“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive."
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Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
This book is dedicated to all people who strive to make their own life and the lives of others better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than today. No one operates in a vacuum. I may spend long hours in front of my computer screen, but that is only one ingredient in the recipe that helped bring this book to life.
I want to thank Michael Primont, my cousin, lifelong friend and a remarkably talented writer. Michael was my primary critic, always supportive as well as critically constructive, and I relied on his excellent advice often, which he gave generously and freely. Thank you, also, to Robert M’ladinich who is like a brother to me. He never stops inspiring me to observe the little but profound occurrences in life. The life blood of New York City pulses through Bob’s body and mind.
I’ll always be grateful for my small but mighty focus group. You never failed to make excellent suggestions, and I can’t thank you enough for taking time from your successful, busy lives to provide such valuable, honest feedback.
Page 6 – Ricky Glasses and Baby Sam
Page 26 – A Very Smart Shopper
Page 31 – Stop the Bus!
Page 39 – A Gypsy Night
Page 54 – Vinnie’s Restaurant
Page 58 – Streetwalker
Page 63 – Is This Seat Taken?
Page 66 – The Hog Farm
Page 79 – The P.I. Tag Along
Page 105 – A Hidden Warrior in the Park
Page 107 – Park Avenue to Park Bench
Page155 – A Squall among the Squid
Page 159 – A Voice in the City
Page 171 – Alfie
Page 177 – A Quiet Man in a Dark Garage
Page 184 – The Sweet Tooth Bandit of Murray Hill
Page 191 – Don Quixote de la Manhattan
Page 212 – Pig Ears in the Pharmacy
Page 219 – A Super Guy in a Supermarket
Page 222 – Panic in the Park
Page 226 – Poem: The Perfect Banana
Ricky Glasses and Baby Sam
Ricky Glasses was so named for the giant coke-bottle spectacles that covered most of his face. The first time I saw him he was leaning against the wall of an SRO (Single Room Occupancy Hotel) around the corner from where I live on East 32nd Street. At first glance, he appeared to be scrawny, even runty, but he’s one of the toughest guys I ever met in New York City.
Experts say that when we come in contact with new people, our minds form first impressions in seven-tenths of a second. I believe this. Maybe on the streets, where life or death judgments have to be processed rapidly, that amount of time is even shorter. I also presume that, in prison, the time necessary to make split-second judgments must be even further reduced to help a person decide – fight or flight!
After an initial glance at the man I would come to know as Ricky Glasses, my mind’s seven-tenths synapse hollered, “Give that guy a wide berth!”
The residents of the SRO often hang around in front of their building, smoking cigarettes, drinking a bottle of beer held inside a paper bag, passing a joint, panhandling or just talking, whiling away the time. They seem to always be discussing pressing and important matters while gesturing broadly to accompany the tales they’re telling. When people possess little of material value, they seem to acquire richness in their storytelling. Often, when I’m out and about on my daily routine, I overhear the wildest snippets of dramatic sagas from the SRO crowd. They’re used to seeing me and I guess I’ve become part of the scenery to them, since they stopped asking me for spare change quite a while back. They know I’m a neighborhood guy. I belong.
Manhattan, although colossal in overall scale, is in actuality probably the world’s biggest conglomeration of small towns. Every few blocks contain a micro community where even the slightest changes don’t go unnoticed. I live in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Murray Hill is a neighborhood in midtown defined by East 34th Street to the south, East 40th Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the west and Third Avenue to the east. Now it’s a safe, vibrant neighborhood, but this was not always the case. Back in the ’80s, it was a nasty and dangerous area. In place of well-dressed young professionals walking to and from their office jobs or to the trendy bars, restaurants, and gyms that currently line Third Avenue, the streets back then were infested with prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, drunks and muggers.
A few vestiges of that dark and seedy time remain. Many people don’t notice, but sandwiched between quaint restaurants, blaring widescreen sports bars and chain restaurants, banks and mega-drugstores are a few surviving SROs. These are places where the “untouchables” of American society, men and women, can still find a home in this otherwise great and wealthy city, where, as of late, buildings built for billionaires are sprouting up faster than tulips at springtime.
I feel fortunate that, for some odd reason and at least for the time being, there is a stretch of old Murray Hill between East 32nd and East 33rd along Third Avenue that has remained unchanged. There’s a shoe repair shop, an owner-operated delicatessen, a two-chair barbershop, a family operated liquor store, and in the middle of it all is the relic SRO.
Like many of the SRO’s residents, Ricky was an ex-con and from one of the harshest upstate New York penitentiaries. At the time our paths crossed, he looked gaunt and undernourished. He had just been out for a year after serving an 18-year stint for art theft, five of which he served in solitary confinement (aka “the hole”). The original sentence was 12 years, but he got an extra six tacked on, mostly for fighting. As a little guy, I’m sure he was doing what he could to survive and, ironically, in prison, size doesn’t always matter. In many cases it’s the “little guys” who are the most dangerous, not the bulked up muscle-heads covered with menacing jailhouse tattoos. The great equalizers in the joint come in the form of jagged pieces of metal, sharpened toothbrushes, eye-gouging fingers and flesh-tearing teeth.
Retaliation was what kept adding time to Ricky’s sentence, and what led to his eventual five-year stint in the hole. Knowing it was an “eat or be eaten” world, Ricky never lost a fight. There are still lots of big guys walking around in the prison yard with ugly scars as evidence of his self-protective tactics.
I noticed a few other things as I began to pass the steely looking character leaning against the wall in front of the dingy old walkup SRO on Third Avenue. He stood apart from the other residents, congregated in front of the solid steel entrance door. He seemed completely disinterested in their idle banter and kept himself away from the haze of co-mingled smoke and the circular passing of bottles in crumpled brown paper bags. He also seemed to care less about the bleach blond prostitute, another regular SRO resident, who was popular with the other male residents despite her worn-out, beaten-down appearance. He never seemed hung-over or zonked out like the rest. He was hard, mean and angry.
The other instantly observable feature about this guy was his pair of oversized, thick-as-coke-bottle eyeglasses. They had no style, whatsoever. They magnified his eyeballs to almost cartoonish proportions. It was creepy to feel those big eyes on me as I skulked by him.
