Our driver stood scowling curbside at LaGuardia airport. He snatched our bags, tossed them in the trunk of his car, slammed the lid, and got behind the wheel without saying a word.
Welcome to New York City.
My wife, Amy, and I slipped into the back of the car. Our driver’s laminated identification card was mounted in front of me. His name was Demitri. In the picture he looked like he was about to strangle the photographer.
Before our seatbelts were fastened Demitri flattened the accelerator and careened around a line of cabs, driving violently, firing Russian cuss missiles at other drivers, left hand on the wheel, right hand pounding the horn, all while engaging in a heated argument on his hands-free cell. He maneuvered through traffic and accelerated onto Grand Central Parkway, pushing the engine until it was panting for breath. He drove with pace. He didn’t change lanes when it was safe; he changed lanes when he wanted to, dancing on the edge of crunching metal. Every maneuver was a confrontation, a contest of courage and control played on asphalt at 80 miles per hour.
Amy looked at me. Her eyes were big like silver dollars. The blood drained from her face as Demitri cut across three lanes of traffic without signaling or glancing over his shoulder. There was a rollercoaster in my stomach. I loved this man. There’s no one like him in Minnesota.
● ● ●
I’d been slaving seven days a week at a demanding job while Amy held down full-time work and pursued a graduate degree at night. Alarm clock, coffee, shower, commute, work, commute, dinner. More work for me, studying for her, four eyeballs locked on two computer screens deep into the night. We were robots. To get away from our grueling schedules we booked a four-day trip to New York City, the first time there for each of us.
On the plane we studied a NYC guidebook. It contained helpful tips like: “Don’t stop and read this book on a busy sidewalk – you will get elbowed.” When the pilot announced that we were approaching New York City, I glanced out the window as a corner of the Manhattan skyline came into view. I saw a familiar sight—downtown Minneapolis—but with taller buildings. And next to it was another Minneapolis. And then another one, and another one, and another one! The skyline just kept going, higher and wider than anything I’d ever seen. I clutched Amy’s arm and gestured toward the window. Peering down at Manhattan, my jaw hanging to my knees, I realized our city wasn’t really a city at all.
● ● ●
Demitri The Violent Russian Cabbie grumbled as he decelerated into the slow moving bumper car ride that is Manhattan. Amy and I sat quietly in the backseat, observing and absorbing Demitri’s Life Lessons:
1. If you’re behind the wheel, act like every other driver killed your mother.
2. Do not stop in front of Demitri on a narrow street and slowly back into a parking space. You might get murdered before you finish.
3. Crosswalks are not safety zones. Every encounter between a vehicle and a pedestrian is a game of chicken. The most assertive chicken wins.
Somehow we arrived at our hotel having neither suffered nor witnessed any significant injuries. I tipped Demitri and thanked him for an authentic New York experience. He grunted and sped away, leaving us holding suitcases and blocking a sidewalk on the Upper East Side. I looked around and soaked it all in. Within seconds I was madly in love.
I mean, have you seen New York City?
Our hotel room could be described as “cozy” (the hotel’s advertisement) or “tiny” (our impression), but we had shelter and we were getting three nights for the price of two. We only got one bar of soap, though. Not one for the sink and another for the shower, just one, lonely, hardworking bar of soap doing double duty for two people. The hotel didn’t mention that in their ad.
Amy had a list of places to see and things to do. She is incredibly organized. I, unfortunately, am not. I didn’t take time to properly pack – on the morning of our flight I just threw a few things in a duffel bag. After checking into our hotel room I dumped the contents of my bag on the bed, reviewed what I had, and said, “Shit.” I was wearing beat up jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I’d only brought one extra shirt. But the big problem was that in my grogginess that morning I’d stuck to routine and worn my black wool dress coat, the kind I wear with suits. I looked at Amy and said, “I can’t wear this long coat with my casual clothes – I’ll look like a child molester!” She tried to reassure me that I would look fine. I shook my head. “No way.” I pulled my second shirt over the one I had on and said, “Let’s go.”
We set out to explore the city. It was 35 degrees outside and my pair of cotton shirts was a pathetic defense against the harsh March wind that whooshed through the skyscraper canyons. I decided a sweatshirt would effectively ward off the cold and I found one at a store at 86th Street and Lexington, the kind with a hood and the little kangaroo pocket in front for your hands. Black. $19.95.
We waited at the cash register. The woman at the front of the line kept arguing that she shouldn’t have to pay sales tax on her clothing purchase because she lived in Toronto and didn’t have to pay it there. The clerk wore her down by repeating, with classic New Yorker annoyance and hostility, one indisputable fact: “This isn’t Toronto.”
Game, set, and match.
