Archive for the 'Strangers Observed' 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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Hitting the Bowl, Missing the Point

At the Scissor Sisters show in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, some guy spent the entire night trying to hook up in the men’s room.

urinalsAbout half a dozen friends of mine were there, and we were all drinking, so we all made frequent trips to the loo. He wasn’t in there every time, but without exception, each of us had some kind of story about this guy.

He stood a little too close.

He washed his hands a little too long.

He kept trying to catch my eye in the mirror.

He leaned over and watched me pee.

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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.


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!”


One Track Mind

The pet owner is bundled up against the winter elements. His dog, because this is New York City, is teeny-tiny and dressed in an outfit that costs as much as the man’s. The dog scampers along in front, keeping pace, pretending there is no leash connecting them. And then he stops to inspect the base of a retaining wall. The owner passes him and pauses, giving the lead a gentle tug. Come on. Time to go in, boy. The man shifts on his feet and shivers.

The animal stands there with his ass in the air, clearly shivering. He’s one of those little guys that shivers on a warm day. A bitter wind whistles under his tail and across his exposed belly. His single-mindedness and determination is almost inspirational. I’m coming, I’m coming. I just really have to smell this because it’s so … interesting, and I … Oh, wait, what’s this? Oh, now that… that smells awful. Isn’t that awful?


The Quick and the Deed

Walking to work one day not long ago, I had the opportunity to play the Good Samaritan. A man walking toward me on the sidewalk in the opposite direction was holding a plastic grocery bag full of papers and miscellany. I guess it contained one too many things, because the bag split and papers went pouring out onto the sidewalk. The morning spring breeze picked up and sent it all eddying and dancing down the sidewalk — torn-open envelopes and bills and other bits with handwriting on them.

The poor guy barked a PG-13 curse and immediately fell to his knees and threw his hands and feet in every direction, like a Twister champion, trying to stop the papers from getting away and missing several. They didn’t seem to be driven by the wind so much as by a desperate desire to get as far from him, in any direction, and as quickly as possible. One glided under a parked car.

As the bag spilled, three people breezed right past him, offering no help. I was approaching him anyway, so it was no big deal for me to stop and see what I could do.

At first I stopped simply because it would have been ridiculous and conspicuously uncharitable not to. I helped him not necessarily because I wanted to but to avoid shame, setting myself up in my head in opposition to the people who didn’t stop.

I was glad I did. He was embarrassed, the poor guy. He would not look up at my face. As if the papers scattering around us were bits of underwear or nude photographs. But he was also grateful. “Thank you. Thanks, sir. Thanks,” he said.

Our reactions to the situation were so different. He’d been taken by surprise, something of his life exposed briefly and rudely, his independence momentarily stripped away by forces outside of his control, whereas my simple interaction with him, which neither of us was looking for in particular, took me outside of my own head and put me in a position of power. I know it sounds idiotic, but I think I actually felt some dominance over him in that moment. It was brief and a little embarrassing, but it was power. I was doing the one thing he needed most right at that moment.

So I gathered up what I could. I knew we didn’t have all of it. Some papers I had just seen moments prior were gone when I turned around. Oh well. He looked up at me finally and smiled and said one last thank-you.

“No problem,” I said. He seemed to have everything under control, so I carried on along my way. I wondered what he would do about the missing pieces, but I felt wonderful for at least doing my best to help. Should I have told him he didn’t have all of it? Did he already know? Would I know if it were me?

In that moment, the paper that had gone under the parked car skidded out into view and made its way down the street away from the man. I ignored it and kept walking.

When you commit to a kind gesture, how far must you go? Did I negate my good deed because I didn’t chase that page down the street? My obligation was complete. What was my obligation? Hadn’t I done my best? No, I knew I hadn’t. It wasn’t quite the same thing as walking an old lady halfway across the street and then dashing off when the light changes, leaving her to contend with honking horns and whizzing bicyclists. But it occurred to me that I hadn’t really helped him at all. Those people who had walked past him were rude, but at least they were honest. And, in opposition to them, I was certainly no better.


Next Stop, Dreamland

The way her mouth hung open and the way her eyes were just not quite shut, the little girl looked dead. She was obviously sleeping. If it were more serious, I imagine her mother, against whom she was leaning, would have displayed considerably more alarm. Instead, she herself looked half asleep and quite at peace with whatever state her daughter was in.

It was early morning, and the poor thing had clearly not gotten enough sleep and was now sort of just passed out — hard asleep — on her mom. Ordinarily I’d think: “Cute!” But her dull, mannequin eyes peering out into empty space through the slits in her eyelids threw the picture off, like she was only imitating a human and there was just one little detail she couldn’t get right.

I was careful not to let her mother see that I was staring at her face. Those eyes! They were like glass or plastic and did not move. Not even a jitter. They must have been taking in light, and surely they were recording something, but they were essentially switched off, like burned-out lamps.

Every few minutes, a man on the other side of her, her father, I presume, poked her in the side in an evident attempt to wake her just enough to assume a more dignified pose. It wasn’t working, and he wasn’t trying very hard.

A fat braid of hair came down from the side of her head, serving as a sort of cushion, framing her broad, smooth face against the shoulder of her mother’s jacket. She’s probably a nice-looking kid — when animated — I thought.

I love that kind of heavy, total sleep, when your field of vision closes in on itself, the words on the page in front of you begin to say things that aren’t there, your eyes shut off before they are even closed, against your will, and your arms go slack, and your body slips at first, then plunges deep into unconsciousness. And how much sweeter it is to have someone to lean on. You abandon yourself with no care for your destination. Mom will wake me. You sink back until you’re enveloped in grey cotton. The storm of activity in your head dissipates. The last thing you read is carried forward into a sentence of nonsense and transmogrified into something fantastic that makes complete sense, an alternate, other sense, in that moment. When you wake up, you have a bitter taste in your mouth; you’re sweating from your scalp to your shoulders and down your spine; you have to teach yourself to move again, to lift your arm, to close your book, to stand, to step forward and off the train, and to climb the stairs toward home.

the untallied hours

the tweets

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