People Watching New Yorkers in Spring

When I left the house this evening, I didn’t plan on making my Friday night in Manhattan all about people watching. I’d hoped, rather, to be able to meet up with the latest girl that I’d been deluding myself about. But rather, in tune with the last few weeks of trying to see her, we never ended up together. In my head, I composed the perfect email to let her know we’re through, but delivery will wait until tomorrow morning (when I’m clear-headed). You lucky readers won’t get such a reprieve, but rather the unfiltered stream of consciousness that was my evening.

I’ve been working the second shift this week, contracted by one of my favorite firms that happens to be on the left coast. The double delight in sleeping in, coupled with the opportunity of working with a fun, creative group of designers makes it easy to overlook a shift ending after 8pm. So finishing a long, busy, but satisfying work-week, I headed off to The Soho House to meet with a client and friend to give him a crash course in retrofitting WordPress to look and operate like a CMS. Watching him enjoy the cold cut platter made it difficult for me to be the good Christian and abstain from meat, but he ordered a cheese platter and let the Guinness keep flowing. After three hours of eating, drinking and teaching at rate card (his arrangement, not mine), we decided to call it quits for the night. The Soho House is a place that I could live in forever, but only if I had someone else’s corporate card.

It was at this time that I had hoped to get a call from my placebo relationship, and instead, I chatted up Yusef, the street meat vendor. Over a chicken and rice platter, he told me of his family in Morocco and his excitement for the warm weather. I thanked him in Arabic—one of the three phrases I know, other than “Allahu Akbar” and “A Salaam Alaikum”—and went to Think Coffee to spend an hour writing what will eventually become my second, unpublished novel. I like Think Coffee. It has a quiet, roomy atmosphere and serves beer, wine, coffee, tea, sodas and cocoa, so I needn’t decide what I’m thirsty for before I end up in line. This time, as I waited, I thought about Yusef, his street cart worker’s salary, his family in Casablanca, his one bedroom share in Astoria and his dreams for the future. Then I thought about my own dreams for the future.

And finally, after parking in a corner table with a hot tea and my laptop, I thought about what my client told me was the going rate for book sales, nowadays. He’s been in publishing for a dozen years or so and felt comfortable sharing what a number of currently popular books raked in for their authors. And while the desire to write was there, after an hour of screwing with fonts and style sheets, I realized that the creativity was drained for the weekend. I packed up and left shortly before closing, thinking that all I needed to rejuvenate this creativity was a walk through the streets of New York City.

It was at this time that I saw a man walking down the street holding up an umbrella devoid of cloth; the shiny ribs hung lazily around his head as he marched down the street like a bandleader, greeting everyone he passed. I was about to shake my head and cross the street, when I opted instead to get a picture with my crappy camera phone. For four blocks I followed him, listening to his upbeat salutations and watching the bouncing metal as it reflected the streetlights. Was he homeless, I thought, or crazy? Was he attempting to scramble alien brain wave signals or attract lightening bolts? I snapped a picture and decided that it was Friday night in the greatest city in the world. The poor guy probably just wanted to feel less alone. And in that way, he and I had a lot in common.

I guess I judge people a lot more than I should. It’s something that I’m working on, slowly, and something that I think most people I know could/should work on too. Despite the delicious irony of that last confession, I realize I have a little ways to go.

I headed to the nearest PATH station at Christopher Street. If you know the station, you know the blocks preceding it are littered with transvestite bars, bodegas, and hundreds of counter-culture denizens smoking and socializing on street corners. On one evening, I witnessed a fight in which both women ended up with their wigs torn off. On another, I watched a stripper dance on a portable stripper pole that was affixed to a wagon and pulled by a Vespa scooter. Tonight, however, I accidentally espied an old white man giving a hand job to a black teenager in a dark alleyway. And as I tried to shake away the split-second vision, I realized that maybe that’s what my writing needed. No, not cross-generational, cross-cultural fondling, but more risk-taking. My first book (it isn’t a spoiler alert if you don’t intend on reading it) had a rape scene, two deaths, a mugging and a host of unhealthy relationships, but nothing that I would say made me feel like I’d taken a risk. The rape scene alone, a half page of vague images and references to clothing, was just my way of telling readers what happened when I didn’t want to tell readers what happened. I mused that it was like Psycho where you don’t actually see the stabbing, just the blood in the drain, but in actuality it was a cop-out. I didn’t want—nor did I know how—to write it. Maybe that’s why ALL my literate friends, including an ex-girlfriend of four years, didn’t even finish it. My father, bless his heart, has finally picked it up this spring, the seven year anniversary of when I finished writing it.

I entered the Christopher Street station and stepped over a drunk guy that was laying on the ground on the other side of the turnstiles. He was about 25-30 and three to five sheets to the wind As he lay propped against the pillar, attempting to prevent falling over, I heard the many insults slung his way.  My peers-in-waiting mocked him for not knowing his limit and stared as he fumbled for his phone and a stick of Nicorette gum. And while I prided him for being successful at quitting smoking even when blitzed out of his gourd, I was still no better than the other mass commuters.  I, too, mocked and stared and laughed. I exchanged knowing glances with others and shook my head, smiling.