It took some time for me to adjust to this slight but dangerous-seeming wall-leaner I passed a few times each day. When he wasn’t just gazing ahead with those magnified eyes, he was puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes or rolling them with a little device, taking raw tobacco out of a plastic pouch with a picture of an Indian in full headdress printed in black. He was undeniably a strange sight, but what isn’t somewhat unusual or different around here? We all simply adjust to the differences until we become comfortable with the diversity of this amazing city.
While all of these city observations were filling my head on this miniature corner of the city, something way bigger and far more ominous was brewing hundreds of miles offshore, far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Sandy, a first-time-in-200-years superstorm, was headed with full fury toward New York City. The moon was full and the tides were high. Manhattan’s residents and shop owners were closing their doors and shutters and heading for higher ground outside of the granite island between the great rivers, bay and ocean. The residents of the SRO seemed unaffected. Anyway, where would they go? The storm was still a few days out at sea, but it was not looking good.
My studio apartment on East 32nd Street is on the ground floor. I hear a lot of city noises and I’ve gotten used to them over the years. The word was that all neighborhoods south of 34th street were in great danger of flooding if the worst-case scenario were to occur: an unprecedented storm surge, causing the East and Hudson rivers to crest and actually converge over downtown Manhattan. Add to that the immensity of a colossal up-swelling from the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean’s possibilities of raw power and it was beginning to feel like this could be the start of a Hollywood disaster movie. I began to worry, and I started stacking papers and valuables as high up on shelves and countertops as possible in my small studio apartment.
Going back and forth to the hardware store and other places, I passed the SRO more often than usual. The same-old behavior of the regulars out front seemed at odds with the rest of Murray Hill, which was abuzz with pre-storm activity: people scurrying about buying milk, eggs, bottled water, batteries and duct tape. It was the rush that always leads to the classic television news broadcast pictures of the empty grocery store shelves.
In my haste, I guess I forgot that I was afraid of that curious, tough-looking character, so this time as I passed him I blurted out, “Hey, how you doin’?”
Much to my surprise, he perked up and came away from the wall to meet me halfway on the sidewalk. “Not bad. How you doin’?” he said gruffly.
“I’m getting ready for the storm,” I said hurriedly.
He grimaced, revealing a full set of false teeth. He dragged on his craggy smoke, inhaling deeply, more for a nicotine fix than for pleasure.
He spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent. “Storm. Storm – what the fuck – all these people running around like chickens with der heads cut off. Dey don’t know shit. Dis ain’t nuthin’ – I ain’t scared a no storm. Big fucking deal.”
He looked tough and he sure talked tough, but for some reason I was no longer afraid of him.
“You’re a calm dude,” I said, looking closer into his enlarged eyeballs.
“Ha – gimme a break. Where I come from this storm shit ain’t nuthin’.”
“Where do you come from?”
“You don’t want to know.” He turned his head away and took a deep drag; then he spit.
“By the way, I’m Ricky. They call me Ricky Glasses – get it?”
“Ahhhhyeahh – I get it. I’m Mike. Nice to meet you Ricky, or I mean…Glasses.”
“You got it – either one – I answer to both, plus worse. Ahhhh Haaaa Haaaa Ahhhhhh!” He paused and added, “You look like you got your hands full. I ain’t doin’ nuthin’ right now. You need any help? Heavy liftin’, shit like that…?”
“Well I’m not…”
“You don’t gotta pay me or nuthin’, but if you want I could use some tobacco – that’s all.”
“Well, actually, my place is on the ground floor just around the corner and if this thing hits like they say it might down here, all my stuff’ll get ruined, so I could use some muscle to help me lift the heavy things. The last thing I need is to screw up my back. You know what I mean?”
“I got a back like a bull. You got a deal! Ova dere is where they got the lowest price on my favorite tobacco. The Indian.”
Did I just get scammed into buying this guy tobacco? And then I’m going to let him into my apartment? Am I nuts? Oh well, too late now.
As advertised, Ricky Glasses or Ricky or just Glasses had a damn strong back for a little guy. He was just plain strong. He worked his ass off for that newsstand store tobacco.
Whenever I tried to pitch in, he’d say, “Don’t worry, I got it!” He took care of everything. I was impressed.
When the work was all done, the late October sky had turned charcoal gray with storm clouds blowing in off the ocean from the east like giant freight trains. I looked up as the clouds shrouded and dwarfed the spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Sandy was hurtling toward us. As fierce winds howled through the canyons of the city, the first droplets of rain began to fall, foreshadowing an approaching peril. Having seen Ricky’s sinewy but frail-looking frame as he lifted and strained, I wondered about his eating habits. He chose tobacco over food earlier in the day. I wondered if he was starving.
“Let me buy you dinner,” I said. “We should eat something before we have to hunker down. Whaddaya say?”
It had been hard work. I think the labor took much of the wind out of his sails and he simply said, “Okay – good idea.”
“Great, let’s get a burger at the Lexington Diner.” We headed off.
Despite his rough and battered exterior, Glasses was quiet and well-mannered in the diner’s booth. I did the ordering. He asked the waiter to put two slices of lemon in his ice water. He told me that lemons are very good for the body. “In lockup, they fill us up on bread and potatoes, so you got to get vitamins wherever you can. Lemons are very good for you.”
“Oh, I see.”
He ate ravenously. He was famished. He thanked me and I said, “No worries.”
With no place else to go, we sat and drank coffee. There was no doubt at this time from the TV report overhead and the worsening conditions outside, that Manhattan was going to get pounded by Sandy. But the prospect of an actual flood and the uniting of seas and rivers still seemed in the realm of fantasy. How could it possibly happen?
Ricky apologized for not talking very much while we were eating. He said that in prison, during meal times, the inmates were not allowed to talk, at least not in some of the maximum-security facilities he’d been in, and he remarked that old habits die hard. But after the plates were cleared away and it was just cups of hot fresh coffee before us, he perked up and became talkative. I had learned a few years ago to not be overly inquisitive about street people or gangster types. If they wanted to say something, they would. One time, on the corner of East 32nd and Third, I asked the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time, and ended up running away from a pissed-off thug with a knife in his hand. There are signs posted all over the city letting people know where to park, which way to turn, etc. The laws of the jungle of any city, though not so obvious, must be learned over time.
