The next day I got up as usual, without an alarm, with enough time to drink two cups of coffee and look at the Chrysler Building’s spire, a nice view that I enjoy every day. If I go out on my small terrace and look toward the west side of the city, I can also see a small portion of Park Avenue too, the area near Grand Central Station.
I showered, got dressed and started my walk uptown to the office. I passed the entrance to the park bench, and immediately thought of Hal. First thing when I got to my desk was a call to Ray’s cell phone.
I got him right away. The news was good. Hal was subdued but deeply appreciative, and he was liked by everyone at the rehab center Ray took him to.
Six months later, Hal has a new apartment in a decent Manhattan SRO, clean sheets, a tiny but functional kitchenette, and we have become buddies. He loves movies! The other day I took him to see “Captain Philips.” He had such insightful comments that I could see the man he had been – the man inside he was struggling to regain.
Maybe he never will be that person again, but he’s regained some of his confidence, without the arrogance that brought him down.
There’s a famous Greek saying: “Count no man happy until you know the end of his life.” Hal’s “end” could have been a whole lot worse, and I am proud to have given him even a small hand up.
If I ever need it, I hope someone will do that for me.
A Squall among the Squid
I was at Pasticcio Restaurant on Third Avenue and 31st Street for dinner last night and had the black pasta. It’s black from squid ink and tasted exotic. I felt special eating squid ink with shrimp, sea bass, cherry tomatoes and calamari. Pasta as black as the New York City February sky. The next day, Sunday, I worked out hard on machines and weights at the gym on East 34th street with my friend, Jeff. Afterwards, he asked me where I was planning on going for lunch. I told him I was going back to Pasticcio, and he said, “That's the same place you had dinner last night, the black squid pasta.” “I know,” I said. “But that's the place where I go that most feels like home to me. I have my own table and I know everybody. And, when she is there, the Hungarian hostess just orders for me. If the waiter is a new guy I just say, ‘Go see Anna. Tell her Mike is here and she should order for me’.” I came back again to my favorite eatery today and Daniel was there, the Romanian headwaiter. It was before 3 p.m., that dead time for restaurants between lunch and dinner, which is when I like to go out and always get the best service. “Daniel,” I said, “I'm such a loyal customer. I've been away from New York for almost two months, traveling America, and now with all the hundreds of restaurants I could go to in New York City, I come back to Pasticcio two days in a row.” “That's because we love you here, Mike!” Daniel said. There was a pause as two men felt the discomfort of using the word love, and then I took over. “That's right, brother, it’s all about love. You do make me feel loved here and the food is wonderful. The best on Third Avenue. That's why this place has been here for almost 30 years.” We started to talk about things like the Mafia being rounded up, the presidential primaries, the gray weather, and an e-mail I’d gotten from a friend in Boston this morning saying that snow squalls were up there. But that was “up there,” and this is “down here.” Weather from New England just doesn't travel that fast, so I gave it no mind at all that we might be hit with the same stuff. I began reading a New York Times article about long lost Ernest Hemingway letters that he had written during World War I. The hotel where he was living in Madrid was bombed nightly and, during that time, he wrote his only two plays. All of the sudden, the Boston squall appeared on Third Avenue, and for twenty minutes it was like a blizzard. The South American cooks and waiters at Pasticcio went out onto Third Avenue, taking pictures of the snowstorm, some taking a cigarette break then a walk, to feel the snow on their faces. Daniel came over and topped off my wine glass. He confidently predicted that in twenty minutes the sun would be out again, and all of this would all be over. I looked out onto snow-bombarded Third Avenue toward the whited-out Empire State Building, taking in the sight of snow collecting on people’s hair and on the tops of their lidded coffee cups and baby strollers. A city lived out of doors had been caught by surprise and was scrambling to adjust. It was a wonder to behold – human beings adapting to the sudden changes on an island where predictability is the way of life. I put down the paper about Ernest Hemingway almost getting blown up nightly in his hotel room and looked at the heavy snowfall until, sure enough, the sun broke from between the buildings on 29th and 30th streets. It was just as Daniel had predicted. Daniel came over and told me to order the grouper, so I ordered the grouper. It was exceptionally tasty and fresh. The sun came out just as the fish arrived, and everything returned to normal on Third Avenue in a matter of minutes. Pasticcio restaurant is now gone, another victim of high rents. In the past few years, I have watched the changes on all four corners of East 32nd street and
Park Avenue. I’ve seen a Capital One, Citibank, Chase, and a TD bank replace all of the retail businesses and restaurants that used to be there. I don’t know whose job it should be to preserve the culture of New York City so that it does not become a suburban shopping mall, but someone needs to do it.
