As Special As Any New Yorker (“People Who Make the City” Series)

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Bernice (“People Who Make the City” Series)
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Just as Special as Any New Yorker

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From my sublet in Greenwich I take the subway from W 4th Street Station all the way to 200th, one stop from the end of the blue line. I never noticed before that the street numbers go so high. I don’t mind long subway rides during quieter times of day, New Yorkers are friendly, open people and such pause of transit usually leads to interesting interactions or at the very least fun people-watching. I come out at Dyckman/200th Street and I am in a different world. I went underground in the middle of a metropolis. Now I emerge into the centre of a well-shaken Christmas snow globe. As usual, I pull out my phone for navigation. It shows me a jagged path in an unlikely direction. The suggested route looks more like a turbulent stock-market chart than a path, but I start walking, watching my little dot follow along the blue line on my screen to verify my correctness.

It says I should go directly into what seems to be a children’s park and I do so, continuing on a path out the rear. Sharp right on a dirt or a paved path I cannot tell; it has been snowing all morning; the ground is covered and the air is still thick with snow. Where it meets another path I ignore it and take an almost about-turn sharp left. The jagged-path is having me climb a hill that had been obscured from view. The route makes sense now.

I slip my way back-and-forth through what seems like a very unlikely direction towards anything whatsoever apart from maybe getting lost in a hill-side forest. Higher-up I pause at a vantage point and from my phone map I can tell that I am near the edge of the Hudson River and I should be looking across to New Jersey but all I can see is grey. I think I see the lights of traffic, there may be a roadway lining the river just below. The snow muffles vision and sound, it quiets the air in a magical way. A very heavy structure comes to view as I approach driveways and parked cars. It’s out of place. Is it an old prison? I approach the great structure and go exactly the wrong way. Had I turned left, the entrance was just around the corner. Turning right, I entirely circumnavigate the collection of attached buildings before gaining entry only a few metres from where I started.

Phew. I made it. So, where am I? Part of the benefit of keying an address into one’s GPS and blindly following it is the fun surprise of where you have actually taken yourself.

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I quickly ascertain that I have come to a place called The Cloisters. I now understand this to be a collection of European medieval architectural features brought to Northern Manhattan by Rockefeller and reassembled into one great structure. Original doorways, entries, windows and specific structures are labelled with their original dates and places or origin, reassembled into a new situation here during the 20th century. Medieval artworks flank the walls and adorn antique tables and stands.

I did not attend the Cloisters to see bits of Medieval Europe within the convenience of a Manhattan subway ride. I had never even heard of this venue, an offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum. I have come here to attend a Baroque Christmas concert by the Waverley Consort, that is the address I have navigated to. It had prices for tickets online and more expensive at the door. Online all it said was, “tickets are unavailable” so I assumed I was too late for that discount purchase. Nope. More accurate may have been, “Tickets Are Sold Out,” because that is what I am told when I approach the ticket desk. “You might get lucky and someone might return one though,” a friendly woman informs with cringed face at my reaction of making such a trek to not see a concert. I would have gone to Tosca, and that would have been a lot more convenient, I think to myself. Well, here I am. “Is there a cafe here?” Not in the winter, there is one nearby. I satisfy myself with a water fountain and pay entry into the museum, fingers crossed that in 75 minutes I will be nestled inside a cozy medieval chapel enjoying what is perhaps my favourite kind of music.

The main feature within the Cloisters seems to be a collection of tapestries, “Hunt of the Unicorn”. The poor little unicorn. There he is all riled-up surrounded by chaos with his horn prostrating a hunting dog. In the end, he is captured and they have surrounded him by a tiny little fence. Sad.

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Back in the foyer a grumpy man has arrived without his partner and I excitedly give him $45 for his spare ticket before remembering that he would have paid $25 online. He greedily accepts and makes a dash. His guilty dash is what reminded me of the two prices, because it was odd-enough to make me think about it. This suited man literally took the money and ran. I smile at him when I join the queue for entry and he looks away. Never mind, the concert was fantastic.

Departing for the subway I join a nice couple, both musicians, and a gentleman from Mexico. We decide to navigate the slippery trails together. Most of the patrons will get into their parked cars or wait for a shuttle bus to deliver them to the subway rather than risk breaking fragile hips or twisting tired ankles. I prefer to walk rather than wait on most occasions. The Mexican fellow studied English in Toronto so we chat amicably about that until he changes trains at 168th.

Knowing smiles whenever I mention being here from Toronto, our mayor now being a one-man freak show that has even come-up on my US cell phone as the number two news story by Fox on my mobile feed. I like to think that people only elected him to break our straight-laced stereotype. That he is accomplishing very thoroughly. With any luck he won’t completely destroy the city. Anyway, Americans seem to quite enjoy him. “The joy we get laughing at Mayor Ford almost makes-up for Beiber,” suggested one late-night talk show host. Poor Beiber. You grow-up poor, become uber-famous as a kid, make unfathomable amounts of money, and try not to have any issues. A completely predictable outcome, hopefully he is in a phase he will come-out-of okay. Ford is just a selfish moron who loves attention. And people like to give it to him so his parade may be quite long.

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I am joined by Bernice, a largish black woman in her fifties who appears to have been doing some shopping today. “I was visiting my son and my grandchild today,” she happily offers, “I let them have my Manhattan apartment and moved to New Jersey.” We chat about Christmas and American Thanksgiving. She’s having an easy Christmas this year, it’s her sister’s turn. Three of them take turns hosting.

