A Return to NYC

I came into NYC for a quick hit and run.  I’m taking an all day class with the Gotham Writers Workshop, which I bought from Groupon at a great discount.

I work for an airline, so I get to fly for free, and my parents still live here so I’ve got a place to stay.  I take public transportation from Laguardia to the apartment I grew up in to maintain this great budget.

My parents are out of town so I have the place to myself, which hasn’t happened for awhile and I’ve been looking forward to it.  My best man, Aaron, is already in the city, waiting, but I still want to take the bus.  We met in college, and immediately bonded even though he was from New Jersey and shared his name with someone I knew in first grade and didn’t like (because he could read).

There’s not just one bus from Laguardia, but the one that gets me closest to home, is the Q33 to the E train.  The M60 can also get you there, but it’s not as direct, it leaves you uptown in Manhattan on 125th street, Harlem, where you have to catch the A train downtown.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Harlem, I used to go there every day when the High School of Music and Art was on 135th street, and I would go even further uptown after to play in the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s percussion ensemble on 152nd street.  I was their token white drummer (they had one white dancer too), so returning to Harlem has its appeal, but I decide to stick with what I know and let an M60 go by.  Also, the Q33 connects for the subway while still in Queens. The M60 has to contend with traffic into Manhattan. It’s rush hour on Friday night.  Is traffic into Manhattan bad on Friday night?  I don’t know. I grew up in Manhattan, and didn’t ever have to get there, but I let the three more M60s go by only because I let the first one go. I can’t admit that I made a mistake. When the fifth M60 comes without a Q33, and after a half hour of waiting, I get on.  Of course what do you think I see when I look out the back window?  No matter, I really would like to see Harlem again.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on the M60.  Years ago I took a cab to Randall Island to play softball, and couldn’t find my team.  Randall Island is technically part of Manhattan but in between Manhattan island, Queens and the Bronx and mostly just one big park.  I ended up there alone at night with no idea how to get off until I spotted the M60 bus which I took to 125th street and switched for the A train.

There’s a lot of traffic and I can’t help obsessing over the extra two hours it’s probably going to take me over cabbing it, while my friend is waiting, and I start getting mad at myself for doing things the hard way.  Then I remember something I learned in a previous Gotham class, about “distance,” which can turn frustration into humor.  Doing things the hard way has value to a writer.  Another exercise had us going someplace to observe and describe people’s physical characteristics in a way that tells you something about who they are.  I had gone to a coffee shop before work.  I remember seeing a man sigh before he got back into his car with his coffee and an overweight woman, wearing a dress that was too tight, walking with difficulty in high heals.  So here I am sitting on a bus full of people, with nothing to do but observe.  If I took a cab, I would have missed out on this opportunity.

I notice a couple of MTA workers, young black guys, standing in the middle of the bus in an animated conversation. Returning to NYC always reminds me of growing up here in the 70s and it occurs to me that for them, these days will someday seem like the 1970s seem to me.

To my left there are two white guys, at least one of whom looks gay (and so I guess, rightly or wrongly, that they both are), also heading to Harlem, talking about transferring there for the A.  In front of me, I listen to a conversation between strangers, one of whom is a clean cut, athletic 20 something from LA, here to see his girlfriend.  His family was originally from New York, so he’s been many times before, but he doesn’t look it.  He’s California.  The other guy is heavier, a Midwesterner, and looks it too, but he knows where to connect if you want to go to Grand Central.  “You can connect for the N,” he tells California, “at the next stop.”

“Did you say you can connect for the N?” I ask.

So, as much as I was beginning to think my return to Harlem was fate, my friend would be waiting for me and I really should get out of this traffic and into the city, that is, Manhattan, as soon as I can.  The N will leave me a little further from home than the E, but not by much.

So me and California Boy get off.  I lose track of him when I swipe my metro card and it doesn’t take my transfer.  Insufficient funds it says, when it’s supposed to transfer for free.  This happened to my entire family the last time we all flew into Laguardia.  It pisses me off because it means that if there was money on the card it would just charge me, when it shouldn’t.  The last time the clerk said he could see we came from the bus and he let us all in.  I explain the situation this time and the clerk won’t help.  “You need money on the card,”  he says.

“Its supposed to be free,” I say.

“I can tell you took the bus last, but I can’t tell when,” he says.

Maybe because this is not the advertised route from LaGuardia he doesn’t believe me.  Or maybe he’s just a dick.

I show him my boarding pass, I tell him I just came in from Atlanta (not knowing if that will hurt or help), that I got on the bus a half hour ago, that this happened to me before, that the cards are unreliable that he must know that, and that he should just let me in.  I tell him that I wish we could go back to tokens and that I miss New York.  I keep arguing with him, while my friend waits for me in Manhattan, beyond the point at which I care about paying another $2.25, because it feels like home to me.

I finally give up and pull out my spare Metro cards from the last time I came.  I had a few (thankfully I don’t have to give the clerk any money), and try them all until one works.

Only after I’m on the platform do I think that I could have jumped the turnstile.  In the old days, I would never have gotten caught for that.  They probably have cameras and face recognition technology now, linked into some central database and would either catch me right away or send me a ticket in the mail and I’d have to come back to fight it and would undoubtedly lose, but oh what a story that would have made.  I make a mental note to remember to do things the hard way.

Aaron would understand even if I got arrested and couldn’t show, because something similar once happened to him, and for this he actually blames me.  See, my father worked for the American Civil Liberties Union for 25 years, and I always prided myself in knowing my rights.

