July 1, 2013
E.B. White owns the New York City essay the way Judy Garland owns “Over the Rainbow.” Daunted but undeterred, I offer my version of the subject.
It arrives every morning at six. The clatter of boxes being dropped on the sidewalk and the bang of the lift gate on the big refrigerated truck is as much a part of my day’s start as coffee. Five stories below, six or seven men in khakis and green T-shirts — implausibly suggesting environmental sensitivity — check lists and load boxes onto carts. Grocery delivery from the online market, Fresh Direct, has begun again. The first apartment bell will ring at 6:30, the last at 10:00 p.m. All day long, when a truck is empty, another one takes its place.
They never have trouble finding a parking place; usually they just pull up alongside the fireplug. If a car did that, it would attract a police tow truck the way bread crusts draw pigeons. But the Fresh Direct trucks are never towed. I’ve not observed them even getting a ticket, and I observe them a lot, since their spot lies between me and the drug store, the bank, and the liquor store. This, even though most delivery trucks accumulate stacks of tickets. It’s a New York City mystery.
Near the truck, several filthy, more or less demented, helpless and unhelped people sleep on the steps of a little-attended church, the life of which seems as unpromising as that of the sleepers.
My building is modest by New York City standards, but it does have a doorman on duty at all times.
Perez (on Saturday through Wednesday) or Don (on Thursday and Friday) hear, perhaps sense, my footsteps on the stairwell. They greet me cheerfully, open the door as if both my arms were in casts, and see me out of the building and into the churning sea that is New York City. Door opening is central to their job — I expect they do it a hundred or more times every shift — but it’s only part of what they do.
Perez likes me. He says I’m the only person in the building who has taken the trouble to recognize and use his given name, Heriberto. I say it in Spanish, though my Spanish sounds even more down-market than my English. At least I don’t pronounce the H and I do use a flap R and I give the word three syllables. And I don’t call him “puh-rez,” emphasis on the second syllable, the way most residents do.
Young Don (short for Liridon) is a 20-something, second-generation Kosovar Albanian. One Sunday evening, after Ann and I and Don had unloaded the car at the curb, I left to take it to the garage. I was gone somewhat longer than my customary ten minutes. Don rang my cell phone to see if I was OK. When Ann is that solicitous, it annoys me. What? She thinks I’ve gotten so old I can’t take care of myself? I like it when Don looks after me in that way.
Anthony, who works the 3-11 shift, is an affable, former junior college basketball player. He has a second job in which he “bounces” (works as a bouncer) in a “gentlemen’s club.” He’s a large, black, Peter Pan figure; the kids love him. I think Russell, a brain-damaged man in his forties, does too — in his way.
Sometimes Russell acts out when he gets off his bus. He goes limp on the sidewalk, wraps his arms tightly around a parking meter, and shrieks. The bus driver tries unsuccessfully to pry him loose until Anthony arrives. He peels Russell’s hands off the post, scoops him up in his arms, carries him into the building, and sets him in a chair where he will continue to shriek while he waits for his mother to arrive. Except for “Don” and something that might possibly be construed as “Perez” and “Anthony,” shrieking is as close as he comes to speaking.
When I encounter Russell sitting there in the lobby, I make it a point to say hello and look at him directly and call him by name and pat his shoulder, hoping to calm his demons a little. He presses my hand against his cheek and kisses it.
When Sonia Sotomayor was named to the Supreme Court, I spoke to Heriberto and a night man named Jose about it. I knew they lived in a Hispanic neighborhood, and I suggested that they and their neighbors must be pretty proud and wasn’t it a good day for America. They were indifferent. I brought it up with a Hispanic carpet installer. Same response. What? “I’m Dominican,” he said. Oh. Because Justice Sotomayor is Puerto Rican, her appointment was little more a source of pride than if she’d been Mongolian-American.
Morning dogs race from the elevator and fire past me in the doorway in a hell-for-leather dash to the curb, unable to hold it another instant. I wonder if old dogs, like old men, have to go during the night. I hope not. That would be a double nuisance for some owners.
The sidewalk around my building is covered with a sturdy overhead shield to deflect construction material that might fall from the repair project above. I seldom see any work going on. That may be why the cover has been there so long the plywood is starting to splinter. The super says he’s trying to get the contractors to speed up. In a way, I’d welcome that; the canopy keeps the sidewalk in a shadow. On the other hand, it offers protection against rain and snow and the annoying hot-weather drips from window air conditioners that stipple every building of a certain age, which are, of course, the ones most likely to need repairs and sidewalk canopies.