And while I may’ve been alone that night, I was, at least, sober. The black, middle-aged PATH worker that I see on late-night weekends was guiding the other patrons around the drunkard, who had somehow managed to fall down and lay completely supine on the floor of the station. She told him kindly that she wanted to help him up and make sure he safely made it on the train. He slurred a thank you as she held him to the wall and picked up his keys and phone, which he’d dropped.

“We’ve gotten to be good friends this week,” she said to him. He kabuki’d a nod and smiled to no one in particular. “Maybe next week, we’ll be feeling a little better,” she said.

With her help, the guy made it on my train. I edged through the packed car to the other side thinking of all the times I witnessed passengers vomiting on the PATH ride home. I stood next to a pretty blond strap-hanger and used the bumps and turns of the train to lean in and catch a view of her cleavage and whiff of her perfume. It was then that I heard a girl chastising her boyfriend for making fun of the drunk on the other end of the train car. She was angry and had had enough. In an elevated, but controlled voice, she told him to stop.

“You heard that lady,” she said.

Apparently, the worker had spent every night for the last week helping the drinker find his way home. The previous Friday, she said, he’d witnessed someone falling into the tracks just as the train was arriving in the station. He’d tried to help the fallen passenger, but was unable.

As I said, I judge people too much. And it’s something I need to work on.

When the train arrived in Hoboken, the regular sense of relief flooded over me. I headed home passing the hordes of reverse bridge-and-tunnelers that seek my mile square city’s unique charm and discounted prices. Washington was aflutter with the belligerent and the obliterated. Ordinarily, I’d scan the cabstands looking for dropped bills, side-step piles of partially digested Chinese food and Sangria (why do vomiters always tend to consume the same thing?), and enjoy the drunken Jersey girls, bending over for dropped cigarettes in exiguous attire. This evening, my mind was on the people I’d watched so far. I’d had my fill of sympathy, lechery, buffoonery and the like, and was ready to call it quits. That was when I found the iPhone.

It belonged to someone named KEANE. I only know this because the Settings/About page said KEANE’S iPHONE and the recent texts were something like:

Andrea: Yo! Where ya att??
Me: Lounge 11
Andrea: You gonna bust out, or shuld I come?
3 minutes ago
Andrea: KEANE!?!

So, I figured, I’d reply. I wrote my new friend Andrea a number of texts devoid of gender-specific pronouns.

Me: Your friend lost this phone
Andrea: WTF
Me: Where is Keane? This phone is theirs.

The phone started rapping at me and I laughingly answered. I explained that I found the phone and was trying to find the owner. She told me, or rather a gentleman named “Papi”, that I should bring the phone to Willie McBride’s because she was “from Huntington County and haven’t a fucking clue where the fuck I am, Papi.”

On my walk over to meet Keane (who turned out to be named “Danny”), I tried to devise what would be smarter, in terms of a reward for a lost phone: return the phone tonight while he’s drunk in hopes that he’ll lavish me with a disproportionate finder’s fee or wait until the following day until he was thinking clearly enough to realize the considerate thing to do. If I had my druthers, as I do with the email I’m waiting to send, I would’ve waited. However, the ring tone started rhyming the N-word again, so I settled for the former.

Keane’s friend, Kirk, took the phone and barely offered a thank you, much less a reward. I couldn’t even see if Andrea was hot and have her shower me with her Latin ghetto-slang in person. In short: Papi was screwed.

Then I think that if I lost my phone, the technological abortion that is my crappy Windows Mobile Gen-1 HTC TouchPro, I probably wouldn’t even claim it. Sprint won’t insure the lame excuse for a phone, and I’m tired of it locking up on me. If I lost the phone, I’d be out about $200, but my conscience would be clear to buy a Nexxus One or—God-willing Apple signs a contract with someone other than AT&T—an iPhone for myself. If Keane from Huntington County gets to enjoy the perks of the App Store, why can’t I? There isn’t even a GMail application for Windows Mobile, for crying out loud. Losing my TouchPro might cause me to elatedly exclaim both of the other two Arabic phrases I know: “Peace to you! God is Great!” But losing your phone is like retrogressing to elementary school. It’s like selling your car and being out of range of mass transit. You’re cut off from the world, helpless but to abide by someone else’s schedule and someone else’s charity. I hate my TouchPro, but it’s my lifeline to the world. And for that reason alone, I needed it.

In this realization, I confirmed that I would want the person that found my phone to return it the same night. Not only would I have my lifeline back, but I’d also have a great, drunken excuse to reward them less as well.

I sulked back home listening to a group of people by Lounge 11 perform dexterity and sobriety texts on themselves. A taxi puttered idly next to them, filled with smiling passengers. Apparently, Minerva somehow managed to pass all the tests with flying colors. Granted, said tests were proctored by someone that needed to hold Minerva to keep himself from falling over. The two of them opened the trunk and loudly debated how they’d fit in it. Eventually, she pushed him down the street to her car, proclaiming her sobriety the whole time, leaving me along side her discarded taxi. He looked at me, shook his head and smiled, as I had in the PATH station earlier. I laughed to myself and closed the trunk for him. His thank you as he drove off was two fingers pointing out the window. Papi wasn’t expecting a reward this time.

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