A Voice in the City
I’m hearing voices again. This time it’s in the all-night supermarket at one thirty in the morning.
The city had been experiencing a massive July heat wave. Beginning that Thursday afternoon Manhattan began to empty out, like a colossal amusement park roller coaster ride coming to a halt after the final hair-raising plunge. Riders just get off and go elsewhere, leaving empty seats behind.
I’m not leaving for the weekend, so I just get off the ride, buy another ticket, then get back on until something else happens. Or maybe nothing at all, which is fine with me. So here I am, walking around this shiny-floored, fluorescent lit, overstocked food warehouse, carrying a blue plastic hand basket, tossing in sustenance items for my bare essentials studio apartment existence. At the same time, I’m wondering who on earth is going to buy all the rest of the stuff in this place. I can hardly fathom that, so I kick that thought out of my head. It’s none of my business who buys it all since I don’t have to worry about selling it all. As soon as I leave the store I’ll just think about something else anyway.
I do believe that just then I am the solitary night owlish shopper lurking in this cavernous subterranean market at this late hour. This sensation of aloneness is weird enough – and now things are getting even weirder.
The static-blurred, half-tuned late night soft rock radio station breaks the silence of the vast aisles. In the back of my mind, the music is mildly annoying, but not to the point of being irritating. I shop on.
As I browse the coffee aisle, balancing my half full basket, the scratchy music suddenly stops. A few moments of complete silence, and now a melodic and soothing woman’s voice, which echoes throughout the store. I surmise that the voice is that of the radio station’s graveyard shift D.J, alone like me but behind a door somewhere in the city, down some lonesome office building’s hallway, broadcasting airwaves out into the night.
Normally, I expect to hear a man’s voice on nighttime radio, so that catches my attention first and momentarily takes me away from considering the bounty of coffee brands before me. The Voice comes through loud and clear and, oddly enough, static-free.
The Voice:“Remember – there are so many people out there in the city who need help – so much suffering. The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life, don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, ‘Is there something I can do for you? Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden. You don’t have to struggle in silence - share some of your heavy load with me.’” I look around, unsure if that clear-as-a-bell rhythmic voice is, in fact, coming from the radio, or what. After all, aren’t I the store’s lone shopper? So who could be talking to me? Is the night manager or cashier some type of spiritual preacher, using the supermarket's public address system to send out a message in a store they think is completely void of shoppers, just to pass the time, rehearse a sermon, or whatever? In any event, I feel as if The Voice is speaking directly to me, and it’s spooky.
“When we help others, asking nothing in return, the effect of our actions will radiate out in ways that we cannot even imagine, and touch so many other lives. Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives, mystically and beautifully. We are not alone. We are all connected. So people, listeners, fellow New Yorkers, we are so fortunate to live in this great city that affords us limitless opportunities to reach out and help our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters. Good night for now…” Her clear hypnotic voice trails off to dead silence as soft rock music fades back in, with static once again.
I find myself stuck in my tracks, staring at the coffee selection for who knows how long. I come to, wondering what has just occurred. It’s like trying to recall a dream within a dream upon awakening.
I am in Manhattan – it is late and I am shopping.