As Ricky sipped his coffee, he started to talk. He didn’t have much use for the other residents of the SRO and had something bad to say about each of them. Most of them were ex-cons like himself, but to his way of thinking, their crimes were despicable, whereas his former profession as a thief was victimless, took skill, and had a certain honor to it in the hierarchy of the criminal world – especially in organized crime, which he claimed he had been with for most of his life. Ricky was less than 100% Italian, his father being Sicilian and his mother Irish. He resented that he was never inducted into the inner circle of a crime family and had to settle for being an associate, forced to kick up an extra-large portion of his hard work to the bosses for whom he had little respect.
From what I could gather, Glasses was a hard-as-nails lone wolf with not much regard for anyone or anything, a genuine tough guy. The one thing he seemed exceedingly proud about was that he had taken the fall for an art theft pinch and didn’t rat on any of his partners or bosses, never giving them up the entire 18 years. I couldn’t imagine five days of just sitting in my comfy studio apartment, let alone five years in a windowless jail cell.
He could take anything. So it seemed to me.
I kept looking out the window at the worsening weather, but Glasses still seemed unaffected. Having pegged him as pure Brooklyn gangster, pure New York City hard guy and ex-con, I was thrown off by his comment that bad storms and even floods don’t worry him because he was born and raised in the mountains of Kentucky where rivers frequently crest over.
“I thought you were from Brooklyn,” I said.
“I am, but my father had me when he was on the lam from the Feds. He was a made-man and a Capo in the Mob and was hiding out in Kentucky for years. That’s where he met my mother and they had me. Eventually, they caught up with him and he got life without parole. Before he went away, he shipped me back to Brooklyn and paid some of the boys in his crew to take care of me. So you see, I know all about the outdoors and survival.”
“Oh – I see. That’s amazing,” I said encouragingly. Then I looked around. “It’s starting to look pretty bad out there – windy as hell – maybe we should start heading back?” I didn’t want to push my luck with Mr. Glasses. He seemed to become tense as he started to name names of other gangsters I recalled from the news. He kept complaining about how they “fucked him over” while he was in jail and never came to visit him or took care of his family or provided him with a way to make a living when he got out. In his words they had “closed the books” on him. He resented that, and I think he was just about to tell me who he intended to take care of and how he planned to do it, when I stood up to leave. I figured that I might be the only person in the entire world that Ricky might not have a major or violent problem with at this time, and I’d be wise to keep it that way by getting out of there.
We said goodbye at the corner. It was pouring now and the gale had picked up. City debris was blowing everywhere. As Ricky rounded the corner, he called out, “Don’t worry, I know how to take care of things. If it gets bad you know where to find me. I’m on the fifth floor.”
Then he was gone. I assumed he went back to his room at the SRO with enough tobacco to last through the storm.
My neighborhood is called Murray Hill because a Quaker merchant named Robert Murray (1721-1786) acquired the land with the intention of farming it. Due to the steep mounds of glacial till typical of Manhattan Island’s still unmodified natural terrain, the soil and topography were unsuitable for farming. Today, if you walk from the East River toward the West Side, you will find that there is a significant incline at 34th Street. At high tide, you can practically reach down and touch the surface current from the East River Esplanade. In other words, when there is a heavy rainfall, all the water from the top of Murray Hill around Park and Madison Avenues cascades down Third, Second and First Avenues, going across or under the FDR drive and then into the East River. My apartment is near Third Avenue at the bottom of Murray Hill, close to the East River. This constitutes a perfect corner of convergence for rising water under the kind of extreme conditions the city was expecting from Hurricane Sandy.
All of that is exactly what happened. As I watched the tempest on television, water gushed into the basement of my building, until the combined slurry of water from the rivers and ocean and bays that surround Manhattan began to rise up through the floor and into my apartment.
In 1750, Robert Murray knew what he was doing. Not only did he see that farmland on Murray Hill could wash away, he was also smart enough to build his mansion on high ground, away from the water’s edge, to protect it from torrential rains.
As I watched the ultimate reality TV show – my neighborhood getting flooded, in real time – I began to formulate an escape plan for myself before it was too late. I called some friends who lived uptown and made arrangements to ride this thing out on their couch. As soon as I had packed a bag, the electricity and heat in my building went out.
As I walked uptown, I noticed that the power was still on in the SRO. I glanced up to the fifth floor and felt glad that Ricky Glasses was probably okay. He had a full stomach and enough tobacco to last him through the night and into the next day.
The storm was indeed epic, and a few days turned into a few weeks of no power south of 34th Street, and I lived like a nomad at several friend’s places. I was grateful for the couch, and for the warmth, food and companionship. As disrupting as it may have been, mine was not such a bad situation compared to being in solitary confinement for five years like Ricky Glasses. How the hell did that tough bastard survive that? His pre-storm stories at the Lexington Diner helped me get though my ordeal.
Eventually, the power was restored and it was possible to return home. But my apartment, like many others in the lower part of the city, was trashed. I desperately needed some help cleaning it up. Black mold was now the city residents’ worst enemy.
I went over to the SRO, and sure enough Ricky Glasses was out there smoking his “Indian brand” cigarettes, leaning against the wall with those bugged-out eyes. He was eager to help me again in exchange for tobacco and burgers. I did the shoveling and Glasses did the heavy lifting, hauling soaked junk out to the dumpster. His strength continued to amaze me.
As I stuck my arm deep inside a closet to clear out several pairs of soggy shoes and God knows what else, my fingers touched fur– and then the fur moved.
“A rat!” I hollered.
Shit, I had just touched a big possibly rabid rat! I panicked all over the place, but Ricky remained calm. He strolled over, gently opened the door, knelt down in the muck and, without hesitation, began to strip away the debris.
“Mike! Look – it’s not a rat.”
“Then what the hell is it Ricky? It just moved. I felt it!”
“Really, it’s not a rat. It’s a raccoon. It’s a baby raccoon.”
