This morning on the train from yoga to work, I sat down next to a co-worker with whom I chat quite a bit. We half talked and half did our own thing (note to the confused: this is semi-acceptable with an acquaintance on your 8am commute. It is not acceptable on dates, at dinner, &c.). I read an article I’d printed out for train reading and he played with his blackberry. “What is that,” I asked, looking at a fleshy bit with groping hands on his blackberry. It looked quite a bit like male porn.
“No, God no, he said, as he showed it to me. Now it looked kind of like a pregnant woman’s belly. Oh no, no, it was a woman’s ass with a guy’s hands squeezing it, next to some text about a Friday night party. I see. He then proceeded to write a text message and send it to a Ms. Green. Then he erased Ms. Green’s name and wrote, “Ms. Perry.” He did this same-text-name-replacement send more than ten times. I laughed at him. Oh my word. We (women) know they (some men) do this (the, “hey! what’s up?” and the “hey, how are you?” are the most obvious, though anything remotely generic is suspect), but it was hilarious to see in action, especially at 8:20am. I won’t share his dismal explanation. It’s too embarrassing.
Last Monday morning at 5:43am, I had a few minutes spare before leaving for yoga. I didn’t intend to read the email that had arrived the night before. I’d planned to wait until I was fully awake, in the bright of day, and perfectly able to take in whatever came next. I would not chance any of the sorrows that so easily take over in the quiet hours of the day. But the sun was up, and I rashly decided I was being silly. Why not? So I read.
Previous caution aside, I didn’t fully expect what I read or the affect it would have on me. I teared. I looked at the time. I collected my stuff and myself and I left.
A friend of mine once said, after her father died, that you can’t schedule grief. You can’t plan it, you just have to take it when it comes. This has been my experience precisely. While anger is fairly accessible to me, sadness tends to hide itself, even when I know it should be there, and feel that it is, somewhere, there. Because it is difficult for me to reach, I try to respect it when it comes.
In the elevator down, the tears started rolling. I walked out of my building and up the street, feeling bittersweet memories and the sheer sadness of an ending, and crying harder. I’ve learned in the past that silent tears often go unnoticed, and New York is mostly asleep before six in the morning, so I didn’t care too much about my public display. When I was midway down the steps to the subway, an MTA guy headed up them looked at me with concern. I recognized him as a night-shift elevator operator, and remembered saying ‘Hi’ to him when I came home the night before, just after 10. He said something. I pulled out an earbud.
He asked, again, with kind eyes, “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”
“Yes, oh yes,” I answered, and he nodded. We kept going. The tears came a little harder, marveling at the beauty of New Yorkers. Marveling that someone who’d spent the last eight graveyard hours in an underground MTA elevator still has the capacity to be genuinely concerned about a stranger passing by.
A few nights before, I talked to a guy at in a club who claimed that Londoners are much more open and kind then New Yorkers. He complained that New Yorkers are entirely self-absorbed and unhelpful.
“Really? You think so?” I answered, amazed. I understand this might be true as far as superficial concerns go, but never have I found a New Yorker to turn on someone in real pain or need. Yes, there is a certain amount of numbing oneself to others’ pain that goes on here, to get through the daily realities of so many in such a small space. But if someone is truly out or ill or in need, someone steps up. No, not everyone, but someone. You know when it’s your turn. That’s how we work.
Last year, just after Andrea moved back to Australia, I was headed downtown on the train during rush hour to meet a friend for dinner. It was packed, and I was standing by a pole between the end seat and the doors. A particular song came on my player and all of the sudden I burst into tears. I’d kept sunglasses on, so I didn’t think it was terribly noticeable. I was silent. My eyes closed in search of privacy, pretending that anyone I could not see could not see me. Because rush hour on the train is so in-your-face, and I respect the right of New Yorkers to have as much space as possible on our confined and difficult commutes (i.e. no one needs extra drama two inches away after a long day’s work), I tried to dam the tears. Just when I thought I’d stifled them, someone tugged on my arm.
“Sit, sit, please sit,” said the man sitting in front of me.
Stubborn, I refused. “No. No thank you.” I shook my head, as accepting meant I acknowledged he was there. That anyone was there. That I was making a scene. His kindness toppled the dam and I cried harder, gulping for air as I tried to regain composure. The train stopped. The man got up. He looked and sounded Middle Eastern. “Sit!” he cried, as he grabbed my arm and forced me down in his seat, seemingly anguished by my pain, and then bolted from the car. The blond woman next to me turned and asked if I was okay.
“Yes, yes,” I answered, humbled by their kindness and totally unable to stop the flow of tears. I refused to make eye contact with anyone else in the crowded car, and refused to acknowledge how many might be taking me in. Finally, by 14th Street, I pulled it together, wiped my face, and prepared to get off the train. It was done. By the time I reached the restaurant, no one suspected a thing.
A friend of mine recently said that NYC is a refugee camp. It takes in everyone who, for whatever reason, can’t or doesn’t want to be where he began (and if not him, it took in his mother or grandmother, and he knows what that means). Given the number of cultural strangers here, it’s a miracle that so little violence takes place, especially considering the behavior and antics of many space-rich middle Americans.