“When we get together, time passes and suddenly it’s time to go home,” she shares, reminiscing about the bond she has with her siblings. “I got there for Thanksgiving on Friday night, we were having such a great time and were so involved in conversations that we actually forgot to go to bed. We had to take naps on Saturday.” I tell her of my upcoming visit with my sister, who will come here for Christmas and New Years with her Dachshund, Andy. Andy is my pride and joy, which is a bit pathetic when I think about it. Apart from my pride being a dog, and my joy being a dog, he’s not even my dog. Of course I pull-out my iPad and show Bernice (who claims she does not like dogs, but I will not accept this) a slideshow of Andy photos which I am sure she thoroughly enjoyed before she jumped off at the Port Authority Terminal. I hope that really was her stop.

New York is a special place. A forty-year-old man showing a slideshow of his sister’s Dachshund to a large black woman who doesn’t like dogs on the subway – probably makes me special too.

Yes, I could probably call this home.

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It was a strange feeling entering the subway in Greenwich/West Village and exiting into a winter wonderland. I didn’t know where I was going, I just keyed in the address of the performance space and followed GPS.

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And if you see this view, turn left and the entrance is right around the corner.

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I would not have believed such a photo would be taken in Manhattan, unless it was in Central Park.

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I believe this collection of tapestries to be the most famous of the Cloisters holdings.

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The sad finale of the series, Hunt of the Unicorn.

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This is what I was making my way towards. The rest of it was all unexpected.

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I have to show you a few pictures of Andy, then you’ll know that really I’m very normal.

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I showed this one of my Facebook. My sis had gone to Ireland and I was taking care of Andy. After our walk I had been doing emails and the tv was on and finally I wondered, where’s Andy? I went around the corner and there he was. In silent pain. “How could you forget my treat?” He had just been sitting there, desperately hoping I would remember without making as much as a peep. So of course I ran for the camera to capture the moment and then gave him two treats.

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Sometimes he poops. He doesn’t mind me showing you this photo because he’s a dog.

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From Christmas Day in NYC. You can see more pics from that posting.

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Going to the Met (“People Make the City” Series)

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Vera

“I’ve been watching that collect dust for 35 years,” a mature New Yorker tells her friend as they sit staring straight-ahead from the Dress Circle of the Metropolitan Opera House. There is an odd sculpture directly above the proscenium, incongruous to the main of the decor. “It looks a bit like old-fashioned toothless saws and some fishbones; what is it supposed to be?” I ask. In Manhattan one is allowed to jump into others conversations. Toronto is a friendly city too, but we would pretend not to hear a private conversation beside us, to be polite. Here people join in strangers conversations all the time, it’s probably what I love most about this city. “I think it’s a broken violin,” she answers, “but it’s hard to tell. Whatever it is, it sure is ugly.” Yes, it is that. (I look it up later. It’s a bronze called “Untitled” by Mary Callery. I guess she didn’t know what it was either.)

“It’s an ugly theatre,” she adds, “from 1966. The one the opera used before was much nicer.” It’s true, looking around all the balconies, the gold scallop design would have been ugly in any era. The ceiling is great though. I love the Sputnik chandeliers, bursts of crystal celebrating the space age and reminiscent of Superman’s icy home planet. (Did he have an icy home planet? It’s been a while.) I mention this and she adds,”The chandeliers are from Austria.” Before the show an elderly couple I was chatting with in the foyer had told me they were from Czechoslovakia. “The Czech Republic is known for it’s glass and crystal work,” I had acknowledged. Anyway, they are definitely from somewhere. (Post note, they were a gift from the Austrian government and were recently sent to Vienna for refurbishment in 2008.) The lights lower and the low-hanging chandeliers around the periphery rise in unison, they make their way to the ceiling as to not obstruct any view. It is apparent that a few have at times risen too far; there is some damage to the gold leaf ceiling exactly where a few of the chandeliers have scratched against it. This evening they stop about three feet below. In the Met gift shop there are pieces of replaced chandeliers available for sale. Little pieces of starburst that had caught my eye before I knew what they were as they reminded me of my former-partner’s sculptures that he called orb.bits. Sparkly, unique, and collectable, people bought them mostly to hang on their Christmas trees.

Although I don’t love the music of Verdi’s Falstaff I’m happy to see this production conducted by James Levine. I had seen some of his backstory during a live broadcast of Tosca at a cinema recently in Toronto. He has come back after a major spinal injury that had seemed like the end of his illustrious career. Now he’s back and with as much passion as he ever had. With the energy apparent of a twenty year-old. It is a miraculous recovery, even if he is aided by the best hydraulic technology.

“Today’s curtain calls are about twice as long as they should be,” I suggest to nodding seat mates after we’ve all tired of clapping and most of us have stopped. I think it’s great to show appreciation, but if I were directing a curtain call I’d have the company do a respectable once-over and leave the stage with the thunder at it’s full force and before the audience has become worn-out by the effort. Instead they wait for it to trickle, as if they must be standing before us since we’re still clapping. Then we feel like we must keep clapping because they are still standing before us. “Thank you SO SO VERY much,” we seem to be clapping, as if we had not paid hundreds of dollars for our tickets.

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Standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Centre, Manhattan, NYC.