“You must be kidding me Ricky, a baby raccoon in Manhattan! What’s going on here?”
“Yeah well I don’t know how he got here but he’s scared – and probably hungry too. Poor little fella.”
“Let’s get him out Ricky – he might have rabies.”
“No – No – he just a baby, and I can tell he’s not sick.”
“How did he get here? This isn’t the county or upstate.”
“Mike, didn’t you know that that are hundreds of raccoons living in the city, in the parks, like Central Park and Riverside? I used to live on 195th Street in Washington Heights and I saw them all the time near Fort Tyron Park. His den probably got flooded, the surge carried him and he found his way in here. Look, he’s frightened – he’s still shaking like a leaf.”
“Can you get him out? I hear these things can be vicious.”
“Mike, remember I told you I was born and raised in Kentucky until I was eight. I learned all about animals. He’s just scared. We’ve got to leave him there until he’s ready to walk out on his own. If I try to grab him he’ll bite.”
“So we just stay here with him?”
“Yeah – I’ll open the window and make a little bridge with this board; when he’s ready he’ll go on his own, trust me.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“I can’t tell, but we should give it a name.”
“Yeah, every living thing should have a name.”
“Then call it Little Ricky,” I suggested.
“No, anyway we can’t give it a boy’s name because we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, right?”
I could hardly believe my ears. Here is this gangster, convict, thief who hates just about everybody and everything, worrying about what to name a baby raccoon.
“Let’s name it ‘Sam’ as in Samantha or Samuel.”
“Good idea, Ricky.” I was impressed. Ricky was proving to be very clever.
“Now we have to feed it.”
“What do raccoons like to eat?”
“In Kentucky we would give them canned tuna fish. They love tuna. Sam is probably thirsty too.”
Sam is thirsty! I could hardly believe the scene. But it was real and not a dream, or at least I believed it was not a dream.
“Okay, Ricky, you go look for a bowl in that mess by the sink. Meantime I’ll go across the street to the market to get some bottled water and a can of tuna fish for Baby Sam.”
“Good idea, Mike. Oh and do you think you could pick me up some Indian tobacco too? Mike?”
“Sure, Ricky, no problem. I’ll be right back.”
When I returned Ricky had somehow managed to find a dry blue blanket in my water-logged apartment and Sam was snuggled up on it, fast asleep. Ricky was sitting on an upended milk crate talking to the baby raccoon in a soothing voice as if it were a child. I gave Ricky the shopping bag. He opened up the tuna with his all-purpose Swiss Army style knife and placed it near Baby Sam and then filled a bowl with fresh water.
All my furniture, carpeting, files and clothes were ruined. Ricky dragged all the heavy water-soaked stuff out to the dumpster. Sam stayed in the closet and eventually ate the tuna and drank some water while continuing to burrow into the blue blanket. Thankfully, he (or she) had stopped shaking.
Ricky and I rigged up a makeshift table and salvaged a few folding chairs out of the dumpster that others in my building had discarded. For three days we dumped, scrubbed, removed mold and repainted walls and ceiling. During breaks we sat at our spot to drink coffee, eat sandwiches and keep an eye on Sam.
We had become like a little family.
Each night, Ricky went back to the SRO and I stayed in a budget hotel up the street near Madison Square Garden.
On the third morning Ricky was waiting for me at the front door. I turned the key and we entered. I had coffee and doughnuts and a fresh bag of Indian tobacco for Ricky as well as a can of tuna for Sam.
When we went to the closet to see our little raccoon buddy, the blanket was bare except for an empty tuna can nestled in an indentation where Sam’s small furry body had been. Ricky had been right. When Sam was ready, he walked across the wooden bridge that Ricky constructed and went back out into the city to live a raccoon life.
Ricky Glasses and I took our usual seats in front of the makeshift table. I laid out the coffee and the box of donuts as Ricky rolled a cigarette in his gadget.
I think we both felt a bit lonely now that Sam was gone.
Even within the strongest hurricanes like Sandy, and the toughest men like Ricky Glasses, there is a fine flame of tenderness that can never be completely extinguished.
Two months later, Ricky Glasses got caught shoplifting and, since he was still on parole, they put him back in the slammer for six more years. I was surprised but not shocked. He clearly was having a rough time on “the outside,” and bad as prison might be, it was familiar and thus, in a strange way that isn’t always easy for us to understand, the comfortable choice—and the reason so many longtime ex-convicts find their way back in.
The friendship and family feeling that developed so quickly between Ricky and me still surprises me. Ricky and Sam helped me get through Hurricane Sandy, and I will be forever grateful.
A Very Smart Shopper
New York is a city full of health-minded, discerning shoppers. I came across one the other night, right outside my neighborhood Gristedes gourmet supermarket. As I rounded the corner there he was, right at the store’s dumpster. He was a white male about 65. His clothes were not tattered or dirty; his hair and skin also looked clean. I was 100% sure he was not living on the streets. My guess was that he might have a room in an SRO or some little rent-controlled studio apartment. He might have been living off of the streets, but not on them.
How do I know this? Well, he actually told me so.
On an impulse, I had stopped, quietly watching him for a minute, and then asked him "How's it going?"
“Great, thanks for asking,” he said, clearly a friendly guy perfectly comfortable with what he was doing.
I noticed that he had five shopping bags jammed full of food and all of it looked perfectly fine to me. He said he was especially excited about the Artesian Flat Breads. “They are made with Canadian wheat and you can turn them into Pizzas or dip them in olive oil,” he said. “They are just like the ones you see baked fresh in the Indian restaurants on 28thStreet.”
“Do you cook? “ I asked, after seeing carrots, celery and an onion in one of his bags.
“Not anymore,” he said, “but I do have a kitchen, so I could if I wanted to, but I haven’t really needed to bother since they started putting out the pre-cooked dinners. Whatever they don’t sell that was cooked that day has to go out. I got a dish of spaghetti and meatballs in there. The fresh veggies are for my salad. Why cook?”
“Sounds like Manhattan living to me,“ I said. He smiled.
There was a pile of discarded cakes next to the grey trashcans, away from his groceries.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Not interested,” he said. “They’re loaded with preservatives. I’m not eating unhealthy foods made with chemicals.” He picked up a box with a sugar-free blueberry pound cake inside and showed me a long list of ingredients that he said “will kill you.”