So one weekend Aaron and I were visiting the city from school and were heading out to a club.  We were on 26th street between 7th and 8th when a pack of screamers went off, you know the firecrackers that fly into the air?  It was some kind of box of them sending a dozen or so in quick succession, bouncing off buildings.  We stopped, to watch, actually we couldn’t pass, and when they were done, we continued on our way.  Then a police car pulled up .  The officer at the  wheel rolled down his window , said “having fun boys?” and motioned to us to come towards him.  As we complied, his partner, as if considering our approach a threat, jumped out of the car.

“Take it easy,” Aaron said, “we had nothing to do with those firecrackers.”

“Then who did?” he said.

We were detained on the street for questioning.  One cop shined his flashlight right into my eyes and I could see nothing but the light. I I asked him if this was an interrogation.  They wanted to see ID, and I said that this wasn’t South Africa and we weren’t required to carry ID.  The one talking to Aaron was telling him that I was messing with the wrong cop, while the “wrong cop” was asking me to open my winter coat so he could search me.  I said that I would not resist if he wanted to search me, but I wanted to make it clear to everyone here that I don’t give my permission.

“Would you rather come to the station?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t. We’re heading out to see some Jazz.”

They let us go, without searching us, probably because despite macho cop’s annoyance with me, they figured they’d find nothing, and at best, be embarrassed in front of their colleagues and at worst get sued.

So years later, when Aaron had his own legal practice, he was taking a recruit out to a Knicks game, and sent the guy in while he got rid of two extra tickets.  He asked a security guard whether it was legal to sell the tickets and the guard told him it was ok beyond a certain perimeter.  So it surprised him when an undercover police officer asked him if he had any tickets, never even talked price and then showed his badge and asked him for ID.  Aaron, and this is the part he blames me for, said, “I’d be glad to comply if you can cite the statute or law that specifically gives you the authority to ask for it.”

The police officer manhandled him, handcuffed him and charged him with scalping, as well as resisting arrest and impeding the flow of foot traffic. The recruit, to his credit, came out looking for him, found out what happened and showed up at the police station to try to get him out, but the police were determined to teach him a lesson.  He had been handcuffed to a bench, next to a prostitute that wasn’t handcuffed.  And then he spent the night in jail.  He hired a lawyer to defend the charges because to represent yourself is to have a fool for a client, but all this guy wanted to do was plea, so Aaron did represent himself and eventually got all the charges dropped, though it took awhile.  That was doing things the hard way, and it does make for a good story.  He didn’t hire the recruit, though, and I never understood that.

But I paid for my fare, wasn’t likely to get arrested, and I’m not too disappointed about that actually.  At this stop it’s an EL (not a subway, but an elevated train) and the view from the Astoria Blvd platform in Queens where the M60 meets the N train is awesome.  Worth the money and the inconvenience.  I took a picture for Aaron to make it worth his wait.

I get an email saying he beat me to my parents building.  I start replying that I am on a New York City adventure waiting for the N.  Then the N comes, so I change it to say I’m on the N, twelve stops away, but by the time I finish the email, in which I tell him about the M60 and the booth clerk, and how I miss tokens, and how the N train is nicer than it used to be, I have to change it to nine stops, and I send it quickly before it becomes eight.  He says he’ll meet me where the N let’s out on 28th and Broadway.

I’m traveling light, so no need to drop anything off at my parent’s apartment.  Besides tokens, I often lament that it isn’t easy to find the kind of New York pizza I grew up with. But I recently read an article about how the famous Ray’s of Greenwich village, which was never typical New York Pizza, but definitely a landmark New York City institution, had reopened under a new name, after getting sued for using the name they made famous (they never claimed to be “the original,” just “the famous” Ray’s).  Due, I always thought, to the popularity of Famous Ray’s, other Ray’s mulitiplied like body snatchers throughout the years of my youth until they were everywhere and now Famous Ray’s, has to change its name.  Seems ridiculous, but except for what looked like a different spelling or a similar name that I don’t even know how to pronounce, ROIO’s, the place looks exactly like it always did, inside and out, and tastes like happiness.  I can almost hear Chuck Mangioni’s Feel So Good as I eat it.

We leave Rays after trying unsuccessfully to get a couple of photos outside in the dark

and walk back to my parent’s Chelsea apartment.  We drink some of their beer, and reminisce about old college colleagues with whom I’ve recently reacquainted myself on facebook (Aaron doesn’t do facebook).

One of them is his old girlfriend.  She friended me awhile back for reasons I don’t really understand.  Shortly after they had broken up, she had asked me for my honest opinion about whether Aaron would take her back.  She just wanted to know, and I appreciated that, so I gave her an honest answer.  “WHY NOT!” she screamed at me.  I send her a message that I’m here with Aaron.  She replies, “tell him fuck you in Hebrew.”  Thirty years later.  I don’t know why she’s so mad.  She has a new boyfriend.  I know this because she sent a message to all of her facebook friends that she had changed her status to “in a relationship” and was disappointed that no one had commented yet.  And then I had to suffer through all of the congratulatory replies.  I wanted to say, “I don’t really give a shit.”  I must have gotten fifty notifications. Not one person said they didn’t give a shit.

Full disclosure:  I learn in my class the next day that I really shouldn’t lie in a personal essay, but I think that if it helps the humor then it’s ok to stretch the truth a bit.  However, the fact is, I sent that message to Jill and received her response on a different trip into New York City and before she changed her status, though I’m sure it wasn’t her first relationship in thirty years.

I enjoy the class Saturday and spend Saturday night all alone in my parent’s house. I waited to hear back from another friend, who didn’t call, so I have no other plans.  I feel like a child again, alone in the apartment of my youth, especially when I hear the same ice cream truck music from the street below that I remember from the old days (where I live now, they play different music). I look out the window but I can’t see the truck.  Makes me wonder whether it really is the ice cream truck or just the pimped up car of someone with the same nostalgia I’m feeling right now.

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