I continue to fill my basket, proceed to the checkout, pay, exit and carry my bags back across the street. I take the elevator up eleven floors and go to bed. Sleep comes quickly.
The next day the unrelenting heat persists. On my way out in the early afternoon, Henry, the doorman, suggests that I prepare myself for the scorcher that waits beyond the thick glass front doors and the pleasantly air-conditioned lobby. He is not kidding! I get blasted, as if I’m standing behind jet engines on a concrete tarmac at LaGuardia Airport. However, it’s my usual time to take a break, get some extra strong coffee, and take a stroll to relieve a writer’s double vision and help shake the cobwebs out of my head at the same time. I walk east from Lexington toward Third to pick up my Columbian Java on the corner of East 32nd and Second, a walk I’m very familiar with and can do on autopilot.
I write stories about Manhattan and what goes on here. Not only is the island smack in the middle of a confluence of great rivers, rushing ocean tides, glacier gouged sounds and bays, but it’s equally a place where humanity in all forms, shapes, colors and sizes collide within a grid of avenues and streets – especially at the intersections where they all merge, like the one I am approaching on the corner of Third and East 32nd.
The exodus of the city continues in full force. Third Avenue is a parking lot with gridlock, honking horns, angry faces behind windshields, sweaty walkers and traffic cops. The latter seems to have all but given up and are just standing around, helpless to even urge the congregation of city buses, yellow cabs, delivery trucks and passenger cars to move mere inches ahead.
At this moment I feel most fortunate to be a walker. When I see cars now I don’t perceive luxury, comfort or prestige; I envision problems, seventy-dollar tank ups, insurance bills, traffic tickets, danger and worry. I like to walk. Sneakers don’t need 5,000-mile check-ups and oil changes, E-Z passes, yearly registrations or inspections. When they get worn out from overuse, I just get a new pair and leave the old ones behind at the sneaker store.
I snake my way through the insanity, thinking only of coffee. After ordering the usual rich bold roast and kibitzing with the servers, an activity which has become expected and is always enjoyable, I turn back toward Lexington, deciding that it’s just too darn humid and brick-oven furnace-like to hang around and drink hot coffee, even while on a bench or leaning against a wall someplace, people watching. I’ve never been a fan of iced coffee – it does nothing for me. The pull-back effect of my little air-conditioned studio apartment is too much to resist on this day. On Third Avenue, nothing has changed congestion wise. It’s still massively and miserably gridlocked.
I notice that an extra long, double-length “Galaxy” articulated busblocks the intersection, so there is no way to see the GO/DON’T GO crossing signal. It doesn’t matter anyway, since Third Avenue has now become one solid rail of interconnected vehicles, and they are all stuck, stuck, stuck. I weave my way around hoods and trunks to cross, coffee in hand, sipping away.
Midway across Third Avenue, containing layer upon layer of solar-absorbing asphalt, not to mention the presence of heat emitting engines, it must be at least 120 degrees. The heat and humidity make it feel as if my lungs are trying to suck breathable air out of the exhaust pipe of a city bus.
That’s when I hear the odd noises, over and over.
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr I wonder where that noise coming from.
As I look around the jumbled vehicles, my ears zero in on one blue work van emitting the sounds of a stalled engine that is desperately trying to start up but failing, time and again and getting weaker with each turn of the ignition key.
The hoped-for cha ching of a successful start is not happening. The battery is slowly failing. A few more unsuccessful tries and it’ll be completely dead.
This repeating motor turning over noise is an unnervingly familiar sound to me, left over from my younger penniless days when I could only afford to drive old heaps that were on their last legs before the car crusher ate them up and they would’ve sold for nickels per pound as scrap carted off by the junk man. I can also strongly identify with the feelings of panic and frustration the driver must be experiencing.
What a mess – what a furnace – what chaos. I want to be back in my air-conditioned writer’s nook where I can enjoy my Columbian brew. With that single purpose in mind, I creep past the world of cars, traffic, worker bees and would-be city escapees.
