I rolled into town as a journeyman scribe and left a more intrepid visitor. A country rube goes to the big city…well, not quite…but not that far off either.
New York City had never held much appeal for me. Despite the romance of ‘West Side Story’ and numerous ‘it’s a lovely summer in the city’ songs, The Big Apple has never held much sway over my affections…until now.
I’m not a fan of big cities in general although a few stand out from the rest. These cities have captured my imagination with their history, location and that strange indefinable vibe you feel upon stepping onto the tarmac or exiting the train station. Singapore, London, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have all had a special way with me. Several have played an integral part in several novels and screenplays of mine.
Now I can add ‘Gotham City’ to my list of urban retreats. I don’t know if it was the old lady with whiskers, the somber yet respectful respite that is the World Trade Center Memorial or T-Rex on the way home. It could also have been those pesky ‘Jersey Boys’ or the lilting melody of ‘Amazing Grace’ that changed the equation for me. Whatever it was that recaptured my imagination has me already mulling over another future venture into mid-town mayhem.
The last time I rode into New York City it was on a tired old Greyhound bus coming down from Boston. It was a bright and sunny day but there were storm clouds on the horizon and a chill in the air. It was a different time and a different place.
One of the first things I remember back then was passing a young guy on the street, probably a model, dressed in his blue shirt, tweed or herringbone sport coat and pressed blue jeans. I had no idea one could dress like that and still look so cool. Welcome to the land of anything goes. Yet despite the coolness of the place I still felt like a country rube lost in that vast urban wilderness.
Fast forward a lifetime of travel and it was with some excitement that I agreed to a quick week-end foray up from Annapolis for a couple of Broadway plays in the Big Apple. There were a lot more miles on this old chassis of mine now. So I would be coming into town with a different perspective. It was one short weekend on the east coast and away from the reality of Sharon’s Mom’s failing health back home.
We landed at Penn station and immediately got swept up in the street scenes of characters and chaos that define the city.
‘Jersey Boys’ entertained us that first evening. As we pushed through the crowds on Eighth Avenue I was reminded of the epic battle back in the ‘60s between city planner Robert Moses and urban pioneer Jane Jacobs. I had devoured her now classic book ‘The Life and Death of American Cities.’ I was in the heart of that battle still being fought and reality would come in the form of an old woman with whiskers.
The next morning found me sitting at a Starbucks overlooking the circus that is Times Square. Garbage had piled up from the night before. There were painted illusions on the side of a tour bus. Tourists were wandering about pushing past the nattily-dressed business man in his bright pink tennis shoes. The city was coming alive.
I was squeezed in next to a Chinese tourist on one side and a French couple arguing over my shoulder. The old homeless woman was close enough to rub elbows with me. She was nursing her cold cup of coffee and mumbling to herself. She had no place to go and a seat at the counter was as good as it got.
She began by telling me that “They don’t have nutmeg here anymore” and thus began a half hour lecture on herbs, vitamins, supplements and other medicinal medicines. A life-long New Yorker she had spent her better years working the work. Now she was trying to stay warm in a crowded Starbucks at 7:00 in the morning.
Her parents were Ukrainian Jews who had escaped the holocaust and landed in New York City after the war. The old woman had lost half her hearing and half her sight but her observations of life were spot on. She repeated herself a lot yet her knowledge of alternative medicines was clear as day. It was a lesson for me in the foibles of quick judgement calls on my part and the simple honesty in that old woman’s Canterbury Tales.
For that brief half hour it was one human being sharing her vast knowledge with another. She could recount old radio shows on nutrition, the best places to buy supplements in New York City and the evils of some vitamins. It was a lesson in urban survival replete with the old woman’s secrets for a long and eventful life. I was her student and she the teacher. There was a lot to learn from a life of hard living. I got her a refill and then had to leave. As I walked out the door she turned to the Chinese tourist and had engaged her as I disappeared into the teaming masses outside.
|World Trade Center Memorial|
A walking tour of the World Trade Center Memorial was a somber reminder of lives lost and the worth of each minute. I remember being eyes-locked on my TV that morning not believing what I was seeing. Now I was at that site and struck by the beauty which had transformed that old site of unmitigated horror.
After a harrowing ride back to midtown, I became an expert in the game of cabby chicken. It’s a glorified game of stare-down and fender bumping. My driver wasn’t about to lose to some other cabby or impertinent truck driver. Then his ears perked up when we heard the thunderous roar of an ambulance right behind us. He pulled over and as the flash of colors rushed by he cut in behind it along with two other cabs. It was a flat-out ‘balls to the walls’ race down Eighth Avenue as a river of traffic parted ways and we plowed ahead.
We made it up three blocks before he had to make a split-second decision whether to hold his place in line or miss the tourist that had just stepped off the curb. “Can’t clip a nip” he shouted as he slammed on his brakes and we watched the Japanese man leap back to the sidewalk. We lost our place drafting the ambulance and were relegated to crawling the rest of the way home.
Lunch was at a Paris Bistro before ‘Amazing Grace.’ We were listening to two Belgium college students debating something we couldn’t decipher.
Then the Amtrak back to Annapolis, Maryland.
T-Rex had just come back from Comic-Con 2015. He was over-lubricated even before he stumbled down the aisle and aimed for a seat next to us. Fighting his ‘damn tail’ that kept getting in the way he landed with a heavy thud. He was loud and boisterous and very funny as any reptile can be. He couldn’t get a good picture of himself but managed to capture us…his audience.
On the way back to crab town I reviewed my mental notes from the plays I’d seen. When or if I return is still in question. But the old lady with whiskers and cabby with nerves of steel got my mind to wandering.
I’d like to go back to that laboratory of lost lives and denizen of dark dreams. I want to mix with the masses and overhear their tales of hope and dreams and desperation. There are universal stories there that need to be told and I’d like to think I’m the man to write them.