A Stranger in New York

A misadventure in 2001 I’m still ribbed about today! The 40th anniversary of Stonewall has me thinking back to this vacation.

“Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.” A garbage truck tipped a dumpster’s contents into the truck’s bin.

Gray light peeked through the curtains.

Behind me, in the next bed, I heard snoring.

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

I got up and peered between the drapes. The streetscape below was shrouded in gray, but I suspected it was too early to tell whether that was due to the weather or the hour. 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, then set off for the subway. (I remembered that Rockefeller Center Station was just down the street.)

The pink neon of Radio City Music Hall quickened my pace 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 quickly as I looked around, recalling the previous night’s long walk through the light drizzle to Times Square, down to the library, over to the Chrysler Building, then into Grand Central Station. I could hardly wait to get my films printed. 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 and turned around to ask 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, then walked downstairs to the train platform.

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

A train soon rumbled, squealed and banged its way into the station. I walked on, then 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 headphones, tapping his shoes on the seat in front of him.

Changing trains at 4th Street, this turned out to be less than the halfway 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 I went past High Street to Jay. Once off the second train I again asked for directions 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 in-line skater came down to street level.

Brooklyn Bridge 001

My head was spinning as my eyes took in the rough edges of Brooklyn. The drumbeats of “NYPD Blue” (coming back from commercials) ran through my mind. Before I knew I was on the bridge, above the traffic, looking toward Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge 002

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, 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.”

I asked someone if the only skyscraper I could see, just because it was closest, 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 recognize, 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.

Greenwich Village - Bleecker Street

I snapped a shot at a building as close to 85 Bleecker as I could find, that being my address back home. Another corner caught my fancy – Christopher and Gay Streets. Again, I took a picture.

Greenwich Village - Christopher and Gay

I walked up Christopher and found the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. (I had ordered a few things from there back in my “coming out” days so, of course, needed a picture of that.)

Greenwich Village_Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop

Nearby I came upon Christopher Park where a plaque commemorated 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.

Greenwich Village - West 4th at Stonewall

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 karmic return of a favour I had often offered tourists across Canada.

“You’re from out of town?” the man asked 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.

Greenwich Village - Sheridan Square

“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. He paused. “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.

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

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

The guy seemed high-strung and his fingers were dirty, too, although he was dressed in clean, casual clothes.

Suddenly recalling that – even after all that walking – it was still quite early in the morning, on a holiday weekend with very few people around, my heart sank as I realized 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.

Thanks to David, and other friends I was with that weekend, I’m often reminded of this incident. All that needs to be said is, “Kenn, let me take your picture!” (The one with me at the sculpture was a do-over taken the next day!)

© Copyright 2001 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.


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