In our own way, we take care of each other. No, we aren’t bubbly or disingenuous. We also know how to stay out of each other’s way, which can be seen by outsiders as rudeness. But on this tiny island of millions, that, too, is an act of kindness.
Yes, I’ve done a lot of complaining about the only place I’ve ever truly felt at home. Yes, I feel a bit less at home here now, but I do still love much about the city. In honor, I’ve made a quick list of things I love about the Big Apple. In no particular order:
♥ Walking. New York is one of the few great walking cities of the world. We really walk here. It’s the only thing I missed when I was away, the movement that’s part of daily life. And if you want to have a stroll around, there are miles to explore. When friends visit, we sometimes walk over ten miles around the city in a day. I took this shot (above) while walking back to the train from a trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. You’d never get that in a driving town. It creates moments. It’s fantastic.
♥ Open hours. The cliché is true. You can get almost anything you need when you need it. Except perhaps in the early morning hours around 5-6am, when the city is very quiet.
♥ The Subway. While I also hate it, I do love how easy it is to get around the city. There’s no need for a car, which is great, because it’s impossible to get around, much less park, in one. Many other cities have hideous traffic and little or no parking, but it’s impossible to get around town on public transport. Melbourne’s trams and Sydney’s buses are no match for the subway. (Yes, many Euro cities have great public transit. I agree.) I also think the subways hold a beauty of their own.
♥ Restaurants, of course. I’ve had different favorites over the years. A few are Chola, La Masseria, Saravanas, Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, Bamiyan, Kashkaval, Café Asean, Zoma, and, yes, Absolute Bagels (only hot & fresh in the morning). Some of these places I love for atmosphere more than the food.
♥ Yoga. I love the studios, the teachers, the schedules, the variety. The yoga scene here can be competitive and intense, but I like the vibe better than in other cities, like Boulder or L.A. A best kept secret? Genny Kapuler, on Wooster.
♥ The Nipple. Known to many as the NYPL, the New York Public Library. Almost anything you want to read (or, maybe, hear or watch) can be located in the catalog and sent to your local branch for pickup. I adore it.
The list has gotten a bit long, so I’m continuing in the next post. And more photos for this one tomorrow. I’m tired. I’ve gotta go to bed.
I suppose any city that requires its citizens interact constantly (as opposed to being shielded inside cars) has its share of hilarious attempted pickup stories. Though I also suppose that these are numerous and uninteresting in bars the world over. I don’t know, I don’t frequent them. I remember once when I was a teen walking my mother’s dalmatian in the park, a guy with a dalmatian tried to convince me to give him my number so our dogs could play together because “dalmatians need dalmatians.” Good grief. Ever since, I’ve wanted to compile hilarious and creative pickup stories (success irrelevant. sorry, this is not a how-to), so if you’ve any good stories to share, comment below.
Yesterday, walking to the train after yoga, a guy asked me if I knew where a deli was. I raised an eyebrow, as there’s one on every block. He said, “I know we just passed one, but they don’t have phone cards. I need a phone card.” Even in the Skype age, I happen to know a lot about phone cards.
“Hmm.” I said, as we were on a stretch without delis. “Sixth Avenue will have some. If not, I know they’re sold in the train station.”
“The train station?” he laughed. “Where are you from?” he asked, with, I finally pinpointed, an Arabic accent.
I ignored his question and said, “The subway station. In the kiosk.”
“How do you know all this. Do you work in the subway?” he asked.
“Ah, no.” I replied.
“Where do you work? I am from Egypt. I work in hotels and design.”
“Hmmm.” I said. “Salaam Alaikum.”
“Wa Alaikum Salaam,” he laughed, “How do you know this?”
“My people have something called Ramadan right now.” he explained.
“Already? So early this year!” I replied.
“How do you know these things? Where are you from that you know this?”
“I travel a lot.”
“Have you been to Egypt? What else do you know? You must know habiba, too”
I claimed I did not know habiba (babe, beloved, sweetheart, etc), hoping he wouldn’t translate. I explained I had been to Egypt, but had spent more time in non-Arabic speaking Muslim countries, like Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan.
“You’ve been to Pakistan? Did you dress like that?!”
“No,” I smiled. “It was too cold.”
I was wearing a not-that-revealing yoga tank and yoga pants, as I’d just been to yoga. It was 80º in New York. There were plenty wearing far less than I was, weirdo. This isn’t Cairo.
“I’ve just arrived in NY. I got here last week. Where have you been? You look like you have been at the beach.”
We were almost to the train station at this point. “I was at yoga,” I explained.
“Oh, yoga!” He threw his head back and laughed. “I thought you said work. Yoga! You New Yorkers have such strange customs!”
That made me smile. Yes, I suppose that we do. We passed a kiosk and I pointed it out to him as a place to get his phone card. He looked at it, then at me, then back at the kiosk. “Would you wait for me while I buy it?” he asked.
“Would you have a tea with me? My people are very generous and we have this custom…”
“Yes, I know,” I replied, “and I’m sorry to refuse your kindness, but it’s not possible.”
“Can I have some way to contact you?”
“Nope. Sorry. Not possible” I smiled, as I waved and departed down the steps of the subway station. Strange customs indeed.