Of booze-fueled nightouts and big city epiphanies...
|Let me start with a little anecdote. On a cold winter's night I was staggering past Brownstones trying to find a place to clear my head. My girlfriend had given me the boot that day and now I found myself trying to sober up after a cathartic booze-fueled oddyssey through the Village. Up to that point I had never been much of a drinker.
I didn't want to go home yet, so I let the cold breeze guide me northbound all across Washington Street. As I was entering the Meatpacking District, I stopped and took a second to look up at the High Line. We went on our first date atop this very structure. It was a clear day in spring and we had an amazing view across Hudson River and into Hoboken and Jersey City. We would talk about Korean movies and look down at the busy streets from our little elevated refuge. There is a section at the High Line where people can sit in wooden rows and look through a huge window onto the streets. I think it is supposed to imitate movie theaters, only that instead of annoying teasers you get to watch Lower Manhattan's daily grind. It felt great being up there, a few feet above ground. All those people were down there, worried about getting from A to B in time, paying their rent or being run over by a road raging cabbie. But we were up here, motionless. At one point she would poke me whenever a yellow cab passed our 'screen'. She was a feisty one.
As I slowly transitioned into the present again, I noticed the wind blowing thin snowflakes around a streetlight in front of the Standard hotel. They drifted in swirls, almost like insects circling around the big glowing object of their liking, ultimately falling prey to their own desire. My eyes were the camera and this was my dramatic closeup. Any passer-by must have thought I was crazy staring up at the street lamp like a drooling idiot. But I didn't care at that point.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Got a Dollar?” . It was a tiny and haggard old man, sporting a worn out Yankees cap. I reached into the pockets of my jacket and withdrew whatever amount of nickels and dimes was stashed in there. I probably even wound up giving him some spare bubble gum and a loose button. He certainly gave me a confused look. I don't blame him. Mustering up a stuttered “Keep the change.”, I took to my feet again. After a right turn into West 14th Street I walked straight ahead for a few blocks until I was crossing paths with 8th Avenue.
The chilly breeze seemed to wrap around me. I was slowly gaining a conscious feeling for the entire scope of things around me again. My sensory numbness was starting wear off. Straight home or a nice cup of coffee? I opted for the latter. I remembered a place I used to go to a lot during my time as a hotel employee in the West Village. Rapid Joe's Diner - open until way into the wee morning hours, always good for a nice fresh-brew. Just as I was trying to cross the street to get to the other sidewalk, a loud noise made me jump.
The yellow cab came to a screeching halt, missing me only by a few inches. “Get off the goddamn street, you maniac!”, the driver shouted after me as I quickly took to the hills. I leaned against the brick wall of a residential building and tried to give my agitated heart a moment to cool down. As I was conditioning myself to be more careful I noticed a piece of graffiti on the wall. It featured a mopey-faced cartoon cat and a speech bubble that read: “How many more people can this world bear?”. I don't know why but I somehow related to this piece of street art. Swatch told me it was 3.26 AM.
New York might be known as the city that never sleeps but I suppose this only applies to the booming center that is Midtown. Go to any place in Lower Manhattan after midnight on a weekday and you'll only see a handful of people on the streets. This is a fact that became increasingly obvious to me as I started to head northbound again. I could make out a few people hugging the shadows cascading down from a Brownstone. They were talking about things like the proper way of wearing suspenders ironically or that listening to The Mars Volta is totally okay again now that they've disbanded. I passed them by with obvious disdain as the fumes rose from the shadows. I hated their pretentious conversation, I hated their loud, obnoxious laughter and seemingly careless attitude.
Next in line was an enraged middle-aged woman screaming into a receiver at a Titan phone-booth. Her voice was especially shrill and ear-piercing. I don't know if there was even anyone on the other line. I only know that this encounter made me want to hug the shadows.
Finally, I caught a glimpse of the brightly-lit billboard announcing Rapid Joe's on the horizon. The letters were scarlet-red on an alabaster-white backdrop. After two more minutes of walking, I reached my destination. I pulled the door and went inside. Immediately, I took a seat at the bar and looked around. There were about fifteen people in this room. Miles Davis was playing in the background, or was it Thelonious Monk? I honestly couldn't tell at that time. “What can I get ya?”, a raspy but strangely warm female voice asked me off-screen. I turned my head towards the bar and took a good look at the waitress. She was probably in her thirties, had a sensible ponytail and gave me a stern, no bullshit-look. “What's da matter, cat got your tongue?”. I collected my thoughts again and said: “Co-offee, just plain coffee”. She put on a cheeky grin. “Alright Kiddo, caw-fee it is”, she replied in her thick Brooklyn accent.
About three minutes passed and I got my still smoking hot mug of caffeinated goodness. Waiting for my coffee to drop a few degrees, I once again turned to watch the people around me. In the lefthand corner I was able to make out an elderly lady patting a young man on the back. On the second view I saw that he had a bruised eye and blood was leaking from an open wound in his forehead. He was holding a paper tissue up to the wound and started to cry. The elderly woman then proceeded to hold his left hand and said something to him. I couldn't hear what she said but I saw that after a few seconds he threw a glance of acknowledgement at her. He then reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. The lady provided the lighter. No one seemed to object.
A man in a black coat and a dark pair of jeans entered the building. He didn't hesitate to position himself on the bar stool right next to me. “The usual, Andy?”, I could hear the waitress toss at him. He just nodded and hastily took out a bunch of paper sketches. I took a peak onto the sketches and was able to make out the exterior blueprints of a building. It wasn't too shabby at all, it looked like a slick and lean highrise, possibly some sort of Art Deco-revival. As the man was handed what I assume was a cup of Chai, the waitress leaned over to him. “Ya still sleepless over this nonsense, huh?”. He took a sugar cube and dropped it into his mug. “Now people hate us. They don't want some modern eyesore to replace their beloved Ingram Hotel. I hear them and frankly, I'd like it to stay too. It wasn't my decision to demolish it. But a man's got to do his work. I wish they could see what I'm trying to give them. This city is constantly changing.”. He then turned to me and asked me: “Would you question or mourn over the billboards at Times Square changing as time goes by?”. I just shook my head.
The jukebox transitioned into Queen's 'My Melancholy Blues'. My eyes were glued at a bunch of guys in tuxes sitting around a gorgeous woman whose eyes just started to sparkle as she heard the opening seconds of the song. What followed was a pitch-perfect ad lib on part of the woman. There was my dramatic closeup again. Her silky voice fulfilled the room. She must have been a Broadway regular or something like that. Right in this late hour I felt like I was part of something bigger. I felt like only then I really understood this city. At that point it had been 6 years since I moved there from Schenectady. But only in that silken, vulnerable moment I really got what makes this city tick. I could hardly take my eyes off this scenario. Every now and then they wandered across the room and eventually down onto the checkered floor tiles. I was lost in the moment.
By the time I came to my senses again, my coffee had turned cold.