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Gorgeous chandeliers in the lobby.

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Gorgeous chandeliers in the auditorium.

Click the link below to see more images of the chandeliers:

https://www.google.ca/search?q=metropolitan+opera+chandeliers&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=emuzUpikKqHIsAT41oL4Dw&ved=0CFwQ7Ak&biw=1024&bih=672#facrc=_&imgrc=lwvz7LK3axG8QM%3A%3BKaFFE8jvKuePuM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fm6.i.pbase.com%252Fg4%252F65%252F615665%252F2%252F60101906.ChandelieratMetropolitanOper.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.pbase.com%252Fimage%252F60101906%3B800%3B533

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Manhattan – Story – Uptown Tour

Manhattan Story – November 2012 – Uptown Tour

Uptown Tour

“We’re visiting from Hawaii. How about you?”
We’re perched on a bench on the 3rd sightseeing coach I’ve waited for. It’s 1 Celsius, pissing rain outside. Too cold and wet for wandering, I thought, a good day to take a tour.

The first bus had room for 10 or so inside, but the bubble covering half of the double of the decker was full. “You can sit in the open area,” I’m informed, “but it would be better to wait for the next bus in 20 minutes or so.” No kidding. A little more than 20 minutes later the next downtown tour does arrive and I am again faced with the same option. A family of 4 is demanding a refund and I ask my options. “Go around the corner off 8th for the Uptown Tour, they’ll have room.”

“You know you can’t sit there, you’ll have to go upstairs.” we’re told after we’ve been joking about the non-existent view from our hard bench seats. Oh, it’s not a bench, it really is just a ledge. We disembark for the next tour bus to arrive. It’s been well more than an hour that I’ve been trying to board a tour bus now, I’m already wet and cold waiting for lucky number 4.

“In Northern Thailand she tried to pet a baby water musk-ox,” he tells me, “but the mother was not far off. I saw the mother crouch down to charge and I yelled for her to run.” (This story launched from me asking them if they had had any crazy travel adventures after having told them one of mine. I don’t remember what story I told.)

“I looked behind me and he was already far away,” she adds, “so I backed away too. The mother didn’t charge after all, I guess I was lucky.” No kidding. This nice couple, they seem far more sensible than to approach and pet a wild water musk ox.

I suppose our live lives are so safe compared to our evolutionary ancestors that precautionary behaviour needs to be learned. I see this with dogs all the time. People will approach a tied-up stranger dog (a threatening position for the dog, they are tied-up, can’t get away from you and could panic if they misread you as threatening), then they approach the dog from above (an aggressive, threatening stance from the dog’s perspective) and reach right for the dogs face to pet his head. Parents will even sometimes let their kids run up to the dog, which can be frightening and threatening, to the dog it is the same as what an attack looks like and they don’t have time to assess. Most dogs are trusting and kind and will accept this threatening behaviour with a wagging tail and hope for the best, but if a dog is fearful at all this scenario can turn out poorly. It would not be the dog’s fault if he bit the stranger, it would be a predictable outcome. People can be thoughtlessly stupid and very often are.

Tour bus number 4 arrives and we climb the stairs (there are no seats that even exist on the main level of this one, it’s “not open to the public”) The top of this coach is open-covered. A canopy of semi-transparent very-worn plexiglass covers the roof and sides just enough to obscure the view. We all peer out the front, a 20-or-so inch concave opening that creates a wind-tunnel of the elements.

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One block from home we set off through the Theatre District. I learn that a Broadway Show has 500 or more seats, Off Broadway has less than 500. The term does not identify specific location or the type of show.

Passing Columbus Circle we learn that the city stopped celebrating Columbus Day when it was brought to light that Columbus murdered at least 2 dozen indigenous people (Native Americans) in cold blood. (Cold blood meaning without provocation, for no reason.) NYC still has the day off to make it a long weekend, but it is no longer in honour of Columbus since discovering he wasn’t honourable.

We travel alongside Central Park and the guide jokes about any of us wanting off for a wee stroll through Strawberry Fields, the place so famous from the Beatles Song. After being pelted by rain flying straight at us, we’re now enjoying icy winds, accentuated by driving in our wind tunnel, and snow. By this point I am now wearing a plastic bag rain coat over my soaked usually-warm overcoat. I empty my shopping into my satchel and tie the plastic shopping bags over my now-soaked gloves. I am freezing, we all are.

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At the top of the park we head West to Amsterdam Avenue where we pass the Ivy League school of Columbia intermingled, it seems, with student dorms and public housing. A story about Eisenhower, he didn’t teach here but he did research here. There are 79 Nobel laureates in Science alone, from Columbia.

Towards the Hudson River we pass an enormous Cathedral (Riverside church?). Heading more centrally into Harlem we pass the famous Apollo Theatre, home to Jazz greats. We learn that the Clintons have domicile nearby. With this neighbourhood’s short domicile requirement Hillary could more quickly follow her vocation from here than most anywhere else after her husband’s Presidency.

Harlem has been cleaned-up with technology. Camera’s everywhere, one cannot snipe a chocolate bar or graffiti a mailbox without being made famous by cameras. It worked too, this is now a walkable area whereas 20 years ago we would have stayed well-away.

