The City that Never Sleeps
This well-known truism long-held to the City of New York is one that I want to look-into for myself. Times Square, with it’s multitude of colourful lights, banners, and megatron screens flickering and flashing, is an outdoor space that is nearly always as light as day. I have been there a number of times as late as 3AM when there’d still be some jet-legged tourists wandering about not yet ready for bed while workers walked through coming or going to or from work, deliveries were still being made, and performers made their way past on their way home after unwinding with a few drinks after a show. The electronic and visual activity always makes the square feel lively, even if the people are few. What I really want to see are the areas outside the square, how alive with people will I find Manhattan throughout the night?
I want to cover some area, and I am not daft enough to set-out on foot. I figure I’d be too easily brought into unwanted business were I to happen upon anything unseemly from the proximity of the sidewalk. So it was I set out this November Monday morning at 3AM on my bicycle, with my own lights flashing front and back. From my own flat at this hour there is still activity on the street, at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue, very near to Times Square. Customers continue to come in and out of the Port Authority Deli, people drink papaya juice and eat hotdogs nearby, and the 99 cent pizza window across the street is still very much in business as I coast South on 9th Avenue in the direction of Chelsea.
Ninth quickly dulls with most businesses closed for the day so only a few streets South I veer onto a more active-looking side-street. Here I come upon storage spaces where weary immigrants wait their turn to push their sidewalk food vending carts away for the night. After a long day and night of hawking hotdogs and chips, falafels and kebabs, pretzels and hot roasted nuts, most of them are slouched with exhaustion as they put their little businesses into safekeeping for just a few hours.
I rejoin my Southbound direction on 7th Avenue. I pass the bright lights of 24-hour pharmacies that just inside the doors sell fruit salads, sandwiches, and every manner of convenience item. You now need to pass all the convenience items to get to the actual pharmacy items. The Mom & Pop corner stores of the past are being replaced everywhere not just by chain convenience stores but also by large multinational drug stores and the convenience-sized versions of supermarkets. I notice this change in nearly every major city I visit.
It’s approaching 3:30 and some bars are still open until 4. Traffic now comes in spirts, little collections of 5 to 10 vehicles at a time that have been paused into congregation at traffic lights. Not the usual constant stream of a city that is fully awake, the city does seem mostly asleep now- there are just little bits of activity as of someone getting-up in the night to go to the loo.
I zig-zag my way South, seeing brighter streets here and there and making my way towards the brightnesses where I can possibly find activity. It’s chilly. I keep my eye out for an open coffee shop, a good place to warm-up and check-out what might keep locals up at this hour. Where do all the taxi drivers and on-duty police officers take their coffee breaks? I pass another 24h McDonalds. I guess this might be where they are? Not what I had in mind. I’ll keep looking.
For some reason I am surprised when I happen upon Bleaker Street with it’s little shops and boutiques. Things seem different in the middle of the night, they look different. The unfamiliar suddenly familiar feels strange. I am startled when a black guy calls to me for directions. It is around 4AM now, he carries himself like someone who stayed until the end, last out the door of a nearby nightclub or pub. Surprisingly, I do know the directions he needs and he thanks me. I pedal and coast past the brightly-lit shop windows, none are open but it is interesting nonetheless. Two cops are centrally stationed keeping watch over the abandoned shops. I can hear them entertaining each other, laughing at each other’s stories. Now beyond them, I think I should have asked them where they could go for coffee at this time of night.
I continue heading South, I’d like to pass through the Financial District. But the roads are getting darker, there are more areas of blackness around corners. Tall buildings block the glowing sky. Without a map, I am starting to feel a bit directionally disoriented. Too many blocks without seeing anyone. I have felt safe up until this point, but being alone in Manhattan suddenly feels creepy, I don’t like it. A newspaper van comes to a sudden halt. A little man jumps out, runs to a shop gate, puts a small bundle of papers through the metal gate, runs back to the van and tears off as if in a competition. He looks like he is in a race. What a tough life, I ponder, does he try to cover several routes in the time of one to make ends meet?
I recognize Bowery and head North now. Chinese characters start to dominate the smaller streets I am navigating. Nothing is open, but there are some deliveries here and there. Crossing Canal I feel relief as I now fully have my bearings again.
Around 4:30 I cycle past a hectic block of botanical wholesalers. There’s lots of activity here, trucks being unloaded, piles being shifted, supervisors calling orders. I want to stop and chat, but I don’t. They’re busy.
A bit later I come upon the red and white striped tents and recognize the Christmas Market at Union Square. We walked a long way, I think, remembering the market from a few days before. I zig-zag again, this time towards Times Square, still following what looks like more lively areas from afar. The little flexes of traffic are smaller and fewer now, just the occasional taxi or truck, or three. No pedestrians for blocks and blocks. No cyclists whatsoever, just me. 5AM seems to be the magical moment of dead quiet here in Manhattan, at least where I am. This is a wider, more-open area than the darker financial district, it does not feel threatening, just peaceful. I have this space at this time all to myself.
Further North I turn West on to 42nd Street, towards the bright lights. I come upon taxis and some cars all seeming to be in a rush. Perhaps people heading to work. Turning into artificial daylight, Times Square is busy with activity. There are no tourists, no pedestrians, no cyclists. But there are two crews of construction workers busily building or removing the latest event structures of today or yesterday. Police officers sit in their car in the middle of the pedestrian area, as always. Keeping an eye on things, making this great city feel safe for the lone cyclist at 5:20AM.
I finish my circle of the area and marvel that nothing seems to be open and that I never found my coffee shop. Down around the corner and I am home. I could get a coffee at the never-closed Deli downstairs, but it doesn’t have seating. I didn’t want the coffee, I wanted the coffee shop. I will get to bed before the sun comes up afterall.
The city seems like a locomotive. It winds down to a near-pause at around 5 AM but without coming to a complete stop it starts building momentum again. It will be back to full momentum soon. It’s the train that never stops.