“And no bottled water either. The plastic leaches into the water and it's some kind of poison.”
“I’ve heard that too,” I said.
“I have a big collection of glass bottles that I take up to Saratoga Springs three times a year and fill them up with the different kinds of natural mineral waters in the nice park up there.”
“I was just up there a few months ago, but one of them tastes like sulfur,” I said.
“That’s the healthiest one,” he said. Then he got busy again, rummaging some more. He told me he has to get there before 10 every night because that’s when the garbage truck comes and takes away all the food that the Gristedes Supermarket throws out. He said that he has to be extra careful where he gets raw meat, and there is a different Gristedes he gets that from. He said he used to get sushi from the D'Agostino Supermarket on 36th and Third but not anymore. He blamed the Freegans for messing up that sweet spot.
I knew a little bit about the Freegans. They are also “pickers.” However, for them it’s more a movement than a necessity. This man was not only not a Freegan, he blamed them for messing up the deal at a few places because of all of the attention he said they attracted when they showed up to rummage for food, take videos of their activities and then post their videos online. Some markets he frequented had even begun destroying the food rather than putting it out for people to pick through, he reported in a “can you believe it” tone.
What he was, was a struggling city dweller, a crafty and very health-conscious person “living off the land” in the only way one can in this city. Unless you have a little backyard vegetable garden to farm – or the money to actually buy your groceries!
I bid him good night and went into the store. When I came out, he was gone and I heard a garbage truck rumbling and screeching up the street toward the market. I passed a trash barrel full of Artesian Flat Breads. I picked one up. It was soft and fresh. I looked at the ingredients and there were no artificial preservatives. It was vacuum-packed and sealed. I almost took the one I was examining but at the last second tossed it back into the can.
There is one thing that happened between us that I deeply regret. From his stash, my new acquaintance had offered me a mini sweet potato pie. I can still see how his face changed at my knee jerk refusal to accept his sincere goodwill offering. Instantly, I sensed his disappointment from my rejection – a dessert no less. The gift came along with cheerful words. Holding the pie out to me, he said, "Look at this! Since it’s Thanksgiving time, there are always lots of extra pies out here.”
I wished that I could have taken that moment back and graciously accepted his generosity, but I had never before been offered food taken out of a trashcan and I hesitated too long.
Now the image of that little pie that I should have accepted, thanked him for and taken with me, even if I just tossed it into the next trashcan I came to, haunts me. It would have been the right thing to do. Furthermore, I truly believe that it would have been perfectly fine to eat. Just an hour or two before, I might have taken it off the shelf and paid good money for it.
This encounter was thought-provoking in many ways and I've been thinking about it for a while. To be honest, there was something I admired about the man. He looked a lot happier than many of the people shopping inside the store. I think it went beyond the fact that he didn't have to pony up at the cash register. He was making the best of what life had thrown at him, and doing it on his terms.
I think I’ll seek him out again, and if he offers me a gift, I will take it.
Not necessarily to eat.
Stop the Bus!
My body was awake but my brain needed caffeine, and that’s just what I was aiming for at my local coffee shop that morning.
I could feel the presence of others gathering behind me as I looked across Third Avenue at East 32nd, waiting for the orange hand, the don’t cross signal, to become the walking man.
Manhattan was still slowly waking up, but the city has always had an uncanny way of catching us unaware, suddenly and without warning. A commotion erupted on the sleepy-eyed corner.
“Gramma, there goes the buses. We’re late!”
“No – those buses are white and fancy. We’re looking for yellow school buses.”
“Gramma, I think those are special buses they got for his trip.”
“Oh no, if those are the right buses, then we’re in big trouble. That first one is driving away! Oh, Dear Lord, your mother’s gonna kill me if your brother misses his trip to the country. She just gonna kill me.”
The words poured out of her like an open faucet, the only outlet for this woman’s pent up anxiety.
That was enough for me. I had to look back. This sounded important! What I saw was a grandmother squeezing the hand of a backpacked schoolboy – fifth grade, I guessed, as his older brother, a head taller, stood beside them. All their feet were pumping up and down in place, as if they were walking in quick-time, but they couldn’t move forward until the light changed. We were all stuck there, office workers, coffee junkies and school kids alike. Each of us had to wait for the walking man signal to let us go. We all had different reasons for wanting to cross Third Avenue but we were in the same asphalt boat together, waiting at the intersection.
It looked like a daily physical and emotional challenge for this woman, I thought to myself, early rising and just difficult to corale two young boys to school each morning.
“I have never seen any high-class, big ole buses like those for no public school. Where are the yellow buses? Maybe they’re around the corner?” Gramma wondered out loud.
The older boy assured her. “Gramma, those buses are filled with kids. They got special buses today, not the junky yellow ones.”
Their tension had become my tension.
“What’s going on?” I questioned the frantic faces fidgeting behind me. Gramma spoke first and without hesitation.
“I get these boys out for school ‘cause their momma gotta be at work uptown early. I live in the same building on 39th Street, but on another floor. We’re late and he’s got to get on the bus for a special trip.” She held up the smaller boy’s hand, meaning this grandson and not the other.
The older brother looked at me. “Those three buses right there, Mister.” He was very sure, unlike his grandmother, that those were definitely the buses his brother should be on and wasn’t – because they had gotten there too late.
Just then, I noticed the lead bus begin to slowly roll forward toward Second Avenue.
“Oh Good Lord! There they go. There they go. He’s gonna miss the bus for sure now. His mother is gonna kill me.”
Gramma was getting frantic, almost hysterical.
“Would you like some help?” I suggested.
“Oh, yes, sir – yes, sir – please help us!”
I inched my way off the sidewalk but the morning rush was heavy and I saw no breaks to make a mad dash for it, but I pushed forward, getting ready to run.
The second bus began to creep into line behind bus number one. They were on the move. I tried to will the walking man to appear. “Come on orange hand, CHANGE, CHANGE NOW!”
“Okay, okay, you guys take it easy. He’ll make that bus. I promise.” I promised? I just made a commitment to them. I could not fail now. Oh boy.
