerable restaurants in the area. It’s all rubber tires and wooden palettes, beeping carts and honking horns, orders barked in Chinese and answered in Spanish.

Lazy, unaffected stray cats lounge on bags of rice. Cases of five-gallon jugs of monosodium glutamate wait, cooling in the early shade. Bags of overripe onions and packs of bean sprouts sit waiting for refrigeration, sending into the air a spoiled, acrid bouquet of lost time.

Waxed cardboard boxes of chicken parts drip quietly inches above the pavement. Oil and bile and festering water from thawing seafood mix with milky pools of unidentifiables in the streets. The draught, gently, blindly finding its way toward the pungent gutters, never frozen in winter, never quick in summer, would glisten in the sharp early sun of crisp fall mornings, would stir cigarette butts slowly in shades of gray and beige in the murky mornings of springtime.

God knows what time these poor guys got out of bed to haul crates, push carts, load vans. They’d have been at it for hours before I passed by at 8:30 in the morning. I’d avoid the puddles, careful not to slip, hopping to one side then the other to miss skillful dollies and swiftly moving carts, pressing onward toward the warming day to a place I had the nerve to complain about.


Climbing Boy

Scaffolding is as ubiquitous in New York as it is mysterious. Usually it serves no discernable purpose. It merely is. Like parasitic architectural lampreys, these collections of metal and particle board cling to their host buildings, waiting … for something.

They spring up out of nowhere, as if thrown together by teams of industrious elves overnight. On a routine walk somewhere or other, one might stare at a freshly ensconsed building and think, “Hunh… What’s different?” Then over time it becomes part of the building, the texture of the neighborhood. Tress are rerouted and split. Birds and small mammals make their homes. Then just as suddenly, months later, it disappears. And like a brainless goldfish that forgets its surroundings the moment it swims onward, you stand in the same spot thinking: “Hunh… What’s different?”

I can completely understand how a young boy would look at one and see nothing of its supposed true purpose or benefit — but instead see … a king-size jungle gym. How many video game-inspired Kung-Fu dreams could be fulfilled with a posse of scrappy friends and a Saturday afternoon on one of those things? Oh, consider the possibilities. The ultimate graduation in the School of Found Toys: The refrigerator box is left far behind in our erstwhile childhood, giving way to the glorious Scaffolding.

Today I saw a boy climbing on a scaffolding outside of a deli near where I work. The woman who was minding him said firmly but encouragingly, “You be careful. That thing’ll fall down right on top of you. Get down, now.”

The kid replied, “Aw… Why? What’s gonna happen?” He stopped climbing, but sort of lingered, a leg wrapped around a post out of reluctance and defiance, marking his territory.

“What you climbing that for?” she asked.

“What’s gonna hap—”

“I never touch those things, and you’re climbing all over it.”

“What —” he began, but she interrupted again with a string of admonitions. Repeatedly, he could say no more than “What &#8212?” before she interrupted again. “What —? What —? What —?” he said

“What what what!” she mocked. “Do you understand English?”

Then slowly she repeated: “Why. Are. You. Cli. Ming. On. That?”

What started out as mere concern for his safety quickly and weirdly escalated to a personal grudge about syntax. Her mood had completly changed in an instant. The original question had been rhetorical. “What you climbing that for?” If he had just stepped away and not answered, she would not be challenging the poor kid’s linguistic affinity. But because he annoyed her, the question became something that demanded an answer — long after he had stopped climbing and stepped away.

Ironically, it was she who misunderstood him. He had already asked her “What could happen?” as in “Get a grip, lady. This thing ain’t gonna fall. What do I have to worry about?” True, it’s little more than simple, boyish bravado that probably should be corrected. But he is a boy. Talk to the kid about what’s dangerous. Don’t stand 10 feet away barking at him.

She had a greater chance of breaking her nose on the door of the deli in front of her than he had of being crushed under a ton of aluminum pipes. But she is the Adult, and therefore has the apparent moral authority to not only ignore his curiosity but also to insult him. I understand the concept of enforcement through fear: Look both ways before crossing the street, and all that. But a scaffolding is not a house of cards. It seems to me there are limits to the amounts of disbelief a kid is willing to suspend after a certain age, and one needs something better than unrealistic fears of death and dismemberment to get his attention.



Another F train story.

There was a man leaning against the doors one morning who noticed a woman sitting across the car. He walked over to her, placing himself directly behind me (I was standing and holding one of those brushed chrome vertical poles), and began flirting with her mercilessly, talking about how he wanted to marry her, how he’d treat her right, how he’d show her what it meant to be a woman, and other vague, thinly veiled sexual promises. “Mmm-mmm!” he’d say. “Mmm-mmm!.”

She was attractive but totally average-looking, in my opinion. No better-looking than half the women on the train.

She did her best to ignore him, but he did not let up. So, realizing she was not going to look up at him, the guy started to get belligerent.

She buried her attention deeper in the newspaper she had been trying to read. As I glanced around discreetly, I could see that she was clearly distressed. She may have been looking at the paper but she was definitely not reading it. Her eyes were not moving, and she looked nervous.

Then the train stopped in the tunnel somewhere between Roosevelt Avenue and 21st St. All went quiet. There was not even any unintelligible intercom announcement explaining the delay.

The guy started up again. “I work for myself. I’m my own boss,” he said. And “I got me a burger in his bag. I’m saving it for a homeless person.” He has so much money, he said. So much money, he’s going to go to Germany on business.

I can verify that he had a bag in his hand. But as for the rest of it, I can only assume he was … exaggerating the truth.

“I got more than 5 G’s at home, baby. It’s all mine. I’m my own boss. Ain’t no one gone tell me what to do.”

