New York, New York

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hi. As those of you who follow my blog know, my favorite daughter – Don’t panic. I only have the one, daughter that is. – has very recently given birth to her first child, my first grandchild, Miles. (Miles is 11 today. 11 days old, that is, but he’s very bright, so just in case he’s reading this, “Hey, Miles. Wuzzup?” Note to self: Get Miles his own iPad2 so we can FaceTime each other.)

Miles was born in New York, the city of big signs, great food and teaming hoards of wonderfully diverse Americans. The place literally oozes with people, in a good way. As soon as my daughter went into labor, my wife and I went into gear. A few hours later, most of it on the New Jersey turnpike – “And they’ve all come to look for America,” according to Paul Simon – and we were at the hospital setting new records for fawning over a sleeping baby. To Miles credit, he’s own man and pretty much ignored us.

We drove to New York where, cleverly disguised as two people driving a Subaru Outback with out-of-state vanity tags, “4EVR21,” we did our best to act like native New Yorkers, maneuvering the streets of Manhattan with courage and reckless abandon.

Three days later, we drove home and, three days after that, we drove back for Miles first party, a religious ritual involving minor surgery on a highly personal body part he’ll realize later, pleasantly I hope, has another use other than tinkling on people changing his diapers. You figure it out. It’s about my experience during these trips to the big city that I put fingers to keys on this particular occasion. Mind you, I too come from a place with traffic and oodles of people, but neither are anything like New York.

No sooner had we emerged from the Holland Tunnel than we found ourselves motionless at a nearby intersection. It seems that a delivery truck, the ubiquitous kind that seem to line one side of every street, had pushed through a yellow light to make a left turn from the right lane of this one street, coming from our left, only to realize it couldn’t make the turn sharp enough to get past another delivery truck that was illegally double parked at the corner of the street in front us. Confused? Sure you are. The point is that the first delivery truck was now stopped diagonally, blocking all traffic through the intersection. His only solution? Back up into on coming traffic, but of course.

Thank goodness one of New York’s finest, on foot, materialized behind him, looking at the driver in his outside mirror while banging on the side of the truck to get his attention. Did he shout? Did he scream? Was he (the policeman) even upset? Of course not. This is New York. Instead, he did only two things, both involving body and sign language. First, he held out both arms, palms forward, and shook his head. That stopped the truck from backing up. And then he did that uniquely New York thing. Spreading his arms out to this sides, he smiled, leaned back, cocked his head, smiled and rolled his eyes. It was New Yorkspeak for, “Nice try, but you’ve got be kidding.” And then he waved the truck backwards, carefully, without the driver running into anyone or anything, just enough to make the turn. Crisis resolved. No ticket, no one got hurt and we were on our way.

Later that evening, on our way to our hotel from the hospital, we ran into police who were securing the streets along which President Obama’s motorcade would be traveling. He was in town to speak at the UN. To protect him, assuming that was actually him in the car and not a decoy, they’d blocked off streets to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic in nearby Manhattan. What a mess, and what a waste of police and money. I have no idea what the costs were for police and other security personal, or how many innocent human evenings were trashed for an hour or two so that President Obama’s thankfully small motorcade could ride safely to wherever it was going. Unless his UN speech included a cure for cancer and plan for comprehensive, enduring world peace, he should have phoned it in. …Like I was going to vote for him anyway. The bartender at our hotel, contemplating the tips she’d lost that night that 40th had been closed in front of the hotel, had it right. “Couldn’t he have just taken a taxi, like the rest of us?”

For my wife and me, other that not arriving at our hotel until after the restaurant had stopped serving dinner, the evening will be remembered for one particularly emasculating moment. On the way over, we were stopped and briefly interviewed at a security point. Powering down my window, I asked the policeman who approached the car, “Good evening, officer. What can I do for you?” Without responding, he leaned down, took one look at me and then at my wife, and then told us, “You’re good to go.” “What?” I thought to myself, “I’m no longer a threat? I can be dangerous. ..Who am I kidding?” A real patriot, my wife volunteered to be strip searched. “No thank you, Mam. ..Mam, will you please button your blouse and get back in the car?” She did, and we were on our way.

The next night, same problem, except this time we were in a cab. Stuck in traffic with the meter running, we decided to get out with a few blocks to go and walk the rest of the way to our hotel. We get to this one corner and realize we can’t cross because the police have closed off the street. There are two policemen standing there, on the other side of the metal barricades they’d lined up. A well dressed man, Wall Street type, starts to squeeze way through two of the barriers. A real power move. “Excuse me,” the taller one of the two policemen tells him. “Please get back behind the barrier.” “Look, there’s no one coming right now, I just need to…” “Sir, this is a federally secured space. You need to get back or you’ll be arrested.” And the well dressed man made a business decision and did what he was told.