The light changed and I took off.
The three of them, linked together, ambled behind.
Bus three started to roll. I figured that the last bus would stay put just long enough for me to cross the street. That became the plan for my promise. But I was mistaken. I picked up the pace from trot to a full run, chasing after the coach as the hot exhaust rumbled into my face from its back end.
Gramma was shouting, “STOP THE BUS!” I could hear the rustle of backpacks closing in on me from the two brothers, but they were still too far back to be noticed by the driver to catch the attention of the passengers – his classmates. It was all up to me now. Just my promise and me.
The thought of this little boy sitting alone in a classroom by himself while his fellow students left the city was too much to bear. I had a vision of smiling kid faces jumping for joy as a game warden, in a green uniform, released barrels of little trout hatchlings into a pristine river somewhere in the woods.
Now, along with Gramma, I shouted STOP THE BUS and reached out and slapped the rear end exhaust panel…HARD!
To my surprise, the driver kept rolling along with no sign of stopping for us. So, quickening my stride, I ran faster alongside the bus, slapping it even harder as I made my way further close to the driver.
Can’t he see us in his gigantic side view mirror, a man pounding on his bus and a grandmother with two kids all over the place running down 32nd Street like maniacs? What’s wrong with this guy?!
He gunned the engine. I began to lose ground and, with all I had left, made one last desperate sprint and caught up to his window – finally.
“STOP THE BUS!” I commanded.
The window was wide open. Not only could he see me now, as big as life, but he could hear me too. I was right there! If his intention was to ignore me, hoping I would disappear, that was no longer possible. I was in his face.
“What are you doing?” he yelled down. “I can’t stop this bus. I got to stay in line with the other buses. Who are you? What the heck are you doing?”
“You see that kid back there? LOOK, LOOK! He must get on this bus! That’s his class in there, man!
He shook his head, “NO STOP.” The bus crept forward. At least it was at a fast walking pace now, but still he stubbornly would not come to a full halt.
“Is there a teacher in there?” I was quickly running out of breath – and road. A resolution had to come within seconds. I knew, or the four of us would be watching as all the buses drove away. I couldn’t accept that vision.
A teacher stretched across the driver’s steering wheel, craning her neck to look down at us on the street. Traffic was backing up behind us. Cabs started honking.
“Do you know this kid, this little guy here? Is he your student?” I said urgently.
She looked more closely.
“Yes – he’s in my class.”
“Then please tell the driver to STOP THE BUS and let the boy on!” I screamed.
She exchanged some words with the driver and the bus finally stopped moving.
The teacher came out to speak with the grandmother and the boy as I got out of the middle of the street. Clearly, the teacher was not happy and she was giving them “what for” and I didn’t want to hear or see that. The bus driver frantically checked and rechecked his mirrors as the cabs continued to honk.
Finally, the teacher took the boy’s hand and they boarded the bus. The deed was done, the promise kept.
I went to get coffee. The line at the coffee place was unusually short, so I got my container of hot java to go and exited where I had entered. The aroma was delicious, as usual.
As I walked out, much to my surprise, I saw the big charter bus number three, the one with the late kid on it, directly in front of me, stopped at the red light at Second Avenue. I figured they were long gone by this time. The bus appeared to me as a giant white rectangular room on wheels, filled with kids.
Every little face in every window was smiling at me, waving and pointing in my direction, as in “There he is.”
Excitedly, they bounced up and down in their bus seats as they headed toward the Midtown Tunnel and out of the city for the day. I nodded and smiled back at them all. I made direct eye contact with the kid I had promised to get on that bus. His smile was an ear-to-ear grin, and at the same time he gave me a “thumbs up!” I gave him my widest smile in return and returned the thumbs-up gesture as the driver made a wide hand overhand turn into the flow of traffic streaming along Second Avenue, leaving a wake of sooty exhaust behind for me to walk through.
I raised my fresh hot coffee to my mouth. The first gulp of the morning is always the best.
For about fifteen seconds, I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be a Super Hero.” Then I continued down the sidewalk, to carry on with the rest of my day.
A Gypsy Night
Today is the day, I think, with excitement and trepidation. Today is the day I will finally go into the Gypsy Parlor, which has been beckoning me from across the street for almost 20 years. Until today I’d always resisted and trusted my own inner voice instead. But now it was time to seek out a possible higher power.
I have a bit of a mailbox phobia. For a few months after I send a new manuscript to publishers, I break out in a cold sweat and my hands shake as I try to insert my little mailbox key into the lock. I have also developed obsessive-compulsive mail rules. Never check the box on a Friday. Bad news will ruin my weekend. Don’t open it on Monday or Tuesday either, as rejection letters will throw off my ability to concentrate at my day job. Let the mail sit over holidays and before vacations.
If the doorman tells me that I have an oversized envelope that the post woman Stacey could not fit into my box, I tell him to hold it until Wednesday or Thursday, the only two days I will look at my mail.
My O.C.D. behavior and sweats are symptoms of a man who has spent almost a third of his life writing four novels and countless short stories without a single one finding a publisher. As I waited for responses about my fifth, I began to ponder with much fear and doubt whether this is going to be my last shot. Maybe it’s time to join the ranks of The Average Joes of New York City, give up on my dream and just be a plain old Nobody. A dreadful thought but an existence I might nevertheless be forced to finally come to terms with. At 55, I wasn’t getting any younger, my finances were strained to the max and my relationships were suffering. I had fought the good fight but maybe it’s time to hang up the gloves once and for all?
How does one make such a radical change?
I was an unpublished novelist with a mediocre day job, so I decided that I needed a mystical sign that would point my compass in the right direction. This was too big to handle on my own or even seek advice from mere mortals. I was certain. The gypsy would foresee my writing future.
Even though I dislike routines, I, like everybody, have many of them. I awake at 5:30 in the morning. Then I drink two cups of coffee as I sit at my computer and read what I wrote the night before. Then I eat, shower, shave and dress in casual attire. Finally, I head out onto the streets of midtown Manhattan and walk to my day job.
