New York! Just Like I Pictured It, Sorta. Well, No.

by

03/16/2016

Neighborhood: Hell's Kitchen, Midtown

Stepping outside the slightly threadbare art deco hotel lobby—which I refused to perceive as anything but Busby Berkeley glamorous—I melded into the midtown throng. While no one looked like Holly Golightly, I was not going to be disappointed on my first day in New York City. Not if I had any say in the matter. Our high school Tri-Hi-Y club*, the Katrells, had sold enough baked goods our junior year to buy Broadway theater tickets and charter a bus. It was 1970—a new decade for adventure and adulthood.

Across the avenue, finishing touches were being added to the block-long construction site of a relocated Madison Square Garden, and a bit further east was Macy’s. I split from my coterie of classmates who were making a beeline toward the landmark store we all knew from “Miracle on 34th Street.” My plan was to bond in private with the city I had chosen as my future home.

A bit tentative, I decided to walk around the block. That way I wouldn’t get lost. Once I turned down 35th Street I was in another world, not of tourists and shoppers, but garment workers pushing huge clothing racks to clatter over the sidewalk cracks and somehow successfully navigate intersections filled with turning cars, honking horns, and teeming pedestrians. I was merging my pace into this strange ballet on a narrow one-way street with no sunny side, eager to blend in, when he entered my peripheral vision.

“Comin’ through!”

“He” was a torso. Literally half a man—a black man—propelling himself with quick assurance using only his arms, palms paddling the dirty sidewalk while seated (if that is the right word) on a mover’s dolly. No one gave him so much as a glance.

Except for me. I was shocked. How could such a person exist? Where did his digested food go? How did his torso end, under his shirt? And what was he doing here, rolling knee-height along the streets like he owned them? Would he get squashed by a taxi before my very eyes?

The human curiosity continued on his way, out of my sightline. Breathing a sigh of relief, I got my bearings. Not sure where to look—up? down? straight ahead?—I still wanted to take in everything and everybody. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be looked back at. I needn’t have worried, as any eye contact was fleeting-to-nonexistent.

Heading back to the hotel, I had a more classic, yet still unanticipated, encounter. As I waited at an intersection, a man flashed me. Contrary to cliché, he was not wearing a trench coat. He may have been playing to the crowd, but I felt singled out, as if I were being put to a test by the city itself. And so, turning on a dime, I got to practice my new persona—jaded nonchalance. After all, by now I had been around the block a few times.

I met up with my girlfriends in the lobby where they opened Macy’s shopping bags to show me their purchases, including wild pantyhose designed by counterculture artist Peter Max.
“Wow! Groovy!” Or, more likely, I would have said “Cool!”

Nobody could have scored this fashion coup back home. Only in New York. I kept my own recent discoveries to myself, not quite knowing how to share them with my friends. Not wanting anyone to cast a provincial pall on my future. That would be uncool.

We next turned toward our evening plans: dressing up in suburbia-tamed psychedelic print mini dresses for dinner and the theater, with chaperone moms who had volunteered to herd us into Manhattan on an early weekend in spring. “Promises, Promises” was the show. I took it as an official invitation.

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