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Returning to Central Park, now on the East Side, we pass the only natural body of water in NYC, the Harlem Reservoir. Now driving along Museum Row, the are of 5th Avenue alongside the park that houses the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others, I now find myself alone on the tour. The others have all jumped-ship for warmth. I would too, but I just want to get home and a taxi would be no quicker, we’re slugging along with the traffic. Fire trucks now behind us take minutes to be able to make any headway, the sirens fill the air for minutes as there is no space for anyone to give way. Eventually they come to an intersection and are able to turn off. Traffic-wise, it’s an odd place for a fire station, but I’m sure they were located here to protect the museums.

I learn that Mark, our mid-forties guide with a strong Jewish accent, is from New Jersey. He has been narrating these tours for a decade now. You’d think after a decade he’d come up with some fun banter that extended beyond the memorised facts. I ask him, as a local, where would he suggest I should go exploring on my bicycle. I guess he’s not a cyclist because he has no interesting suggestions, just the usual, obvious places. It could be that there are no hidden gems, no rocks unturned in this populous city, what you see is what you get. No, I don’t think so. I often stumble upon interesting places off the beaten path; he’s probably just dull.

The weather being what it is and the service being inadequate (not enough buses for tickets sold), I miss the Downtown segment, that I had already attempted twice, during my 24 hour window. Maybe another time.

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Manhattanites – Story – The People make the City

Manhattanites from November, 2012 – Jane, Nick, Marta, Chris, Laurie, Qi

Jane

“SHE SAID – HER BAG – IS UP – SIDE DOWN, ” a large, 6’4″ rough-looking black man with an afro shouted to the workers of the Port Authority Deli as I was wondering out. Apparently a tiny old woman had been trying to communicate this several times without success. They understood him though.

“You should be an English – English translator” I joked with him as we were both walking out. “Happen’s to me a lot!” he claimed enthusiastically. “Could be a career in it,” we chuckle as he continues away. I light a cigarette.

(Cigarettes are highly addictive and they are terrible for your health. I have since successfully quit but it was really hard so just never start.)

“Do you need some help love?” I ask after the elderly woman has emerged onto the sidewalk under a construction girdle seemingly ever-present on 9th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets. (“Love?”, I think to myself, “when have I ever called anyone Love?”)

Jane, who stands all of about 4’10” replies, “Could you help me across the street? I’m fine if I can cross the street.” “Sure!” I take her shopping cart, the kind with two wheels I know so well from Japan, it must have weighed 50 lbs or more. “Can I take your arm?” I ask as we start-off, tiny slow step by tiny slow step in the direction of 41st.

“What happened to your leg?” I ask, clearly she has a disability but is trying to get around. “I’m waiting for my second hip replacement,” she responds, “it was replaced 5 years ago but it doesn’t work anymore. I have 3 more months before I can get my new one, but I think if I checked into the hospital maybe they’d give it to me earlier.”

“Do you have family here?” “Oh yes, but my sister and her husband, they’re busy this weekend. But I just couldn’t wait, my leg is infected and my pants had to be washed. I couldn’t wait to do my laundry.” “Can your insurance send someone to you, to do your laundry and stuff?” “Oh, I’ve never heard of that,” she says.

“Does your HMO cover your hip replacement?” I ask. “Whats an HMO?” “Oh, I thought that’s what health insurance was called in the US, I’m from Canada.” “No, I just have Medicare.” She pauses, “My parents came from Canada, from Nouvelle Ecosse.” (Nova Scotia) “Really? I’m from New Brunswick.” (Which neighbours Nova Scotia on Canada’s East coast. Both Maritime provinces, they share similar qualities.) “Are you on holidays for the weekend?” she asks.

“No, I’ve been really lucky. I’m here for a whole month, I’ve decided to start my writing career here in New York City.” “Oh my, that’s wonderful! What kind of writing, a novel?” “No, non-fiction.” She stops and looks up face-to-face for the first time. “That is the best kind of writing,” she suggests, speaking slowly for emphasis, “what’s your name?” “Darren” “I’m Jane. I’ll look for your book, Darren.” she informs me as I help her into the station never to see her again.

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Nick

“How much for a cut?” “$14” “Alright”
“Same as you have but shorter?” “Sure”

Those long negotiations over with I settle-in to a chair at the barbershop below my flat. (I consider everything on the short block between 41st and 42nd to be below my flat.)

From Russia, nick came to NYC at the age of 21 and has been a barber ever since. Now 39, he seems somewhat older than me, even if I did still keep my white hair, he is far more weathered. I turned 39 last month.

“Where are you from?” he asks in his harsh, macho way he has of speaking. “Toronto. How’d you know I’m not from here?” (I took his question as where I came here from rather than where I grew-up.) “From your accent”, he answers, in his very strong Russian brogue. “People here, they come from all over.” Most likely his question is a conversation starter with most of his walk-ins, perhaps a lucky guess. Everywhere else I’ve been assumed to be a Manhattanite.

“Toronto is good. Colder than here now.” Yes, his no-nonsense observations are both true.

My hair soon chopped somewhat shorter than I had hoped for, I pay with tip and hit the streets again, fresher than a few minutes earlier.

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Marta

“In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God made a good strong pot of coffee and got to work.” I like this sign, just in the entrance of Empire Coffee and Tea Emporium.

