Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Love This City To Bits

For some reason I got a sudden, explosive crush on New York. It happened Thursday, when I experienced the unfettered happiness of being able to pick up a prescription in the pharmacy, have my attempt at a screenplay bound at the copy place, take my bag to the shoe repair guy to have the zipper fixed (I wanted it replaced but he convinced me he could fix it for $15 less), and buy a new lightbulb for the fridge. Made it to a meeting in Astor Place 10 minutes early. Everything on foot and in the span of about 15 minutes. The soundtrack in my head is the brassy section of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. With fireworks. Top that, burbs.

Then yesterday I had lunch at the snaking counter in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. It is one of the few places left in New York that feels like New York and nothing but. It feels like a great movie of New York, and it condenses the brisk, no nonsense energy of this town like a genie in a bottle. I order the Manhattan clam chowder (after Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco there really is no point on having New England clam chowder anywhere else, plus I am on a low cholesterol diet), which wasn't good, a fried oyster po boy which was quite terrible, the oysters having been fried and left to wither probably since the night before, and a nice little astringent glass of Verdejo, with a nose of nail polish remover. Still, best lunch ever because the place and the people in it are priceless. It's like eating in an Edward Hopper painting, minus the gloom.

Yesterday's endearing subway stories: I board the 6 train for Grand Central and as the doors of the car open, I get a whiff of the inimitable smell of rotting foot, groin and armpit gristle that tends to be exuded by some itinerant homeless the world over. I periscope my head to find the source of the sickly sweet and acid stench, and sure enough, there is one such unfortunate soul, of mysterious gender, sitting with all their possessions in one corner of the car. A vast gulf of empty seats ensues and, like a sight gag in a Buster Keaton movie, everyone else is sitting crammed together on the opposite end of the car, pretending everything is hunky dory.

Subway on the way back, car full of people but not super crowded. White woman with a bad peroxide dye job is lying prostrate on the bench, down for the count. If it wasn't for the rivulet of spit trickling down her mouth, we would all assume she is dead tired from working all day. For she is not dressed as a homeless person. She is wearing Timberland construction boots, mismatched but decent clothes, and is clutching a leather handbag between her legs. But the trickle of spit makes us all think that she is a junkie or she is unwell and who knows possibly very sick, or maybe dead, but nobody, including me, does anything. For stations. She lies there like the elephant in the room and I realize that the not doing anything is horribly contagious and quintessentially New York. I'm torn about whether to rouse her or hit the emergency brake, which would probably earn me everyone's enduring enmity, and to this day, I still don't understand what we can possibly be debating inside our heads in this crazy city, that makes us tarry if not totally ignore, the plight of someone who is in jeopardy right in front of our eyes. Finally, a man sitting across her tries to wake her. He grazes her as if he was touching a melting snowflake. She needs a neutron bomb, but that man's initiative gives me confidence so I go and give her a good shake. Or several. She wakes.
Her eyes are blue, her eyebrows black and she has bad skin, but she could be a cashier in a supermarket. Quick mental picture: lives in the Bronx, possibly drunk, abusive parents, didn't make it to high school, boyfriend who whacks her, the works. I wonder if she is drunk, although she doesn't reek of alcohol. So maybe it's junk.
Me: Are you okay? If you are not feeling well, you should get off the train.
She mumbles she is okay and then keels right over in very slow motion like the Titanic at the end of the movie, but slower. So I wake her up again. "Do you know where you need to get off, are you sure you're okay?" -- "Yes, thank you".
So I go back to my little corner of anonymity and soon she is blabbing aloud (and I bet we all think, see what happens for butting in? You have released the Krakken), yet she's not belligerent but plaintive, something about nobody helps you in this town and oh my God where is 42nd st, and where is the lady that was asking me if I'm okay. So I go back to her and tell her she needs to get out in the next station, 14th St, and go to the uptown train).  I'm told I'm an angel. I feel like telling her that nothing could be farther from the truth, but why break her heart. Then a kindly looking woman volunteers to take her to the train. And don't you think I didn't think of the possibility that she would steal from the woman's open handbag. Just like I thought of the possibility of waking her up and getting punched in the face. Or as she thanked me, of her giving me a sob story and asking for twenty bucks. We all have our reasons not to help and they are a combination of cowardice, fear of uncouthness and some sort of distorted respect for privacy, which goes by the catch phrase "none of my business".
Still, and because of all this teeming human condition, I love this town to bits.

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