No one was coming to her aid. She didn’t want to cross him; she was scared of him. I did not want to cross him, because he was obviously crazy and not the kind of guy I want to be stuck with on a train in a tunnel.

And then who would come to my rescue? No one.

The train lurched into motion again.

Evidently someone looked at him, because he turned his attention to someone else. “What you looking at?” he snapped. “Fuck you.”

Then he began muttering to no one in particular. “People don’t mind they own god-damn business. What the hell is wrong wit you?” He said some more about Germany and all his money and his happy employment situation. I don’t know who he was talking to. He tried to assail the woman with his charms again, but she was ignoring him.

Then: “You want some money? I got money. I ain’t no fool. I’m my own boss. Here, I’ll give you some money. I don’t need no one.” I presumed he was talking to the person who had distracted him. He dug in his pockets and pulled out some change.

No response.

“Here, god-dammit. Take this god-damn money.”

The change fell to the floor, either rejected or ignored. It was a couple of quarters, by the look of it. The crazy guy stooped to pick it up in a fury. I seriously thought he was going to hit someone.

He then started to rant and philosophize. More of the same story. More about the hamburger. Sighs were audible all around the car.

Then the train stopped at 21st Street. The doors slid open. And the man tossed his change out the door onto the platform, shouting “Hey, world. Here’s some change. Give yourself a wake-up call.”

The woman stood up and left the car. I don’t know if she got back on. The good news is the guy did not leave the car to follow her. The bad news is the guy did not leave the car. Evidently he had business to attend to in Manhattan. And that’s where we went next. He continued talking to people who ignored him. I was desperately hoping he would not approach me. To make sure of it, I also left the car at the next stop, ran forward a few doors, and re-entered the train.

To my annoyance, I discovered I had gotten into the very same car — but at least I was down at the far end from him.

Then, as perfect, perverse luck would have it, he made his way down the car in my direction, leaving a trail of distressed but relieved passengers in his wake. I don’t even know what he was saying to people, because I wasn’t paying attention to the words anymore.

Then he announced. “I’m gone get off this train. I ain’t gone bother nobody no more. Fuck all ya’ll! I got to give this here burger to someone. Somebody need this.”

He got out at the next stop — “fuck all y’all” — shouting all the way.


Girls, Girls, Girls

Anyone who knows teenage girls knows that one of them may, at times, be a challenge. A group of 30, however, is an unstoppable force of nature.

The F train starts out so crowded in Queens that, by the time we hit midtown, I’m grateful for a chance to sit down and stretch out and read as the train deposits its cargo of workers along its southward path. But all that ended abruptly this morning when what I assume was a school group entered at 34th or 23rd Street. Before the doors opened, I could hear a loud roar out in the echoing subway platform. The doors slid open, and a deluge of sound and teenage girls burst forth into the train, filling it instantly.

An amalgam of scented hair product vapors was released into the air, their mild toxins mixing invisibly but undeniably. And I was suddenly scrunched up again, making myself as small as possible and sitting bolt upright — but not against business suits and khakis anymore. This time I was avoiding contact — at all costs — with body-hugging velour track suits (They can wear those things at school?), small-waisted jean jackets, steering-wheel sized hoop earrings, rhinestone-studded belts and teased, crimped hair.

It was an assault on every human sensation, most notably the ears. Together, as if it were a personal goal, they achieved a tremendous volume. Each of their voices augmented the other, and the train car was an impenetrable cacophony.

With each balance-throwing rock of the train carraige, there was a sudden shift of teenage bodies and a rush of giggles. There was a conversation about a boy here, someone’s outfit there, and bursts of laughter all around. Some of them clicked their long fingernails against their cellphone keypads and bleeped.

And they never stopped moving. It was like being trapped in an animated diagram of what happens to mashed potato molecules when microwaves hit them.

I had no choice but to sit and stare and observe. I began to see them as creatures acting as a collective. The actions of a single ant don’t amount to much, but the actions of a colony are really count. It seemed to be these girls’ primary function to make noise (Were they making words or just noise?) and to raise the temperature of the car with their constant motion.

There were two young women in front of me, both in head-to-toe velour; one in pink, one in beige. All curves were revealed. I had no idea girls their age were shaped that way. It was impossible not to look. No matter where my eyes landed on them, I felt dirty. I felt as if I should explain to them: I’m really not interested; you’re just standing so close…

When a woman escaped at West 4th Street, a seat opened up next to me, and the velour twins became human once again. One sat down in the empty seat and, taking her friend’s hand, she drew her near and pulled her down so she was sitting on her lap. It seemed the most unremarkable thing to them. They continued their conversation without interruption. No where else to go, so why not sit on my lap, eh? They were 14. They were friends. They were, simply, girls. And I was no longer annoyed.

You’d never catch teenage boys doing this. Not the straight ones, anyway. And not on the F train. I wondered which one was heavier. Is this one always on top, or do they switch sometimes? Are they sisters? girlfriends? Then I realized that each probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet, and it was probably much like holding a large purse or backpack on one’s lap.

We hit Broadway/Lafayette, and the doors parted, and I swear we all had to catch our breath from the vacuum created by the mass exit. The squawking did not stop so much as simply shift from one space to another. The doors closed, and again I heard the high rumble of the girls’ voices. Dust settled. The eddies of swirling newspapers and empty coffee cups died down. The train lurched forward. And we were soon in relative silence.

The other passengers were left dazed and bewildered. There were maybe a dozen people left on the train — all happy, I’m sure, to be left with a place to sit and room to breathe. We resumed staring forward. The sudden quietude was eerie. Lonely. Cold.

the untallied hours