Located directly below my flat (2 floors down and facing the street, whereas I’m facing the courtyard) this coffee shop boasts no interior fashion whatsoever. Horrible, uncomfortable seating (2 flat wood benches, 4 folding chairs, and 2 low stools) below a basement drop-ceiling and on a generic tile floor all lit with painful fluorescent tubes. Clearly, this was some other business for which ambiance was no concern (perhaps an exterminator?) and they did not change a thing when they opened it as a coffee emporium.

The coffee is fantastic. There is a steady stream of customers, from the disenfranchised to policemen to retired couples to young and trendy locals. Throughout my month, I will only need to visit the Starbucks around the corner on 9th Ave, twice. (When Empire is not open.)

I sit on the bench facing the window and write with my notebook balanced on the arm. Across from me a bag lady has an animated conversation with herself. She seems to be sorting through 5 bags of rubbish. Dirty papers and plastics, nothing nasty. “How are you, Marta?” someone calls in passing. She doesn’t notice. I take a discrete photo and short video.

I don’t purchase my coffee beans at the moment only because I want to come back sooner than later. (If I buy beans, I have less reason to come for a cup of coffee.) I sip my coffee, write, and wander back upstairs when my bottom hurts too much from sitting on a solid, flat piece of wood for too long.

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Chris

“Sorry Sir, this is my first day”, a young, plump, early-20’s kid with huge lips informs me every step of the way as I try to buy a bicycle on 34th street. “That’s okay,” I let him know, ” as long as you make customers feel like you care, they won’t mind that you don’t know anything.” And I do mean, nothing. “So how do I buy this bicycle – I guess we have to get it down.” “I don’t think so,” he replies as I am already pulling the cruiser bicycle out from the display rack.

“The tires are flat. Can I pump them up?” “I don’t know,” he indicates while I am already filling the rear tires with a pump I pulled from the shelf. “This tire needs a new inner tube,” I inform, the air is coming out faster than I can pump it in. “Can it be fixed before I buy it?” Chris has no idea. What’s an inner tube?

Chris calls a fellow staff member. They ascertain that these are the only assembled, ready-to-sell bikes, there are none in the back. We find another men’s bicycle, quite different, but it’s the only other man’s cycle that they have, somehow the assembler has not noticed that mens cycles have sold more than woman’s cycles and just keeps the display area full. Now competent in removal, this time he helps me lift the cycle down to the floor and I again start pumping-up the tires.

“It’s more expensive, but it seems fine. I guess I’ll take this one.” I collect all the necessary accessories and the two of us head to the cash, he with the cycle, me with an arm load of lights, mirror, helmet, bell, basket, and locks.

“That’ll be $297,” the cashier indicates as I swipe my card and happily so. I called all the bicycle rental shops, the best I could find was a rental bicycle for $200 per week or $40 per day. It can be cheaper to rent a car. Crazy. I tell this to the cashier and she shares this astonishment yelling to another nearby cashier as I excitedly walk my bicycle out to the street. “Did you hear that? That white guy said that . . . .”

Feeling liberated from my feet which tie me to the ground, I mount the bicycle and start down the cycle lane, which have become plentiful in Manhattan. At the first light I think, “there are no breaks!” as I try to squeeze the handlebars. I realise quickly that a reverse pedal brings me to a tentative halt.

Excited, I turn on to 8th Avenue, another cycle lane. CLIKKKATTY – SSLLLIIIPP – KKKKHHHKKK – my legs are pedalling but I am not moving. The chain has not slipped. The gear on the rear tire has come apart. There is no forward motion.

“It’s not my fault, ” Chris says as I push the cycle back through the front doors looking as dramatically deflated as possible. The assembly guy is here in morning, I know this already from my hour of trying to ascertain whether it was possible to purchase a bicycle here. “Will you be here tomorrow when I come back for another one?” I ask. “No, it’s my day off.” “You’re a pooh-head,” I tease as he walks with me towards the returns desk.

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Laurie

“It’s so nice to meet you! Our waitress won’t let us add any more people to our table.” It is my first time meeting Laurie, 10 days after I started staying in her Midtown Manhattan apartment. She and her partner have come away from their group to visit with me at the bar.

A film producer, Laurie is meeting with the cast and crew of their film, “Girls Who Smoke” which is later this evening to be part of the opening night program of the Big Apple Film Festival being hosted at Tribeca Cinemas.

Outside for a smoke myself, I meet a straight guy lamenting his girl troubles with a girl co-worker. They include me in the conversation as if we’ve known each other.

Two blocks from where we met for drinks we enter the crazy, crowded, chaotic, tiny cinema entrance. I claim my entrance ticket and he, “takes my word for it,” since for some reason he has no list of the pre-purchased. I buy a coke that’s “mostly ice”, my request, and somehow this provides me entrance to behind the bar. (I had stepped out of the crowd to order my drink and now it seems okay that I linger.) I find myself safe from the pressing crowds, leaning against the back counter inside the service area with a gorgeous blue-eyed dancer. (Not a student, this is a 2nd job along with dancing.)

Time to go in, I join my invitees again to slowly join the cattle shuffling into the little auditorium for our programme. “Girls Who Smoke” is the 4th short on the programme.

A slice-of-life film, two woman making a brief deep connection before going back to their separate lives. I love it. It’s my favourite kind of story telling.

The film ended, I sneak out, running off to my next adventure starting in 20 minutes at 11PM. I love this city.

