Posts Tagged ‘Lower East Side


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.


Saving Quarters

The days are lengthening through these cool spring months, and afternoons are warming up slowly in anticipation of summer’s full force. Families up and down Henry Street and East Broadway have begun to hang their laundry out their windows to dry. Wire hangers clatter against the fire escapes and iron grates along the tenement facades, and the damp clothes flap like prayer flags in the breeze that whips across Lower Manhattan and the East River.


Crazy Guy on Henry Street

There’s a crazy guy I used to see every evening when I walked down Henry Street on the way to the East Broadway F train stop after work.

He’s always stationed outside a particular tenement building — if it’s not too cold, if it’s not raining — fussing around in a storage shed right out front. It took me some time to figure out that he lives there. The building, that is, not the shed — though at one point, I did think maybe he lived in the shed. At first I thought he was a homeless guy who just sort of camped out there. I think he’s the building’s super.

I wonder what he does with himself all day. He seems to be outside from morning to night, just sort of waiting, sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk, maybe talking to someone, maybe just standing there silent and still. Sometimes he lightly sweeps the sidewalk. Sometimes he’s not there at all.

He’s one of those people you see every day. They are part of your routine. They’re like landmarks. You can measure your commute by them. (OK, I’m at the crazy guy in the shed, so I’ve got about four minutes before I hit the front door at work. Enough time to get a bacon, egg and cheese from the deli?) Some of these people you greet. Some of them you don’t greet. Either way, you recognize each other. You have to. It’s every day.

This guy, I decided, I would not greet.

I’d see him from about a block and a half away. Eventually, because I’d be looking looking forward, I’d see him look up at me. I’d look down immediately. I’d usually have my iPod on, so there was no reason to speak; I couldn’t hear him anyway. Just maintain the pace, don’t run away, but don’t look up — and don’t speak.

I’d pass him, and that would be it.

It felt ridiculous to make eye contact with a person but remain silent and expressionless. I should just say hi to him one of these times, I thought. Just some non-committal gesture, like any neighbor. But what then? New York is rife with people for whom a simple nod of the head is an invitation to a conversation, a rant or an opportunity to ask for money.

I could feel him looking at me as I passed. He wasn’t longing for me to look at him, but rather, it seemed he was incredulous that I so studiously avoided looking at him. I could see him out of the corner of my eye aggressively watching me, his head turning slowly to follow me as I passed him. It was creepy and scary and totally justified.

Then I started avoiding eye contact altogether, hoping to discourage him. I’d time my pace with other people on the sidewalk so there would be someone between him and me just as I passed him. Usually he’d be distracted, talking in an excited, raspy voice to someone, always male: a teenager, someone his 20s, someone in his 50s. What could these people have to talk to him about? I assumed they were residents, too. Were these actual conversations, or was he just the annoying weird guy taking advantage of their lag time or their smoke break? He must be lonely.

One day, with no pedestrians between me and him, and no iPod to shield me, I decided I would say hi. No big deal, right? Smile and nod and continue. So, I tried it. We made eye contact from a ways back, and I looked away. As I approached him, I looked up again and met his stare. Maintaining my gait, keeping my hands in my pockets, I nodded and grunted, “Eh,” with a submissive little smile. He cocked his head to one side and, as I passed, he broke into an impassioned, incoherent rant. I seriously do not know what he said, but it was loud and it was angry and it lasted for at least a block.

A-ha! See? This is what I was trying to avoid. That’ll learn ya, I thought.

I convinced myself that he was yelling at me for being rude or stuck up or something, but for all I know he was just telling me about something he’d seen earlier that day.

So, I changed my route. I’d walk around the other side of the block to avoid him. (The unobstructed sun on Henry Street hurts my eyes, anyway, this time of year. And it’s a more direct route to the subway.) But sometimes I’d forget, and I’d find myself on course with the old man.

I tried it again. And this time, instead of lambasting me, he simply nodded back. But with a different expression that, to my mind, said Yes. Thank you. Thanks for looking at me. See? It’s not so hard now, is it?

I walked back around the the other side of the block the next day.


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.


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

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Hanging out this weekend in Philadelphia the night before a rugby match against the Gryphons, one of the Philadelphians observed that New Yorkers seem to be obsessed with gentrification. I think he’s right. Three of us had used the word in separate contexts within an hour, he said.

Living in New York City, how can one not be obsessed with gentrification and rising rents? It’s why I live in Queens, even though we are now under seige. I feel safe in Jackson Heights for now, but we’re worried about Long Island City. Once there’s a Starbucks, all is lost.

The gentrification of one neighborhood in particular has finally hit me where it counts. The hair. My Lower East Side barber has raised his prices so quickly in the last year that I am wondering whether I should reconsider my loyalty.