I paid for the sweatshirt and pulled it over my other shirts. No longer on the verge of hypothermia, I was now merely chilly as we set off on foot for the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art – MOMA. On the way there I spotted some loud yellow sunglasses at a sidewalk stand. Minnesotans don’t wear loud yellow anything; we favor earth tones that won’t draw attention to ourselves – brown, green, camouflage. But I was emboldened by New York so I bought the shades. The sky was overcast. I wore them anyway. With my day-glo sunglasses and black hood pulled over my head, I looked like the Unabomber if he’d shaved his beard and gone to art school.
Inside MOMA, first room, first wall, first painting: a beautiful Cezanne. Right in front of me, probably worth more money than I’ll ever make, and two more were right next to it. As I admired the Cezannes I saw a blur in my peripheral vision. It was Amy speeding into the next room, a vapor trail behind her. She had blown past the Cezannes, ignored the horde of admirers around Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and skipped over other priceless art in less time than it takes her to write a check. Taking her to a world-class museum is as pointless as taking a dog to a fine restaurant.
Okay, that’s not fair. I appreciate art only marginally more than Amy does, and my appreciation is mostly artificial. I like to pretend I’m somewhat refined, but I couldn’t keep up the charade for long while Amy was injecting doses of truth strong enough to topple a horse. She pointed an accusing finger at a sculpture and declared, “That’s just a lump.” I couldn’t argue. It was, indeed, just a lump. A shiny lump, but just a lump nonetheless.
Things really unraveled for me when we entered a room that had an entire wall covered by a gigantic painting that was all one shade of red, but with a few narrow stripes of different colors. The placard on the wall said the artist intended this work to overwhelm the senses. It totally overwhelmed my sense of bullshit.
Then there was Josef Albers. One of his paintings of concentric squares was displayed. According to the placard, this painting was part of Albers’s most famous series, a “highly rigorous and formulaic” study called “Homage to the Square.” Evidently the idea of putting squares inside of squares blew more minds than LSD.
But much of MOMA was incredible. For example, I really enjoyed the Warhols. Soup cans, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe I can understand. Unfortunately I’m not sophisticated enough to appreciate much else, including the bottom rung of the cultural ladder: Times Square.
● ● ●
New York is a city that moves. Cabs, cars, ferries, subways, trains, helicopters – New Yorkers are always on the go. Their first option is walking, a shocking change from the Midwest, where everyone drives from Point A to Point Z and every letter in between. We walked so much our first day in Manhattan that I woke up the next morning with aching calves. Calfitis. Worse case in history.
My sore calves made walking difficult, but they took my mind off how cold I was without a jacket. I nearly froze to death when we walked to Times Square, which we decided to check out even though our guidebook warned that New Yorkers avoid it like herpes.
I don’t know what was more tragic, our decision to go to Times Square or Times Square itself. New Yorkers, you live in the greatest city in America. Why did you make the focal point of your metropolis look like Generic Town, USA? Trust me, there is no shortage of TGI Fridays and Olive Gardens from sea to shining sea. And most Americans don’t need to go to New York to stare at giant video screens – they can do that from their couches.
If my hatred of Times Square didn’t make me an official New Yorker, then I became one as I crossed 7th Street at 43rd Avenue. As I entered the crosswalk, I noticed a flash of yellow to my left. Pivoting, I saw a cab turn onto 7th and come straight at me like a big yellow shark. I could’ve stopped and let the cabbie go in front of me, but I never broke stride as I stared him down with a What the hell?! scowl on my face.
He submitted and hit the brakes.
I smirked and muttered “That’s right, bitch.”
All he could do was honk.
Horns are the rhythm of Manhattan. Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeeeeep! Once we watched a string of five cabs approach an intersection. The first one hit the brakes at the last possible second on a red light. The cabbie behind him honked his displeasure—Beeeeeeeep!— and then cabs 3, 4, and 5 followed suit. Beep! Beep-Beep! Beep-Beep-Beep!
The honking was my New York soundtrack. I awoke to it and its rhythm paced my day and lulled me to sleep at night. Beep-beep!! I loved it, but Amy was far less enamored of the honking and all the other NYC noise. At the end of our trip, as we strained to hear each other over blaring 80s music in a bagel shop, she finally had a breakdown. “It’s too damn loud in this place! Just like this damn city!”
She had a point. Blaring 80s music in the bagel shop, thumping dance rhythms in clothing stores, horns assaulting our eardrums at all hours of the day and night. Annoyance to Amy, but pure expression to me. The Midwest is so reserved, all undercurrents and subtext, a veneer of politeness hiding suppressed emotions. New York was a refreshing blast of emotion and candor. Express how you feel, say what you want, or get out of the way. Our first time at the bagel shop near our hotel, an intense Italian guy staccato shouted at me like a verbal machine gun: “Whaddayawant?Creamcheese?Toasted?” I nervously fished out my wallet and surrendered. It felt like a stick up. We named the place Gunpoint Bagels.
But the bagels – the bagels were delicious.
