My New York State of Naiveté

I recently stumbled on to a great web-site Voices of the Virus – another blog, really – which even included a nice comment (and link) about this one as a “blog of interest”.It’s an audio blog (I had never heard of such a thing), hence the name. Now I’m picturing myself at NYU which I visited over the Memorial Day weekend in 2001. Seems like a lifetime – and a camera – ago! (I was duped, by a nice-looking guy in Greenwich Village, into handing over my camera. He kindly, I thought, asked if I’d like him to take my picture. Then he backed up…a little farther…more yet…refocused…then turned and bolted!)

Have I no shame – retelling that story? Oh well, at least I’ve retained my sense of humour!

Here’s how I recorded it in my writing group. The topic? “Write about being, or observing, a stranger”…

A Stranger in New York

I was awakened by the shrill “beep-beep-beep” of a garbage truck as it tipped a dumpster into its cargo.

Gray light peeked through the curtains.

Behind me I heard snoring.

“Oh, right”, I remembered, “I’m in New York with David; here at the Hilton.” It was Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

I got out of bed and peered between the drapes. It was gray, alright, but I suspected it was still too early to tell if that was due to the weather or the time of day. I checked my watch. It was 5:10.

“Well I’m up”, I thought, “and this is my first full day in New York so I might as well get to it!”

I had read that the best time to go to the Brooklyn Bridge for pictures was at sunrise. I quickly got dressed, left David a note, and set off for the subway. (I remembered that Rockefeller Center Station was just down the street.)

As I left the elevator I stopped at the front desk to ask for directions.

“You wanna go by subway?” was the response as I declined the offer of a cab, a number of which I could see were lined up outside.

“Well Rockefeller Station is just over there.” The young man pointed towards a darkly panelled wall of clocks behind him which told me it was going on 3 a.m. in Los Angeles but already close to noon in Madrid.

“Thanks,” I replied, mentally noting to turn right as I left the lobby.

The pink neon of Radio City Music Hall quickened my heart as did every turn of the head where another legendary landmark came into view.

“Oh my God, I am really in New York”, I nearly yelled out loud with excitement.

I got my bearings fairly quickly as I looked around, recalling the previous night’s long walk through the light drizzle to Times Square, down to the library and Bryant Park, over to the Chrysler Building and into Grand Central Station. I could hardly wait to get my films processed. I was particularly interested in seeing how the ones I tried to discreetly take of all the sailors, in town for Fleet Week, turned out!

I ran down the stairs into the subway, bought a weekly Metro Card, then stopped, turned around and asked the station attendant for directions.

Where in Brooklyn?” was her first response, amplified through the speaker like some announcement at Yankee Stadium.

“Well I want to take the pedestrian path on the bridge back over to this side”, I said.

She pulled out a map, passed it part way through the slot then pointed with her pen.

“Take any train to West Fourth, here,” she circled in the air over the map.

“Any train?” I double-checked.

“Uh huh,” she nodded, “then take either the ‘A’ or ‘C’ train to High Street”, she said, again tracing the route in the air above the map.

Satisfied that I could follow those directions, and not wanting to seem like too much of a tourist, I thanked her and walked downstairs to the train platform.

It was very quiet. I was the only person waiting.

“Robin was right,” I thought, recalling what a girlfriend, a long-time resident of Manhattan, had told me the day before, “this city really does shut down on holiday weekends.” Mind you it was barely 5:30.

A train soon rumbled, squealed and banged its way into the station. I walked on and sat down. Across from me was a woman sleeping, I supposed, her face hidden in her bosom. At the far end of the car a young man listened to music through head-phones, tapping his shoes on the seat in front of him.

Changing trains at 4th Street, this turned out to be less than the half-way point of the trip, I began to wonder if walking back to the hotel might not have been an overly ambitious goal. “Oh well,” I thought, “I can always change my mind later.”

Thinking I wanted every possible angle of photograph of the bridge I went past High Street to Jay. Once off the second train I again asked for directions to the bridge and was told to follow signs out on the street. It took me a few moments to figure out that most of the signs were for cars, not pedestrians, but I eventually saw the familiar stone arches of the bridge and watched to see how an inline skater came down to street level.

My head was spinning as my eyes took in the rough edges of early morning Brooklyn. The drum beats of “NYPD Blue” (coming back from commercials) ran through my mind. Before I knew it I was on the bridge, above the traffic, and looking towards Manhattan. What I had hoped would be a picture-perfect view was, instead, quite gray and foggy. I was not deterred, snapping pictures wastefully the way a newspaper photographer might – first of those impressive stone arches on the bridge and then of the cityscape ahead. The music in my head had changed to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as I thought of any number of scenes from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”.

Fog was getting progressively thicker. I asked someone if the only skyscraper I could see was the Empire State Building. Chalk that up to being a dumb tourist.

Naw”, the man scoffed. “Dat dere is just the Woolworth’s headquarters.”

The World Trade Center towers, which I did recognise, were almost completely shrouded in mist and fog. I couldn’t see much above ten storeys.

I followed the signs to City Hall, where I took a few more pictures, walked up Broadway, through SoHo, and found myself around some familiar street names – or, at least, streets I had read about like Canal and Bleecker. I snapped a shot at a building as close to 85 Bleecker as I could find, that being my address back in Toronto. Another corner caught my fancy – Christopher and Gay Streets so, again, I took a picture. I walked up Christopher and found the Oscar Wilde Book Shop. (I had ordered a few things from there back in my “coming out” days so, of course, needed a picture of that.)

Nearby I came upon Christopher Park where a plaque commemorates the Stonewall Riots and where there’s what I would call a living sculpture depicting two men standing and talking, one’s hand on the other’s shoulder, and two women sitting on a park bench, the loving hand of one on the thigh of the other. I took several photos and then, as I plucked a new cartridge into the camera, a voice called out, “Would you like me to take your picture there?”

“Oh,” I said, glancing around to see the man who was calling, “Sure”, I said, “that would be great!” appreciating the favour I had often offered tourists across Canada.

“You’re from out of town?” the man asked, somewhat rhetorically, as I stood there with a red, white and blue cotton image of “Lady Liberty” covering my chest.

“Yes, Toronto” I replied, handing him my camera. I sat down on the bench beside the concrete lesbians.

“Really?” asked the man, by this time snapping the first of several pictures. “So you’re just out taking a few pictures of the Village, huh?”

“You been to any of the clubs around here yet?” he asked. “You are gay, right?” He lined up another shot.

“Yep, I’m gay”, I said. “But, no, I haven’t been to any of the bars yet. I just got into town yesterday.”

“Well I’d be glad to show you around,” the guy said.

I began to suspect he was a hustler, given my experience with young, good-looking men who seemed interested in me.

“Oh, that’s fine, thanks. I’ve got a pretty busy weekend planned with friends,” I said.

“Cool” the man said, and then “Say”, he began, “how much will you give me for doing this?”

In hindsight the guy seemed pretty high strung and his fingers were quite dirty, too, although he was dressed in clean, casual clothes.

Suddenly aware that it was still quite early in the morning, on a holiday weekend, with very few people around, my heart sank as I realised – for sure now – the guy was looking for money and was probably a drug addict “player”.

“Oh”, I said, “well”, I paused again, “all I have is this five”, I lied, pulling a bill out of my pocket, hoping that would get rid of him.

“You’ll have to do better than that”, he said, plucking the five from between my fingers, and backing up rather quickly as he took some more pictures.

“No, now come on”, I said, half begging, “please give me my camera!”
It was too late. He turned on his heel and raced up towards Sixth Avenue.

I yelled after him but he was already out of sight.

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