Tuesday, May 31, 2016

New York: first postcards

1. Sometimes you will be walking down the street in Queens, or the Village, or Brooklyn (never Midtown, rarely the upper east side) and ahead of you, just at the edge of your understanding, there will be a man's torso seemingly buried in the sidewalk, his head at hip level. It's always on the second glance that you realize he's emerging from a basement, often a grocery store basement, and on either side of him the heavy cellar doors have been flung open to admit a new shipment of something, or to allow this disconcerting halfway-here man to restock an empty shelf. Later the same day, you walk across these same basements, now closed, and the clanging of your shoes on the metal reminds you that there's no truly solid ground to be found here.

2. More than once I've gotten off the subway at a new-to-me stop, and a woman near me with a New York or neutral-to-me accent (not identifiable as a tourist, in other words) has asked me for directions. "Sorry, this is my first time at this stop," I admit. "Oh," she says, "mine too."  

3. This city smells. It is a rippling wonderland of smells. The open doors of a laundromat. Piss. Cherry trees. Sewage. The damp humidity of two dozen sweating bodies in your subway car. Perfume. Garbage. Car exhaust at every bridge and intersection. Piss again. On a good day, rain (petrichor), and the pretzel stand on the corner, and the ice cream truck on the other corner, and dumplings, and garlic, and hot dogs and curry and bike grease. And whatever the cosmic background radiation of the city was before you went nose blind weeks ago -- whatever smell the city has when it doesn't smell like these other things. Surely the buildings themselves have a smell. To be honest, I'd prefer the stink of piss to someone's too-heavy perfume on any day of the week.

4. Small kindnesses. A bus driver lets me get away without paying full fare, my second day here, because I haven't figured out the system yet. A woman in the locker room at the gym offers to help me zip the back of my dress because it's awkward and we all know that struggle. 

5. Bicycling to work. Where the steepest hill in this flatland is the Queensboro Bridge, and the worst you'll find anywhere else is potholes. At best, the bikers have their own lane protected by concrete. At worst, they flit and flow with traffic, not even paint on the road to tell them where to be. The most beautiful sight, in this land of lovely glass towers and dazzling reflections, is the morning commute in Manhattan, when by chance or by physics a dozen or so cyclists synch up and flow together up 2nd Avenue -- flitting past turning cabs, weaving horribly around anything that holds still too long, which is most cars because this is rush hour in Manhattan, dinging our bells at pedestrians who aren't aware we're coming and it's our turn to be here. There is a horrible chaos here on every street: everyone wears headphones even at peak traffic, someone will always be coming at you from the wrong direction, and no one cares whose turn it is or isn't to turn left. No one is ready for you to follow the rules or stop moving when the light turns yellow. But in these moments of synchronicity, the bicycles have an ordered beauty, like a school of small fish darting their collective mass toward safe harbor around seals, sharks, and the lumbering whales of buses.   

6. Why does anyone wear heels here why.

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