That’s when I hear The Voice again. It sounds vaguely familiar but it is not yet in the forefront of my consciousness. The Voice is dim, and more like an emanation from an old forgotten dream or déjà vu, or like a flashback to the distant past suddenly awakening cerebrally recorded sights, smells and sounds, desperately trying to make connections to the present moment.
The Voice clearly says, “The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, is there something I can do for you. Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden…” I reach the sidewalk on the opposite side of Third, merely a few tiptoes from the relief beckoning me back to my cool and safe nook. But, hypnotically, I turn in my tracks with that strange DJ’s voice, or what I believe might be a DJ's voice, whispering in my brain, and walk directly over to the van, where the frantically sweating driver was still struggling in vain to get his vehicle’s tired engine to kick over.
My approach, coming to him right in the middle of the road, startles him out of his trauma. “Hey, man – what’s going on?” I ask. “Do you need some help?”
He desperately responds, “Oh yeah. Thanks – it won’t start. I’m screwed here. I’m surrounded, stuck – this thing won't start – always on a Friday…” His voice trails off in disgust and utter frustration.
“Okay, first, stop trying to start it,” I suggest. “You’re killing the battery. Let it sit for a while and let it cool off. It might be flooded. I’ll go back there and direct traffic around you so you don’t get slammed from behind, and stop these jerks from honking at you too, okay?”
“Oh, man, yes, thanks, that would be great.”
Now that he has me with him, I can sense some of his burden lifting as his sweat-soaked brow unfurls a little. For my part, I feel oddly peaceful to take on some of his worry, and my own cares seem to shrink in my head. I am living in the moment. The Voice:
“Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives mystically and beautifully…”
After waving away the traffic behind him, I walk back. “Try it now. If it still doesn’t start, when this bus on your right moves we’ll push it to the curb and at least you'll be out of the middle of the avenue and danger. Then you can call for help, sound like a plan?”
“Okay, great plan. Thanks a lot.”
He tries again to crank it to turn over.
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr It’s clear that nothing has changed, so I tap him on the shoulder. “Okay, stop. Forget it. Let’s push.” I head for the rear. He’ll steer and shove from the driver’s door and brake at the same time.
As I travel to the back, a large black diesel smoke-emitting 18-wheeler creeps alongside this much smaller blue van in the lumbering stream of traffic. At first there appears to be ample room for me to safely pass between the two trucks with room to spare. Seeing at least an easy two-body width’s passage, I march into the passageway without concern to get myself into pushing position. Meantime, the bus on the opposite side finally begins to move, opening up the necessary curbside space to complete our operation. It is time to push hard and fast before the crucial gap closes.
I’m committed now. As I walk back, the 18-wheeler suddenly veers to the right, shifting dangerously close to the stalled van. This ever-so-slight rotation of tire and tonnage instantly narrows the gap I need in order to pass safely to less than a single shoulder’s width of my body.
You are about to get crushed between very heavy metal. Act fast – lightning speed fast, or say goodbye. In a flash of mind over matter, I twist my body sideways, cutting my width by less than half. Miraculously, the back end of the huge 18-wheeler slips past me, just barely brushing my shirt and covering it with soot. I feel the slightest pressure of its traveling mass against my upper torso. My heart beats like a drum. A close call, to say the least.
It is the luck of all times but there was no time to dwell on my narrow escape and The Voice that made it possible.
PUSH! As the 18-wheeler passes ahead, the stalled van’s driver forces his steering wheel hard to the right. I plow my shoulder into the rear doors, releasing a Herculean grunt as my sneakers dig in. I hold fast in the softening 120-degree asphalt. With all our might we both PUSH and PUSH!
It is a beautiful thing. The van coasts, engineless, into a rare vacant curbside parking spot. It goes just as planned, with impeccable timing and precision.
Voice: Good Job! The driver reaches into his van and grabs his cell phone, makes a call, and then comes over to me. I am in the shade, leaning against a mailbox for support.
