Last weekend my wife, Wendy, and I went to New York to celebrate our 40th birthdays. It was my first time in the Big Apple and I loved every second. We were only there Friday night and Saturday, but we covered a lot of ground: we explored Brooklyn Heights, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, gawked at City Hall and the other municipal buildings, visited the 9-11 memorial, rode the Staten Island Ferry, explored Trinity Church and found the cast of Hamilton in the graveyard, toured the New York Public Library and strolled through Bryant Park, walked the shops on 5th Avenue, considered sneaking past the security to hop an elevator in Rockafeller Plaza, and spent an hour sitting on a bench in Central Park. Wendy did a crossword and I read a book. We stayed at an amazing AirBnB in Queens and navigated the city via the subway system. I have a weird fascination with subway systems. They are like a big puzzle I have to uncover.
What most fascinated me about New York were the people. Friday and Saturday night, once we were settled back in our AirBnB, I took out my journal and sketched some memories of the people we’d encountered. Below are those descriptions interlaced with pictures from our trip.
His glasses had thick, black, square rims with no lens. There were gold stripes down the side that matched the gold chain he wore around his neck and the gold watch on his wrist. The watch was the width of a Coke bottle and contained more spinning dials than anybody should ever need. He spent the ride hunched over, his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor and muttering to himself about how it all should have gone differently.
There was the blond woman in the white tee, faded jeans, and black leather jacket. Her messy blond hair spoke her disdain to the world. She looked like she’d stepped into the present from a Bruce Springsteen video from the 80’s. She was everything I imagined New York to be: defiant and ambitious, unique and stereotypical, apathetic and hustling.
The saxophone was larger than the girl’s torso. It’s once shiny gold color had bronzed with age and use. Still, despite looking like it was ready to retire, the horn’s melody sliced through the sounds of traffic and the hustle of the city, demanding the attention of every passerby.
“Hey man, listen here,” the man in sunglasses said to me as I crossed the street. He was dressed in all black and strategically positioned himself in my path so I’d have to stop or push through him. “I’m gonna sell you the tickets for $25. Now at the booth, they’re gonna charge you $35. But I gots these special so I can sell them cheaper.” Even though I had no plans to attend anything that required tickets and had no idea what tickets he was talking about, the $10 sale peaked my interested. I paused in front of the man momentarily to consider his offer and may have purchased the wonderfully discounted tickets, had my wife not tugged me forward.
There was the short Hispanic man with tired eyes dressed in all black on the train next to me. We stood shoulder to shoulder trying not to bump each other as the train rocked back and forth. He was carrying a can concealed in a black bag that he sipped from through a straw as we rode.
The four men were dressed as if they were going to a lavish party set in the 1940’s. Each wore a monotone suit; one in red, one in green, one in yellow, and one in blue. They wore various hats to match their attire. And while they were overdressed for the subway ride, they still fit in with the rest of us on the train as they carried what I’d come to understand as the New York slump. It was as if the weight of the hustle laid upon every person’s shoulders, pushing them down into their seats, building bags of anxiety beneath their eyes. Even in moments of joy and laughter, the New York Slump was present. And it was there with these four. As they sang in Do-Wop harmony, I could see it on their shoulders. They walked through the train car, their gravelly voices stained by years of alcohol, hitting each note with the accuracy of well-practiced masters. They passed by my wife and I with gift bags extended, shaking them slightly. I tipped them a five and received a pause in return as they built to the bridge, but then the train came to a stop and they hustled away, jumping a second car.
The young woman had an explosion of tight curly hair that made everyone around her feel like something marvelous was about to happen. Her makeup was so flawless when the train car moved into the sunlight, she appeared to be plastic.
Stepping in front of us he said with a charming smile, “Don’t be afraid to talk to a black man.” He was tall, fit, and likely in his early twenties. He wore black jeans and a matching black shirt. He thrust a white CD toward us and explained, “So I’m an artist trying to make here in this place, you know. And I’d love it if you would take a copy of this mixtape we put together. We’re just trying to get our art out into the world.”
“Sure,” I said with a sympathetic smile. The CD he handed me was white with some words scribbled on it. I tried to remember the last time I’d listened to music with an actual CD. I couldn’t recall. Glancing around, I noticed there were four other young men who were also stopping pedestrians and handing them CDs.
“So, you think you could help me out with a donation?” the man who handed me the CD said. “These things ain’t cheap to produce.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Sure. I guess.” I rummaged through my wallet, pulled out a couple bucks, and passed them over, but the young man didn’t accept them.
The young man didn’t accept them. “Usually people give like twenty or thirty,” he said with a look of embarrassment.
I smiled. “I don’t have that much,” I said.
“Well,” he said taking my two dollars, “can I have the CD back? You know, ’cause like I said, those are expensive to make.”
I thought about how much work it takes me to publish a book and how there have been many nights when I sat up hoping like this young man was hoping, that someone with influence would discover my work and accelerate my career. I wished I could be that person for this kid, but the sad truth was, in many ways, I was a street hustler just like him.
I handed back the CD, shook his, and said, “Good luck, man.”
The short Asian man dressed in orange and yellow robes took me by surprise. I’d been staring up at a building, admiring the architecture. When he stepped in front of me, I almost ran him over. Without a word, he grabbed my hand and placed a string of brown beads on it. He then handed me a small card with the picture of a strange goddess on it. The gold leafing and glittering paint in the picture shimmered. It reminded me of my time in Taiwan. The few temples I’d visited each had brightly colored, elaborate idols decked out in gold and a sparkle.
“Thank you,” I said with a nod, moving to step around him.
The monk was quick on his feet and, anticipating my move, stepped in front of me again. This time he held out to me a pen and a small notebook. In it were three columns: the first contained people’s names, the second contained with word “peace” written over and over, and the third had financial contributions, none of which were smaller than $20. “Donation?” the monk said.
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Sure. I guess.” I rummaged through my wallet, pulled out a couple bucks, and passed them over, but the monk didn’t accept them.
“The beads cost ten,” he said in crystal clear English.
I laughed. “I don’t have ten dollars,” I said.
The monk took the two dollars from me and held his hand out for the beads.
I laughed again and gave them over.
“Peace,” he said.
“Gook luck, man,” I replied.