Wednesday, June 15, 2005

New York street scenes


I exit Pennsylvania Station and head north on
7th Avenue when a smiling Newt Gingrich, wearing a jacket and open necked shirt, walks past. At least it sure looks like Newt. I swear. A block north, a man stands silently on the corner, the middle-finger of each hand pointed upward at the approaching crowd. Newt's smile; a man flipping off the Big Apple. Could there be some cosmic convergence happening here?

Five days on New York's streets in a late spring heat wave assaults anyone's senses. I grew up in this city's burbs. And while I'm reminded why I don't live here anymore, I'm also reminded that it's still home, a place as exciting as it is overwhelming, a place a lot friendlier than most people give it credit for. A study in contradictions.

The next day, with an afternoon to kill, I walk the 30 or 40 blocks from Washington Square Park in the Village to Battery Park on Manhattan's southern tip. My mission: to make eye contact with some in the sea of people flowing past. Fahgettaboutit. Bodies bump and saunter past, cell phone stylin' (you can't be anybody in the Apple these days without letting the world hear your one-way saga over cell).

Oblivious as they seem, New Yorkers keep antennae extended. On Centre Street, near City Hall, a plastic bag of cheap pens I bought spills open. "It's all right," I start to say but two men approaching already are kneeling in sync to pick them up and return them. "Thanks," I say, but they're gone. No one has broken stride. I stand for five minutes on the sidewalk scribbling in a notebook. No one could care less. It's the beauty of New York -- invisibility in the midst of millions.

I listen as I look down. The words are Spanish and Portuguese, Haitian patois and Russian. Finally, a snatch of English ... "feels good, huh" ... reminds me what country I'm in. (New York City translates information into 170 languages, Mayor Bloomberg tells those gathered at a national ethnic media conference two days later. It has 200 ethnic newspapers. It's not just one city, he might have added. It's the world.)

And then there are those who are silent. I stop for an ice cream outside historic Trinity Church.
"A creamsickle," I say. The vendor points to the right picture on his cart. "How much," I ask. He holds up two fingers. Works for me. Cell phones, thank goodness, aren't allowed inside Trinity. So the tall gal in the one-piece, form-fitting, zebra-skin jump suit has stepped into the cemetery alongside to place her call. Talk about people turning over in their graves.

I reach a destination of sorts: the National Museum of the American Indian in the old Customs Building alongside Battery Park. The security guard wears wrap around shades and talks on his phone in Russian as he hands me a plastic holder to throw my wallet and cell phone into. Multitasking. One of the last Indian tribes to surrender was The Nez Perce. We could use its leader, Chief Joseph, today. Maybe in the White House. Or at least running Homeland Security. "Let me be a free man," he told Congress. "Free to travel. Free to stop ... Free to work. Free to choose my teachers. Free to follow the religion of my fathers. Free to think and talk and act for myself."

Step outside, Joseph. This is New York.

I walk back past the hole in the ground, stretching two square blocks across from the Darth Vader-like Millenium Hilton. A scattering of tourists, probably from places like Des Moines and Dubuque judging from the polyester, click shutters. I don't know what's stranger, the long metal fence where the World Trade Towers once stood or the matter of factness of it all nearly four years after that day when the planes flew in. A few pictures hang on the fence. So does a list of names, "The heroes of September 11, 2001." That's it.

On Canal and 6th Avenue, a guy on a delivery bike almost runs me over on the sidewalk.

"Go ahead," I tell him.

"No, no. It's you sir. It's you. I shouldn't even be over here."

Hear that Newt? A New Yorker. Get on your train and get out of town. And take the guy flipping the Apple with you. Deep down this is just one big global block party. A string of neighborhoods. The eye-contact thing? Dunno. Let's just chalk it up to shyness.


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