When I return to my apartment after work, I change into even more casual attire, pour a glass of chardonnay, slide the glass terrace door open and step out onto my small but precious outdoor space. Although I have two folding patio chairs and a small round table, which takes up almost half the space, I remain standing and lean against the waist-high brick wall, topped off with a metal rail, and take in my limited view of Manhattan.
This time spent on my balcony is the start to my writing process, transitioning from the material to the existential.
After twenty years, I never tire of the Chrysler Building’s majestic spire, a mere ten blocks uptown on East 42nd Street. I delight when the iconic skyscraper’s lights flick on – a crown jewel over the city. My unobstructed view of the Chrysler Building uptown, the Empire State Building to the west, and a scant view of the East River from the balcony is why I told the real estate agent, “I’ll take this one” two decades ago. In the ever-changing skyline of the city, I feel fortunate that my trifecta vista will remain unobstructed, since an Armenian Church, a school and a hospital occupy the airspace behind me. Over the years I have seen buildings go up, almost in a flash, changing what my eyes have become comfortable with. Manhattan is the canvas of a perpetually dissatisfied artist.
As the wine in my glass goes from top to bottom, so does my gaze over my own personal cityscape. Every level of the city is its own biosphere and the liveliest is the one at street level, the ground floor New York, the sidewalks, streets, entrances and exits. Taking my final sip, I look toward Third Avenue where traffic has thinned and then down and directly below to East 33rd street. People who were once scurrying to get to work via subways or buses have now been replaced by dog walkers and strolling couples checking out curbside restaurant menus.
Over the years, I’ve seen the storefronts below me on East 33rd between Lexington and Third Avenues change countless times from one type of business to another. The ebb and flow of Manhattan life is a writer’s dream. My expression has always been, “Writer’s block? Take a walk around the city, and the words start flowing!”
The current sushi place, I recall, used to be an Italian restaurant, and before that it was a little local hardware store. The same day dry cleaner that recently opened replaced a woman’s shoe store that went out of business, and before that it was a bakery where the smell of fresh baked cakes and bread would waft up to my apartment.
The one and only constant on 33rd street, through it all, has been the place with the purple neon sign in cursive letters glowing eerily in the window of a drooping white tenement building: PSYCHIC. The thought never occurred to me, until just now, that the neon purple sign was always lit, twenty-four hours a day. On comfortable nights a woman always sits alone beneath the sign right in front of a large glass window. She is middle-aged and wears a colorful and loose flowing gown. Her long hair is graying and pulled back. It’s the same woman I have glanced at so many nights before. I remember her when her hair was jet black, shoulder length, and wavy and her clothes much neater.
Unlike the former hardware store and bakery, I’ve never visited the Psychic shop. Today, I sense it is my destiny to walk down and visit the neighborhood psychic for the very first time. A wave of exhilaration and warmth moves through my body like wine.
Manhattanites all seem to walk with a purpose. The culture is to move as if getting to your destination is urgent, even if it is not. Of course, there are stragglers and many who step out of stride but, for the most part, there is a set pace. Mine is no different. No matter how decompressed I become in the comfort of my apartment, once I hit the sidewalk, I, too, get into that got-to-get-there pace. Tonight, however, is a rare exception.
With my usual quick-step, I should have made it to the Psychic shop in three minutes tops, but I dawdle and hug the storefronts, staying out of the sidewalk’s flow, which should have carried me just one block uptown and around the corner in no time at all.
The restaurants along Third Avenue are abuzz with activity. The after-work dinner crowd mingles at undersized tables set side by side. They are festooned with young professional men with loosened neckties and women in high heels. Passionate gazes meet over drinks and conversations seem intense. Bread baskets and wine bottles adorn white-clothed tables. The balmy evening is perfect for being outdoors.
I cross 33rd street and veer left. Directly in front of me is a crowded and noisy Mexican cantina. Before being Mexican, it used to be a Texas BBQ, and way before that it was a Persian rug merchant’s showroom and warehouse. For ten years, the Shamani Brothers had a faded paper banner in their window announcing that they were having a Going Out of Business Sale. Eventually, it actually happened as the neighborhood improved, rents got jacked-up and the Mom-and-Pops and importer/exporters gave way to restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The “hood” had now become hip.
Some long-time residents complain that the neighborhood was better years ago, but I always accept that change is an inevitable part of the natural cycle of neighborhoods and life. However, I did vow to never again eat at the trendy Mexican cantina after one dinner I had there with friends when it first opened. I realized after the first bite of my overstuffed, cheese sauce drenched chicken burrito that the Mexican cantina was in business primarily to peddle overpriced margaritas and piña coladas to yuppies, and that food quality was secondary. Nevertheless, I slow my walk further and stop, trying to appear as if I am studying the menu near the hostess stand because, out of the corner of my eye, I can now see the woman sitting in front of the Psychic Shop, a mere four doorways down the street.
I press my hands deep into my pockets and saunter toward my artistic destiny.
As I approach, I avoid making eye contact with the woman seated in front of the old walk-up. Slowly, I look beyond her, above her and down to the ground. I have an urge to walk right past it all and turn into the sushi place, pretending that was my intention from the start. However, my hesitant body language betrays me.
“Good eve-a-ning,” the woman says as I step in front of her.
“Oh, hi. How are you?” I act surprised.
“On such a bee-u-tee-full night how could I be any better? Look at glow of full moon, and there is such nice breeze coming from river. This cools me. And I smell ocean, too. Do you smell the sea, too?
I hesitate and look up at the moon, which is indeed looming larger and brighter over the city than usual.
“You know, now that you mention it, I do smell the salt water. We are so close to it.” I motion with my hand, pointing beyond Third Avenue toward First Avenue and FDR Drive. “Right down there is the East River. How easy it is to forget about the water when we are surrounded by all these tall buildings and noise.”
The neon sign’s luminous glow is bathing the woman’s white skin with a pinkish hue. Multicolored beads drape down her neck in a tangle, hanging gently on her light cotton blouse. Large gold hoop earrings and bangle bracelets accent her old world appearance. Her clothing is otherworldly compared to the contemporary women just a few steps away at the cantina. The vibes this gypsy woman are giving out make my writer’s intuition tingle. I am sure that I am straddling the threshold of my future. I am about to discover the truth beyond.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” says the Gypsy woman.