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Qi

“For you, $20,” I am enthusiastically told by a good-looking Chinese man while he Vanna Whites his menu which indicates $80. “I feel SOOO special, why for me do you drop your price so very low? Sure.” I take my seat on a small folding stool on the sidewalk in front of Madame Tussaud’s. They charge about $1 a minute, the basic portrait will take 20 minutes at most, but most of them have these inflated price signs to be able to entice tourists by the bargain. I have also seen the advertised bargain approach, for a cartoonish scribble, only $5.

His name is Qi, from Shanghai. I spent some time there years ago when presenting recruitment seminars along the Eastern coast of China for an ESL college in Toronto. Shanghai is a gorgeous city, very impressive. Many of the unique, highly-designed sky scrapers were designed by New York City architects. It is China’s flagship city.

Qi’s son studies at a University in North Carolina. I could not catch what program he is in nor the name of the school, English was very limited. At home, Qi says that he owns a design business, for T-shirts. He visits his son in the US every year. The total yearly cost of having him study here is $80 thousand.

All this seems very, very odd. We are sitting on the street and he is drawing my picture. Why is he here? To earn extra money. He did drawing as a student, it was his hobby.

Finished my portrait, I give him $40 and he seems pleased. Such an odd story, but why would it not be true.

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Don’t Tell Mama . . . Memories while visiting this bar in NYC.

Manhattan – Re: Don’t Tell Mama Piano Bar visited nov 8, 2012. Written at Empire Coffee, Nov 9, 2012.

A Manhattan Piano Bar

“No Dancing Please. It’s against the law.” Posted over an open floor area to the left of the piano, I couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or a bylaw. Perhaps a terse way to point out that the city would not grant them the appropriate permit to allow customers to sway back and forth to the music, as would sometimes be the case at a sing-along. A convivial little piano bar, “Don’t Tell Mama” attracts a mixed crowd of locals and travelers, gays and straights, singles and couples, old and young. Having failed another attempt to quit smoking, I can tell you that it was less than a cigarette away from my apartment rental.

(Post Note: I did successfully quit smoking in February, 2013.)

I had enjoyed some shopping earlier in the day and I feel like a million bucks walking in wearing my new cashmere/wool blazer-style overcoat (chesterfield) and coordinating felted hat. I quickly scan the bar, as one does when deciding where to perch. It’s a quick-as-possible routine, you have come in alone, you don’t really want to be noticed as an outsider (first-timer), yet you’d like to sit strategically beside someone who also seems to be alone who at the same time looks potentially interesting or companionable.

In an instant I have three such appropriate seat-mates in my viewfinder, but all three are blocked. (Those who are clearly solo, but with no open seats beside them.) I don’t scan the entire bar, the table section appears to be full of groups and with a peripheral glance I discount everywhere apart from the bar counter which runs the depth of the space alongside the tables with a walkway between. The piano and microphones are on the far end wall. Sometimes a performer sings self-accompanied, sometimes not, and often the bar staff join in singing harmonies and such. (As do the customers.)

I choose one of three options, this seat because the cute couple next to me (husband and wife) look kindly and there is also one open seat beside me so another solo could possibly join. The handsome bartender, Jon, bounds about within his space making Martinis and Pear Sizzles. His feisty female counterpart runs drinks to customers at tables, breaking in to harmonies and choruses along the way.

My drink arrives and now the couple to my right are already departing. “Have a good night, boss,” he says as he squeezes my shoulder. He’s a big, strong guy in his mid-twenties with a gorgeous wife. I am surprised to see him walk away with much effort using a cane for support.

A new couple arrives to take their place, a very clean, fresh-faced, wholesome-looking early 20’s couple. I overhear an accent but it’s muffled by the music and the bar noise, maybe from Australia? She, sitting closer, sounds mainstream American herself. As I sit here I am writing about buying lunch for a guy in a wheelchair earlier in the day who, “Had my legs blown off in ____”. That place sounds familiar but I cannot think of where it is. I ask my neighbours if they know. “That’s in Northern Iraq,” he indicates, “what has you ask?” “Just wondering,” I reply to kill the conversation and make them wonder what kind of social oddity they are sitting beside who comes up with completely random questions regarding war-torn towns to strangers at a piano bar. Just kidding! A conversation now opened, I now enjoy their company as he and I happen to sing along to “Monday, Monday”, “California Dreaming”, and the like. (His girlfriend, sitting between us, sadly suffers from tone deafness, my words but apt to describe the condition they indicated.) They are holiday-making from Indiana for 3 days. They cannot explain why she doesn’t share his regional accent.

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“Monday Monday, so good to me, Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be,” belted Beth into her microphone as we all swayed singing along on the tiers of the music room at lunch time. Mr.Thomas, the music teacher, had created a music group in our high school that went well beyond just practicing music. It was a time when the school choir was changing from a group that sang pretty music to a group that sang fun music. Kids still learn lots about music even when it’s fun, seemed to be the modus operandi. Especially when it’s fun is more like it, we were all fully engaged and we all loved it. Our engagement created dedication and Mr.T’s enthusiasm was contagious.

To be honest, I would have been happy singing anything. I didn’t consider myself one of the cool kids who had to do cool things and be with cool people. I didn’t listen to pop music at all until high school, I mean the kind of popular music one hears on the radio, the top 40 countdowns and the repetitious favourites of the day. I had discovered various forms of Classical music during Junior High (age11-14) and that’s what I spent money on. I thought “Hooked on Classics”, those tacky remixes of music put to drum beats during the era of the cassette, were the bomb. When personal CD players came out in grade 10 (1988) and I brought mine to school, kids would be surprised, when they asked if they could hear what it sounded like, that I was listening to an opera compilation or my favourite at the time, Handel’s Messiah.