“Will you be okay now? I guess your company will get help for you?” I ask.
“Yes, they said they’ll send a tow truck. Listen man, I can’t thank you enough for helping me.”
“Not a problem. I was glad to.”
We shake hands. I walk away feeling fortunate that I have less than half of a city block’s distance to cross to arrive at my cool and comfortable sanctuary, and do not have to fight my way out of the city for hours like all those stuck in the nasty traffic jam. I feel grateful and at the same time troubled for all those working folk desperate to get home or get to some cooler weekend destination. With all its wonder and intrigue, New York is still a rough city. Its romantic skyline can be painfully deceptive at times like these.
After a short while, cooling off and reflecting on what had just happened, it occurs to me how close I had come to being crushed between a truck and a bus, and having the life snuffed right out of my body.
I hear The Voice again, as if it has read my thoughts.
How fragile life is. Without thinking, I answer out loud, in my small, safe apartment.
“Thank you for giving me the compassion and courage to help the man in the stalled van and for warning me of that danger I was in, so I have a tomorrow to be available for more opportunities to care, and try to reach out and help our fellow citizens – brothers and sisters.”
Just then I realize that I left my cardboard coffee container, still full, somewhere on the street. No problem! I opened the new grinds I had the night before and make a fresh cup of Colombian brew. It sure feels good to be alive right now.
I know what you must be thinking, but no, The Voice was not in my head.
The tall man looked pale and tired, and his little dog looked dazed and confused as they meandered about the perimeter of the grassy, sloping dog run in Madison Square Park.
My dog approached them and I followed her, but they moved further away, both seeming to be in their own separate worlds. He had earplugs on, listening to music, taking him even further away from where he actually was. The dog led the way, sniffing and snorting at the weeds with no particular direction. What a pair.
The fenced-in corral is where people take their pets to exercise. It’s not large, so our paths would invariably cross as we meandered.
My dog, Lacey, got nowhere with the pint-sized wanderer. The dog’s eyes were glazed. The two small canines passed like ships in the night without the customary sniffing greeting – the handshake of the doggie world.
I raised my sunglasses above my head to make eye contact with the man with tired eyes. After all, dog parks are not just for dogs. People meet people there, too. This particular morning the cool mist, and damp ground were keeping the regulars away, so it was just the four of us.
As we approached from opposite directions the man removed his earplugs and looked up: “He’s Alfie,” his tired voice whispered.
“Excuse me? Good Morning.”
“Alfie, his name is Alfie.”
“Great dog name. I like that. My dog is Lacey.”
Lacey is a fluffy white Pomapoo (Poodle mixed with a Pomeranian). That’s what the sales guy told us when we paid 100 bucks for her. She weighs about 20 pounds.
“His full name is Alfalfa but we call him Alfie. He’s a Bichon.”
Alfie was even smaller than Lacey and sort of runty.
“Oh, like Alfalfa, The Little Rascal?”
“Yes, you see he has a bump on his head and that makes his hair stick up like Alfalfa’s cowlick.”
“Ha, yes I see that – his mark of distinction.”
“He ran away once and we put up posters and got a call. They said ‘we think we found your dog.’ I asked them if he has a bump on his head and they said yes. So I said ‘That’s Alfie, I’ll come get him’.”
Alfie’s owner’s speech was very dry.
“Well, he looks like a nice pet. He walks around and doesn’t bother anybody or other dogs,” I said.
“He can’t be left alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“He goes crazy if we leave him in the house. He tears the place up. If we put him in a crate, he chews that up and all the stuffing too.”
“Why not put him in a wire mesh one or plastic, that he can’t destroy?”
“We tried but then he hurts himself. He will chew out his toenails and bite his own legs. He has extreme separation anxiety. I think the bump on his head goes into his brain. My wife and I can’t leave him. If we go out for a few hours we never know what we’ll find when we return.”