It also provides a second home of sorts for the poor people in the single-room occupancy building down the way. A bent old woman leans on her walker, gasping for air, dying of cigarettes. A W.C. Fields look-alike perches half-seated on a brass fire apparatus sticking out of a building as he begs for spare change. He eschews the common style — a paper cup — and just holds out his hand. His naked, upturned palm is immodest and off-putting. A short, filthy Hispanic woman of an indeterminate age appears from time to time — presumably, when she’s out of money and waiting for her next public assistance check. She always works the same small spot of sidewalk in front of the corner butcher shop.
The canopies come in several colors. The one in the building next door is a cheerful red. Mine, a shamefully dull tan. Deep blue seems to be the most common choice.
It would be unusual not to be within sight of at least one of these beauties from any point in Manhattan, except where new buildings are clustered. Just so, there is one surrounding the apartment building across the street from mine. As a consequence, my walk to the subway is only fully outdoors when I emerge into the open on the corners like an urban gopher and take my chances crossing Amsterdam and Broadway.
I’m on about the same schedule as a couple of neighborhood kids — a boy with a squeaky voice and feet he’s not yet grown into and a chubby little girl who looks to be about eight. I trail along behind them on their walk to the subway that is their school bus. They are improbably innocent — hardly distinguishable from small-town children like me and my friends in the 1940s. The little girl did show up one day sporting robin’s-egg blue nail polish, a small indication that she was normal and wasn’t immune to pushing the fashion envelope in a little-girl way.
She carries an outsized backpack that looks like it could tip her over, if she got a little off balance. That could happen readily, since she hardly looks where she’s going; her eyes seldom leave the boy’s face. He’s similarly attentive to her, so if she did trip, I’m sure he would catch her. He takes her hand to cross the streets.
I guess they’re brother and sister, but they’re so affectionate with each other, so devoid of eye-rolling responses, that I wonder. I want to talk with them, but it’s New York; no doubt, they’ve were schooled in stranger-danger from an early age. They mightn’t know what to make of my overtures. They get off the subway at Fifty-ninth Street, Columbus Circle, bound, I suppose, for a nearby school. I wonder if they ride home together. Probably. Her urban skills are not yet developed enough to manage the streets on her own.
I’m pretty sure that when the little girl becomes an old woman, she will still be looking up wide-eyed and trusting into her big brother’s face, whether he’s alive or dead, and recalling this period of her life — including even the gritty, noisy, unpleasant subway rides — as sublimely blessed.
At Broadway, the street is two-deep for half a block with black Lincoln Town Cars and Mercedes waiting to pick up big-deal masters of the universe. Drivers wearing dark suits and speaking with foreign accents pop out from under steering wheels, open the rear curbside door wide with an air that hovers on servile, and whisk their Smartphone-occupied charges off to conduct weighty matters. The picture seems off to me. The newish apartment building from which these very important people emerge is unprepossessing to the point of charm-free, and Broadway is far too noisy to attract big-deal people. Still, the scene of worldly power winding up like a major league baseball pitcher is repeated there every weekday morning.
Close by the lineup of Lincolns, Pierre, an illegal immigrant, sells newspapers outside the subway station. His first language is Black Bobo. He speaks some other African languages, too. And French. His English is limited, so he amuses himself by trying to take me beyond bonjour and comment ça va. I enjoy a couple of minutes of that at every encounter, and so does he.
He’s remarkably cheerful considering that his wife and two youngest children are in Africa, and he hasn’t seen them in eight years. He supplements his meager earnings from selling newspapers with what he makes washing dishes. He has no green card, but he also has no fear of deportation. “No one bothers me,” he says. I admire him. I’m sorry for his hard lot. I would not like to see him deported. I would much prefer that he find a way to be in America legally and that he find a way to bring his family from Africa.
(I also would like — this is neither inconsistent nor un-American — for the question “how many immigrants are too many?” to be a focal issue in discussions of immigration reform. The United States is finite in size; the number of people who want to live here, more than it can support without the country changing in ways that few would find acceptable.)
Pierre wishes me a bonne journée, and I walk down the dank stairwell toward the subway platform.
COMING NEXT – MY NEW YORK CITY, PART 2.