I only started hearing “popular” music when my girlfriend in grade 10 (she was my beard) introduced me to the radio, she only listened to the top hits and had the radio on all the time. I never listened to it on my own though. When it came to singing, I preferred the Classical Folk Music that I sang during voice lessons that used Royal Conservatory repertoire. I took lessons for a few years, through grades 9 to 11 until my voice teacher moved away.

Mr.T’s choir was called the “Blue Tones” and I auditioned to join soon after school commenced at Kennebecasis Valley High in New Brunswick. A largish school of more than 1700 students in grades 10 through 12 and 99 teachers at the time, it had a great selection of extra curricular activities. Primarily a jazz choir, it was Mr.T’s fun and creative flair that made this group a very central experience to many of us throughout high school. He had a love for music from the 60s and 70s and one-by-one worked out vocal and instrumental arrangements for many great numbers for us to learn, practice, and perform. He was probably listening to the Mamas and the Papas one day and thought, “Beth’s voice would be perfect for this one. I’m going to figure it out.” To me he gave, “Blue Moon”.

We learned the requisite jazz numbers that this type of choir should, enough to engage in competition and be able to perform as such. But the level of interest that Mr.Thomas inspired and the amount of dedication he gave us, we were able to have an entirely separate concert-length repertoire of fun, playful tunes. The endless noon hours, after schools, and weekends that man dedicated to his students I would not even realize until I became a teacher myself many years later.

Instead of the usual choir concert at the end of the year, or the occasional choir accompaniment to some other performance, Mr.T set up “gigs” which gave us lots of concerts to work towards and the feeling of purpose that came from rehearsing to perform. Mostly these involved entertaining at shopping malls which had the added benefit of earning some funds so we could purchase better equipment and more music materials and such. In grade 12 Mr.T had to move away with his family. A lot of tears were shed. Luckily, his successor, Ms.Woodford, picked-up the ball and kept it rolling, continuing the experience for us and future KVHS students.

During high school I was not the person I appeared to be. On the outside I probably looked like a smart, popular kid with lots of friends. A kid who drove a Cadillac to school one day, a motorhome the next. (Mother needed her car that day. Later she replaced it with a wheelchair van.) On the inside, among other things, I felt friendless and alone. People may have considered me their friend, but I felt unworthy of friends and I did not trust they would want to know me if they knew my “deep, dark secret”, so to me they were just people I knew. I liked people, some people I liked a lot, but there was a distance within me caused by my own invisible protective walls. Shame and guilt for being gay was bound with my own self-loathing and certainty that others would loath me too if they knew. A good Christian upbringing combined with some family trauma to distract my parents sealed my low self-worth. It was a different time and it seemed like I was the only one.

Perhaps my only friend at that time was our full-time cleaning lady, Myrtle. She was a woman near to her 60s who had 9 children (all then grown) and I knew she would accept me. If I didn’t have anything scheduled after school I’d hang out with her in the laundry room while she folded and ironed at the end of each day. My family sure made a lot of laundry. My vocal coach, another woman near to 60, was nearly another friend, in retrospect, the only other person I trusted not to reject me. But I only saw her weekly at most and it was not social, my lessons were at a conservatory and there were lessons before and after mine so there was no chat time. She was from Vancouver and had big-city open-minded artistic ways. She moved away and Myrtle was eventually fired. (Although not fired for this reason, Myrtle could barely get around by that point anyway, she was a large woman and was waiting for a hip replacement.) We kept in touch but she died before I came out to her or anyone.

Ironically, in my grad class of more than 500 students I was voted, “friendliest boy”. Does that mean I was popular? I don’t know. I did appear to fit-in with a lot of different groups. I kept myself really busy so no one could tell that I was a friendless-loser who hated himself. When I wasn’t busy I always went home alone, I never had someone over or went to someones house after school. When I was 15 I wondered what friends did outside of groups, I had no idea that they might just watch tv or play video games. I didn’t know what people meant by, “hang out”. I was an outsider on the inside for all those developmental years. I nearly had friends right at the end of high school, but it was kind of too late and it was too brief for me to conquer my barricades to be able to trust and feel close at the time. Really nice people though, I felt lucky they included me and we had a few fun times, but I still felt like I wasn’t worthy of the inclusion and it was only temporary.

What a shame I couldn’t feel it, being the friendliest boy I mean. I felt friendly towards others, I just could not feel it coming from them. I could not trust anyone and felt very much alone. Although I trust people now, I have nothing to hide anymore, I tend to fly solo still today. I did not grow-up having normal friendships from about age 10 until age 20 and I’m still not great at them now. People like me and I like them, but I tend to feel apart. The feeling I suffered in high school, of not being good enough to have friends, it still sometimes creeps in. What if I’m not fun enough or interesting enough or if I can’t live-up to whatever it is they expect of me. It causes me to pause or not call someone, to procrastinate meeting-up. Now it’s called social anxiety. I’m working on it.