With the exception of the bourgeoisie chain restaurants in Times Square, New York is a smorgasbord of spectacular culinary diversity. Chinese, Korean, Italian, Indian, Vegan, Carnivore. No matter what our appetites desired, it was never more than three blocks away. I even broke my month-long streak of vegetarianism and got a hot dog from a sidewalk stand, the big spicy kind with mustard. Amy chided me for eating meat, but I reminded her, “Technically, it’s not really meat – it’s intestines.”
It felt like we traveled through an intestinal system to get to the pizza place in Brooklyn that our guidebook recommended as the best in New York. By this point in our trip I’d anointed myself Master of the Subway, and as we bounded underground at 86th Street I confidently explained to Amy, “We’ll just take the 6 to the A and get off at Jay Street. Easy.”
The subway is a microcosm of New York. Stuffed into tight quarters are every race, every creed, every color. Every kind of person on the planet. No one fits in so everyone fits in. Someone could walk on in a clown suit or a bondage outfit and no one would glance twice. Oh, haven’t seen that in a few weeks. On the three-seat bench across from us were a college student, a stripper, and a wannabe rapper rhyming along to the music in his headphones. A middle-aged bald guy in hospital scrubs got on and wedged himself between the stripper and the rapper. I don’t know if his butt was even touching the bench – he was popped out between his seatmates like fistful of flowers. He grinned. They were stonefaced.
On the way downtown we learned that the 4/5 was re-routed to the F track because of construction. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the effect of this until the 6 stopped at Canal Street and an intercom voice announced that we were at the end of the line. I snatched the subway map from Amy’s purse and said, “Don’t worry.” I got us on the D, thinking we’d get off at DeKalb, but the D didn’t stop at DeKalb so we circled back at 36th Street and caught the R to the F to Jay Street.
Then we got off and I realized I had no idea how to get to the pizza place.
We had to go toward the East River, I knew that much, so we started walking. We were quite a sight: a shivering man in bright yellow sunglasses, black hood pulled low, grimacing from calfitis. Beside him his patient wife, wondering where the bozo was leading her now.
I stopped a fashionable young woman on the sidewalk and asked directions to the pizza joint. She pointed us down the street and to the right. I thanked her and she patted my arm in a somewhat sympathetic and somewhat condescending manner, as if I was an orphan from Flyover Country.
We rounded a corner and saw the pizza place. There was a long line outside the door, proof of its appeal to New Yorkers, except we soon discovered that no one in line was a local. Tourists. Every one of them. Probably had the same damn guidebook. But the pizza was good.
We walked back to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge, checking another item off our list, and then we took the subway uptown to our hotel, where we were pleased to discover that the maid had not only cleaned but had left a special gift: a second bar of soap!
It’s the little touches that draw repeat customers.
● ● ●
On our final morning in New York we went for a run in Central Park (a heroic accomplishment, considering my severe calfitis) and ate cinnamon rolls in bed while we read a fresh edition of the Post. Then I pulled on my three shirts for the fourth day in a row, rotating them so the one that was closest to my body the previous day was on the outside so I could air out the B.O.
We walked to the Upper West Side, stopping at Theodore Roosevelt Park to watch some dogs play. Amy noticed that I was standing in a puddle of dog pee. “It’s okay,” I told her, “it’ll probably make me smell better.”
We wandered up and down Columbus and Amsterdam between 85th and 72nd Street, wandering into a shoe store, a pet supply boutique, a bakery, a chocolate shop, and a breakfast place. I was shivering and my calfitis was unbearable, but I wanted to keep moving and explore every block. I tried to absorb the city’s vibration—the cool crazy relaxed intensity—and store it in my bones.
We meandered down a side street, took a turn, and suddenly there it was: my dream house, the one I’ve envisioned my entire life. It was a brownstone in the low 80s near Riverside Drive. Peering through my bright yellow sunglasses, I saw myself sitting in the second floor library—my library—amidst hundreds of books, looking out my window, pondering where I should go for lunch that day.
Beep-beep! A horn jolted me back to reality, the sad reality that Amy and I can’t afford to buy a home on that block unless we band together with all our friends and relatives and sleep twelve to a room like migrant workers. I exhaled my fantasy into a cold gust of wind.
Amy said it was time to go back to the hotel and pack up for our flight home. We backtracked through Central Park and paused to sit on a bench. My eyes wandered and I burned images of New York into my brain.
I picked up a small jagged rock and slipped it in my pocket.
● ● ●
Five hours later we were on the ground in Minneapolis. We took a light rail train home. A pack of rough-looking teenage boys got on and sat behind us. One of them walked up and down the aisle, casing the joint. There was an eerie, tense vibe. I watched other passengers nervously shift around and whisper to each other. I reached in my pocket for my Central Park rock. It shot New York steel up my spine. “I’m from New York City, kid. You think I’m scared of you?”
I ended up leaving those words in the holster because nothing happened, but I still carry that rock in my pocket every day. I reach for it whenever I need a little New York energy, a little New York flair, a little New York attitude, a little New York confidence.
I mean, have you been to New York City?