The liquor store adjoining his barber shop is extending deeper into the little commercial strip it occupies, essentially taking over his space. So the shop has moved around the corner into an empty space in the same complex. Its front door now faces East Broadway instead of an alley between the building and the garden of an apartment complex. They have a new name, a new sign, new mirrors and cabinetry, new chairs, cute new matching cobalt blue smocks, a new flat-screen TV — with cable, by the looks of it — and a fresh coat of paint on everything. And they also must have a new, more expensive lease, because they also have a new price for a basic haircut.

One of the reasons I was so happy with this place was its low price. But this getting to be a slippery slope. For a $9 cut two years ago, it was easy to tip two bucks. When it rose to $10 a few months ago, two bucks still seemed decent. Now that it’s a hefty $12, do I need to tip three? Should I reconsider my loyalty and find a new barber? One invests time and emotion into settling into a trusted barber. It’s not so simple to move on. These guys are neighbors.

The neighborhood is beginning to draw some new commercial tenants. The other day, the barbers were discussing the merits of a Two Boots pizza going in across the street. It’s a welcome addition for those of us who work in the neighborhood and are often at a loss at lunch time. (Hmm… Bagels, pickles, McDonald’s or bad Chinese food?) They were wondering if it would increase business — you know, get a slice, get a cut. Seems a natural combination, right? One guy suggested maybe people would bring their lunch into the shop, or even eat in the chair.

I stifled a gag reflex thinking of hair clippings as pizza topping.

Is our desire for decent pizza and somewhere to go past 6 p.m. going to kill my lunchtime quickies? I guess you have to take the good with the bad.


It’s Snowing in the Bathroom

I work on the top floor of a 19th century building tenement building converted into office space. Lots of quirks. Lots of character. One colleague’s office has a sink. There are random non-functioning fireplaces scattered about the premises. That kind of thing. And I thought I had seen it all until this morning, when I walked into the bathroom (which includes a shower) nearest my office to blow my nose and felt little crystals of dropping down all around me. It was like Winona Ryder stumbling out into the backyard while Edward Scissorhands is carving an ice sculpture. (Well… all right. On a much smaller scale.) Apparently, when the wind picks up, ice particles are getting through a crack in the seal on the skylight.


Go On Ahead, Baby

On a caffeine run one day last week, I was once again charmed by a stranger. It was during the heat wave, and coffee was not an option, so I headed to a bodega near my office, in search of a Coke Zero, my carbonated beverage of choice. Standing like a zombie in front of the refrigerator case, I overheard a woman buying lottery tickets say something about a younger woman who had just left the store. The two had been chatting like people do in line at a bodega.

“‘Cuz it’s hot outside,” the girl had said.

“I know. That’s why you ain’t hardly wearing anything on your body,” the woman said.

The girl left, and the older woman continued a previous conversation with the clerk. I didn’t hear what she said, but I knew it was a reaction to how little the girl had been wearing.

“Some people just like to show their bodies,” he suggested.

“Uh-huh. Well, I like to show my body too,” said the woman, laughing saucily. “But you got to have some sense about it. You can’t go around wearing nothing.”

The clerk agreed.

“I show my body too,” she continued, “but at the right time, you know what I’m saying?” She paused for effect. “Leave something to the imagination. That’s what I say.”

The clerk laughed a little. I imagined he didn’t know what to say in response.

I was a little annoyed by her. She seemed to be trying too hard to impress her audience. She is not someone about whose body I would typically spend much time thinking. It’s not a body one would expect or want to see uncovered, and I was surprised to hear her say something suggestive about it. The sentiment was old-fashioned, but the images it provoked were more than I wanted to consider at the moment.

She was sort of sausage-shaped and she wore a modest dress generously cut from an immodest print of big orange and green flowers that swayed on a white background with every move she made. She was not an invalid, but I could see she didn’t have an easy time getting around. She stood as if her legs were always stiff and sore. Her swollen ankles bulged around the edges of her shoes. She was not a beauty, but she was clearly full of life. She’s what I would call robust.

There was something holding up the lottery ticket machine, and it was occupying the clerk’s attention. She noticed me standing there, patiently holding a bottle of soda and two dollar bills.

“Go on ahead, baby,” she said warmly, and motioned to the clerk to take care of me.

I was struck by the aunt-like quality of the gesture. Baby seemed a strange word to use. It could mean everything or nothing. You could say it to a lover or you could say it to a stranger at a bodega. It underscored a generational difference. A cultural difference.

Her sauciness made more sense to me. Or rather, it was easier to imagine her in other situations. Jolly, yet formidable. A talker at a family barbecue. Good with a story. But if I were one of her grandbabies, I would not want to cross her. I left the store admiring her vitality.

the untallied hours