This is a much longer story, but I just want people who knew me then to know that there was probably nothing they could have done to help me in high school. When I was 12 years old my brother shot himself through his head playing with a gun he found. (My father had a collection from his early-deceased parents and Mark had found the key to the gun cabinet.) A bullet through the brain left him a nearly brainless body that was alive but had no purposeful movement or ability to communicate until he died a few years ago. My Mother decided he had to live at home.

Overnight family life changed forever.

Overnight I suddenly could no longer relate to my peers.

I was in grade 7 and I found myself suddenly an outsider not sharing the experiences of anyone I knew.

By grade 8 home life entirely revolved around my invalid brother as it did for many years after.

I had an unrecognised depression and I struggled to get through the days. From having to pretend all was well when it wasn’t, by high school I was really good at playing the role I was expected to play even though I suffered so much. No one should feel guilty about my experience, by high school with the added issues of sexuality estranging me further, I really was beyond being able to be helped. It was a pain that had to be lived out. But this is another story. Actually, this is a book. But not right now.

Choir and drama made a lot of difference to improving my everyday during high school by keeping me busy with things I enjoyed. I will long be thankful to Mr.Thomas and also to Mrs.Doyle-Yerxa, the English teacher who changed lives through her dedication to students through the Drama Department. But that’s another story. As is Myrtle.

May I remind readers that these events from my past, although they have lingering influence on my life years on, they were then. I refer to high school as the worst time in my life because as a suicidal teenager, it was. However, life became and is much, much better. In fact, now I’m making up for it with some pretty great years and the best is yet to come.

Try not to pity someone who can follow his passions of traveling and writing with the freedom that I have. I don’t want pity, I’m just relating my history. The person I was in high school, definitely, pity him. No one should hate themselves like I did, I really thought I deserved to die. I thought I was evil, and the church at that time, it told me so. We still lose a lot of young people to suicide due to them being gay,lesbian,bi, etc, even with all the characters on tv and celebrities who are out now.

If you are a teacher or you know young people, make sure they believe, that they know, that there should be no guilt and no shame about accepting who they are. No one should think they are evil and discount all that is good about themselves the way I did. Ever.
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The bar is not very busy at the moment so I place myself at a small round table against the wall, midway between the piano on the back wall and the entry at the front. My third visit, I am now more comfortable coming in alone and finding whatever seat. Against the wall has a nice vantage point of seeing the entire bar. There’s couple to my right and another to my left, easier to socialize with than the larger groups who are having birthday nights or hen nights, or just a group from the office getting together. I pull out my notebook. I sip one of my 2 drink minimum, a Bellini, as I set pen to paper and remember events of recent days. A flash pulls my attention to the crowded sit-at bar counter that runs the length of the room opposite the tables.

Two smiling middle-aged women dressed to the nines for a night out in Manhattan have captured me on their iphones and continue to look on. They don’t look like locals, but also not tourists, I figure they probably came from across the river in New Jersey. I smile as they turn back around in their seats and I return to my task at hand. I forget a reference and chat with the male couple to my left who friendlily help me to think of a film’s name.

Another flash in my direction catches my eye and pulls my attention to the next party sat at the bar. This time, further up the bar, I watch covertly without lifting my head. Another photo, another camera. I discretely look behind me to see nondescript wall. The people around me seem ordinary enough, anyway, I’m fairly sure that I was the one on their screens.

After some time on completion of my 2nd drink I put away my writing materials, dawn my coat and scarf, and head towards the door. Friendly greetings from the bar as I pass, “Have a nice evening!”, “Nice to meet you!”, “Nice seeing you!”. I smile and say goodnight each time but without pausing. After crossing the threshold I stop and turn around, amazed.

Who did they think I was?

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The chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” seems ever-so-true sometimes in NYC, as it certainly does in London. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from . . . ” Although generally adept at making my own way, tonight I am not. It’s Friday night and I’m feeling intimidated by the crowds at all the fun-looking places along 9th Avenue. I venture into the restaurant section of “Don’t Tell Mama” as I happen upon it and I want to check the menu. Instead I stand there waiting for attention a few moments too long looking foolish, no just feeling foolish. It is crowded and noisy and jovial and I feel like I should not be coming in alone because it seems like no one else is. I leave with my tail between my legs before I’ve even been noticed by the busy waitstaff.

I make a circle towards home and eventually I pass my corner having failed at attending to dinner. I had set out and walked the periphery of Restaurant Row, past dozens and dozens of restaurants and now I continue in another direction, towards the water on 9th. I come to a very mediocre diner, it’s quiet and seems to be at about a third capacity. Over-lit, it has an uncomfortable, impersonal feel. There are a few couples eating in silence, some young, some old, oddly none in-between. I have low expectations as I start my french onion soup. Poor service, my burger arrives just after my soup, both are items I’d prefer to eat while hot. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like it’s been open a long time, a bit disgusting; it gives me acid reflux. I won’t drink it, but I also won’t send it back. A decent restaurant might enquire as to why I didn’t drink it, here they won’t care. The burger is lacking in condiments, ketchup only. I don’t put ketchup on my burgers, I prefer steak sauce and some mayonnaise, and maybe a dollop of sharp mustard for punch. The mustard should not be spread all over though, I like the surprising kick it gives to a few bites.

My New York experience would not be fully authentic without some lonely days and nights. Do I retreat now, or should I wander some more looking for another story? No, I’m too vulnerable this evening, I’ll call it a night.

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Manhattan – Story – The City that Never Sleeps

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.

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