Not my wife. Approaching the other, somewhat smaller policeman, my diminutive wife, love of my life, grabbed the officer (in her head) by the scruff of his uniform, and tells him, “Listen Buster…” Immediately I know we’re in trouble. My only hope is that he thinks “Buster” might be a term of endearment, and I intervene. “Excuse me, Office Buster. We’re from out of town.” “No kidding.” “Could you please tell us which way, left or right, we should go to get across the street?” “Just one block that way.” “Thank you.” Whew. That was close.

Did you know that New York pedestrians are to cars, what pigeons are to humans? Let me explain. New York pigeons are not like ordinary pigeons. They’re used to people. Walk down the street, they barely, if ever, move out of the way. They’re so used to people, nothing about us frightens them any more.

New Yorkers are the same way about cars. They cross the street before and after the walk signals let them. The cross in defiance of turning cabs – the same cabs that don’t mind letting their fares out in the middle of streets, with traffic on both sides of them – while they’re moving! It’s as if there is a law against cars hitting New York City pedestrians. Well, there is a law law, of course, the statutory kind, but I’m talking more about a law of nature, like gravity, that every driver abides by. New Yorkers are fearless. More importantly, they’re confident. It’s there city. The city where people walk places. Point six miles from my daughter’s apartment to the nearest Whole Foods, for example, and carry their grocery bags back the same distance. These are a tough, persistent, durable and yet fun loving people. It’s their city, and no one, no car, no taxi, no delivery truck is going to affect they way they live their lives. Those walk/don’t walk signs are guidelines and, traffic be damned, they’ll cross when and wherever they please. (Jeez, I think I’m tearing up.)

So let’s talk about horses. On the way to pickup Miles from the hospital – I think my daughter and son-in-law were there too. – I’m crawling up 10th Avenue… Wait, there’s something I forgot to mention.

You know how I said New Yorkers are like pigeons, which I meant in a really good way, because of how comfortable they are around traffic? Well they’re like pigeons in another way. Ask a New Yorker for directions. What do you hear? “Go north on MacDougal, then…” Or, “I’ll meet you on the southeast corner of 14th and 5th.” So, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, we out-of-towners may not grasp how two numbered streets can intersect. In fact, what they mean to say is “the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue. The Avenues, you’ll learn, go north and south. The numbered streets, pretty much east and west. You’d think it would be possible for there to be a corner at, let’s say, 5th and 5th where the street and avenue intersect. Thank goodness the New York City authorities thought about that and, to my knowledge, laid out the city so that no two streets of the same name intersect. Unfortunately, they did that by changing the names of numbered streets and avenues so that 7th Avenue, for example, becomes Varick Street below Houston which is pronounced “house-ton.” (You there reading this in Sioux Falls. Are you taking notes?)

More to the point, short of using the compass app on my phone, I haven’t a clue which direction is north or east, whatever. New Yorkers, on the other hand, have an innate and learned homing pigeon-like sense of direction. “It’s easy, Daddy.” The odd numbered avenues are one way north to south, and get larger – the avenue numbers, that is – going west to east. And the even number streets, if they’re one way, are one way east to west. The odd numbered ones, the other way around.” “..Great. Thanks, honey.” Now if only I could figure out which way is up, because I haven’t known whether I was coming or going since Miles was born.

So my wife and I are on the way up 10th Avenue on our way to the hospital to pick up Miles. I’m going to make a right turn, so I’m in the far right lane, when I realize the taxi and private car in front of me are stopped. There’s another taxi behind me. Okay, I put on my blinker, more proof that I’m from out of town – I’m pretty sure New York taxis don’t have turn signals. –thinking I’ll pull out into the lane to my left, go around the vehicles in front of me and make my right turn. That’s my plan. I look over my left shoulder, and then at my outside mirror. “What are you waiting for?” my wife asks me. “A horse,” I tell her. “I’m waiting for a horse.” She gives me one of those looks. “I’m not kidding. There’s a horse coming in the next lane.” To quote Scarlett O’Hara, “As God is my witness..” a horse.

There, in my outside mirror, I’m staring face to face, eyeballs to eyeballs, with a horse pulling a sleeping driver and his carriage up the street. (I know it’s “up” because even numbered avenues are one way south to north. See, honey, your father is educable.) The horse, apparently seeing my turn signals go on, realizes I must be from another planet, has turned his head and is looking right at me.. right at me, as if to say, “Hey! Nice try, but you’ve got to be kidding!”

And that’s what I wanted you to know about my trip to New York to meet my grandson, Miles.



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