My life has been pretty humdrum recently – mostly just going to Physical Therapy and doing PT at home and walking in the park as able and taking recovery naps and reading magazines – so I was delighted to have a couple of puzzling and unexpected experiences last week. One consisted of being wakened in the middle of the night by not being in pain from what a neurosurgeon described as a “horrible spine.” The other was waking in the morning with a hankering for a hotdog from Grey’s Papaya at Broadway and 72nd Street.
These moments call for comment.
Since late summer my back pain has evolved from intermittent howling level to a softer but seemingly constant presence. Most of my thoughts during recent months have been a variation of the question, “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” If so, I’ll come to terms with it (I tell myself). But I would really like to know. Right now.
As for the hotdog craving, it can only be explained as atavistic, provided that some of my ancestors liked hot dogs (which they probably did). Myself, I’ve never liked them much. And after I learned some years back what wieners are made of, the idea of eating steamed pig lips, ears, rectum, and other parts has had even less allure. Not only that, if I were going to eat a hotdog, it probably wouldn’t be one from Grey’s Papaya. It’s a New York institution, but its dogs are pretty ordinary.
In this context, I set off for midtown.
Getting out of the apartment had some On the Town feeling about it. Going to midtown did not. As much as I love New York City and the pleasures of living in it, I do not deny its flaws. Leaving my unusually quiet apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side and going down into midtown Manhattan was one.
Midtown is noisy, its air is foul, and it’s so dense with vehicles and pedestrians that moving more than a foot or two at a time without bumping into someone or having to wait at a crosswalk is just about impossible. Midtown is where tourists stumble around forming gaggles of sidewalk-blocking gawkers snapping pictures on their phones and forming the idea that this is the real New York. It’s also where many people who don’t work at home spend their days. The latter includes my ophthalmologist.
I took a bus. There was a stop right outside my door, and I wouldn’t have to take stairs or a dank, icky elevator down into a subway tunnel. When the bus driver saw my cane, he would command the bus to kneel down in a sort of urban kowtow to accommodate my mobility problem. I liked that.
I didn’t know what route the bus would take – just that it was heading south, and my eye doctor was south. It would be like starting my On the Town day by hopping a freight train. I did, however, read the route map posted at my stop before getting on, and I learned that it would take me to one block from where I wanted to go. That made my outing less of an adventure, but as I mentioned, I haven’t had much excitement lately, so just being out on my own without the aid of my loving helper, Ann, and taking a bus was a treat.
Along the way, I watched the announcement screen and learned where crosstown buses and subway stations are. By getting up to speed on such, it would be possible by making a transfer or two to go just about anywhere in the city on a bus. Also, I took pleasure in realizing that the bus fare to midtown was about one tenth the cost of a taxi.
The route passed by Gray’s Papaya. For a moment, a dog slathered in yellow mustard sounded pretty good. It seems that being long confined will fool with the mind.
When I got off at 55th and Madison, the hot dog vision had passed, but I was still hungry, and I was early for my appointment. If I could find a place which was typically New York, it would enhance the On the Town moment I was enjoying.
And there it was. A coffee shop, deep and narrow, which according to the menu dated from 1948. Down one side was a row of two-person booths. Across from them was a counter occupied to the midpoint by display cases of donuts and pies, leaving the front part for the dining pleasure of stool straddling customers. Behind the counter, two fry cooks turned out heaps of cottage fries, pancakes, omelets, and bacon. Waiters and customers jostled against each other in the space between booths and stools in a way much like what was happening out on the sidewalk.
From a waiter behind me, I ordered a plain bagel – not toasted – lox, cream cheese – not too much – capers, thin-sliced tomato and onion. After a while, he handed it to me over my shoulder. It was tres New York. Like having a hot dog at Grey’s Papaya, but better.
While waiting for my eyes to dilate, I considered revising my negative view of midtown.
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