The Hustle in the Park

by

08/29/2002

1 west 72nd street, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Central Park

When I was a kid we visited New York once or twice a year. I usually went with one of my folks and one or two of my brothers but we almost never went as a complete family. Back then we lived in rural New England, so it was always a big thrill to board the series of buses and trains that eventually brought us to the city. During the hours of sitting and staring out the window I thought of New York like it was a movie, with crime, car chases, and beautiful women. When our train pulled into Penn Station I could just feel the energy. I was ready for the adventures to start.

There were never really any adventures, at least not the kind I imagined. Most of the time we took a cab to my grandmother’s tiny studio by the UN and spent the night there crammed into the Murphy beds, the sofa, or the reclining chair. The next morning we had breakfast and listened to the news. From her window I could see the East River, the Queens Borough Bridge, Roosevelt Island and the little cable car ferrying people back and forth. All the action was happening out there and we were stuck in this room on the ninth floor of some building. We never even checked out the city. After breakfast we walked down to Grand Central Station and took the train to her little cabin in the country where we spent the next week fetching well water, using the outhouse, and swatting mosquitoes.

Year after year, our visits were identical. The few times we actually went anywhere within New York itself, we were still confined to my grandmother’s neighborhood. Eventually I realized that most of my excitement about New York was imaginary. Our visits there were more or less ghettoized and I didn’t get to see or experience shit.

When I was thirteen, all of that suddenly changed. My parents divorced and, at age thirty-six, my mother decided to become an actress in New York. That summer my father, my kid brother, Conrad, and I made our usual visit to my grandmother‚s apartment, to the shops and restaurants in her neighborhood, and to a week of primitive living at her country home upstate.

But this time, when we returned to the city, my mother met us at the Grand Central station and whisked us away. Instead of routinely returning to my grandmother’s neighborhood, we were on a subway heading to a part of the city I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe it. My mother asked me how much money I had and I told her $20.00, which seemed like a decent amount. She laughed. “It’ll run like water,” she said.

My mother lived up on East 82nd Street in a larger studio than my grandmother’s. For the next couple of days she took us all over the place. Most often we hung out with some of her acting friends while they practiced their lines together. Once she took us to see the Great Blackstone’s magic show on Broadway. Another time we spent the whole day queuing up for free tickets in Central Park to see The Pirates of Penzance in the evening.

It was also my first time taking the New York subway. It amazed me that New Yorkers could find their way around on this thing. Once we were sitting on the train when an old Cuban woman asked if she could sit in Conrad’s seat and my mother said no. The woman had been working all day, she said, and she was tired. My mother replied that Conrad was tired too, but I could tell that her voice was wilting and soon she asked Conrad to give the woman his seat. A few minutes later the woman broke out some fruit and offered us some. We took a couple of pieces and within a few minutes the four of us were eating and chatting like old friends.

On the third day my mother had to go to work. She gave me a key and told Conrad and I to go ahead and explore the city until she came home. Explore the city! When she left I stood there, stupefied, clutching the apartment key. Conrad asked me what we were going to do and I told him I didn’t know. During all of our family visits to New York I had never had any freedom whatsoever. Now I had the apartment key, unlimited access to the city and no supervision.

Conrad and I took it slowly at first. We went out of the apartment and headed down the street with no purpose or destination. It almost felt like learning how to walk for the first time. We passed some firemen who were adjusting a fire hydrant and, one by one, they began staring at Conrad. One of them grinned and shouted, “Hey! Don’t you know, you’re in Yankee Country?”

We looked around, wondering what he was talking about. Then I realized that Conrad was wearing a Red Sox shirt. We laughed and continued on, and the last of my nervousness and hesitation vanished.

That day we checked out tons of shop and restaurant windows. We had lunch in an unmemorable diner and then hung out in the park. By the time we got home that night I was thrilled, worn out, and completely broke. I asked my mother for money and she just shook her head and said, “I warned you.” But she still gave me five bucks.

Our next day in the city was different. The nervousness and the excitement from the previous day had worn off and a sort of depression settled in. It occurred to me that all of the possibilities for adventure and exploration were worthless if I was broke. Once my mother’s five dollars went, that was it. We would have to stick to the apartment for meals and would not be able to go very far. And if we did wander around, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything.

Just before noon, we went back to the park and noticed that people were already queuing up for free tickets to the Pirates of Penzance that evening. That’s when it hit me.

“Conrad!”

“What?”

“Remember when we went to see that show?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember how long we waited for tickets?”

“So?”

“And remember how some people in the back wanted to buy them from us even though they were free?”

“Yeah.”

Conrad was very precocious for a six-year old and I didn’t have to explain much more. If we waited in line, we would get one voucher good for two tickets each. That meant we would be able to acquire and sell four tickets.

We went to a store and bought two cans of Seven-up and a polish sausage for lunch and headed back to the park to take our place in line and settle in for the long wait.

The sky was gray by the time we got our tickets and the park was balmy and wonderful. We made our way to the back of the line and could already see people asking for tickets. I told Conrad to watch out for cops, more for his entertainment than anything else. After asking three or four people if they needed tickets I hit the jackpot.

“How much?”

“Five each. Ten dollars for a set of two.”

He bought one of the vouchers and within a few minutes I had found a buyer for the other. As the second buyer reached into his wallet, a pretty blond woman ran up to him and breathlessly asked if he was on television. He replied that yes, he was on television and that, in fact, he was the star of The Guiding Light. She giggled and asked for his autograph, and soon a bunch of other young women began to flock to him with the same request. In between passing out autographs he handed me my money.

On the way home I gave Conrad his share of the proceeds, a mere five dollars. He protested quite rightly that he deserved half the money, but I reasoned that it had been my idea and that I was older and had more expenses than he did. It was a shitty thing to do and he never let me forget it.

Conrad and I pulled this stunt for several more days and eventually made eight dollars per ticket. For the remainder of our stay in New York we pretty much felt at home. We had our neighborhood, our favorite haunts, and our work. In many ways this was the high point of my New York experiences. Sure, I went back many times as an adult, when I had money, freedom, and girlfriends, but the feeling was never the same. It wasn’t until I started traveling outside of the country that I began to relive some of those sensations. Now, every time I arrive in a foreign city, I feel isolated, nervous, and unsure how to get along. But I almost always leave with a sense of confidence, friendship, possibility. And when this happens I think, New York gave me this.

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