“Excuse me?” I reply.
“I said, I’ve been waiting for you!”
“Oh, I get it. You’re a psychic. I bet you must tell everyone this.”
“No, not so true,” she replies. “I know you and I think you know me too. I mean it.”
“Well, I’ve seen you sitting out here from my balcony for many years, if that’s what you mean. But I can’t say I actually know you.”
“We shall see,” utters the Gypsy. “We shall come to know.”
Now I start to have second thoughts about seeking out my future from a sidewalk psychic. “I must be crazy,” I think. “Maybe I should let the fortune cookie at the Chinese take-out place send me a sign instead? I’m out of here.”
“Well, good night, it was nice talking to you,” I say, preparing to walk away. “I’m going next door to get dinner, some sushi,” I add unnecessarily.
“No, I don’t think so. Here, sit, sit here, let us talk. I think you did not come for sushi – am I correct?”
I stop in my tracks and study her face. “You’re right. I didn’t walk down here for sushi.”
“Good then,” says the woman.
“Aren’t we supposed to go inside? In there – you know where Tarot cards and psychic things are?” I wonder aloud, a bit nervous.
“No, no need psychic things. Just sit here, outside, please.”
“Okay.” I sit down on the other metal folding chair next to her and let out a large sigh. I survey my surroundings. I feel strange, but at the same time oddly relaxed. There’s an indescribable familiarity about this scene.
“You live up there. That is where I know you.” The Gypsy woman points across the street above the Armenian Church and directly at my 11th floor balcony. I left the lights on, assuming that I would be back in no time at all. Make dinner, maybe write some and then read. “You have lived there for many years – maybe twenty. And you are writer, a very serious and dedicated writer. Sometimes you type very late into the morning.”
I can’t believe my ears. “How on earth do you know that? What the…”
“I told you – I know you. You think I was kidding you – some kind of Gypsy trick?”
“Yes – I mean no. I mean – I never met you – I don’t know you…” I stammer.
“I know you and you know me. We're no strangers.”
“How – How are you…?”
Finally, she reveals her secret. “I see you live there for twenty years, because I live here all my life from little girl. Gypsy people notice all.”
“Wait – Wait – you have been watching me from down here all these years? “
“Yes – and you watch me, no?”
I am completely spellbound.
“Look at me closely – see me younger woman – see me with long shiny black hair – see me sitting here on cool breezy night from up there. Do you see now?”
“I – I – I – Oh, my God. You are right. But I was not watching you – you were there – part of the city – the neighborhood – like everything else – you know?”
“I know,” she says.
“This is too strange,” I say, shaking my head.
"I listen to all the problems of people in the city. I know more than Head Doctor – what you call Shrink,” the Gypsy declares. “Now let me be psychic – okay?”
I am dazed. “Okay – whatever – go ahead?”
“You have come to ask me if you are good writer?”
I try to avert the psychic’s bull’s-eye.
“I’m not sure why I came. Why do most people come?”
“They come for many reason – but I think you come to ask me about life as writer, yes?”
“Well – maybe – okay. This is what you do – so okay – yes – so let this be my question…”
“Okay, no more psychic now – I just tell you.”
“I watch this building, your building, light on – light off – all the time. So many people come and go – stay one year maybe two or three – always move. You stay – a few others too, but you stay long time, no?”
“Yes – almost twenty years – amazing,” I agree.
“Sometimes you have friends and family. They come for happy visit, no? But I think what makes you most happy is writing stories – is this not true?”
“That’s right. I have family and a few very good friends and neighbors too, and yes I enjoy writing – I mean I love writing – but it’s not easy…”
“Nothing is as you say easy – especially writing I know, but yes this is good – I see this,” says the Gypsy.
“On warm day, you come out in morning – with shirt off and take in sun – you enjoy this nature beauty, no?”
“Yes, I like the summer and the sun very much.”
“This good thing too. Many balcony in New York City but most people no use. You come out at night and look at sky and city and drink wine and think about life – this good thing for writer too – ask many questions – be in touch with nature and many different people too, no?”
“Yes – my life is like this. You are correct about me in many ways. This is amazing. I can’t believe you know all this. There are so many buildings, so many apartments, and so many balconies. Why an interest in me?”
“I tell you Gypsy people see all! You live alone, mostly, but I think you not lonely! I think writers live in imagination and this is why they can spend many hours like this in life, and be happy.”
I shrink down in my chair. That comment strikes me on a deeply personal level.
“You have regular job, some passions, but you take trips, many adventures. Maybe to mountains, to the sea, to foreign lands but you always come back to city. You have home, but you wander like Gypsy people too.”
“I like to travel, yes.”
“And when you travel do you write too?”
“Of course. I’m always writing, in my head.”
“I see. And when you write in your head do you think about money, selling stories, being big shot famous man like Mr. Ernest Hemingway?”
“No, it’s just the way I think and live. Of course, it would be nice to have my books appreciated and, let’s be honest, make some money too. Maybe just enough to quit my day job.”
“Oh, I see,” she says with a conclusive nod of her head and slight smile. “So now you ask me the question yourself this time.”
“Okay. Should I continue to write or chuck it all down the drain? Is this what you want to hear from me?”
“Now you answer too.”
“Yes, I believe I have a good life.”
“Good,” she says and sits back.
We both become silent while intoxicated laughter from the cantina crowd ricochets around the buildings.
We study the moon. Then I say, “And you?”
“Me? I was born in this building and I will die in this building. This is Gypsy building – passed down from generation to generation for over 100 years. "
“I had no idea,” I say.
The Gypsy seems to look into me with deep dark eyes.
“I am Romani woman with no place to roam,” she says, laughing.
I see the irony in her predicament and then join in her laughter.
She stands up and says, “You go now – no need come back. I think you have answer.”
“But, but no – I don’t have an answer. Just maybe more questions.”
“In psychic world, everything not black and white, but truth always come out…”
The Gypsy woman stands up, which signals the end of the session. I start to reach for my wallet and say, “How much do I owe you for your time?”
“I prefer not to take money from you.”
“But I insist.”
“Okay, usually I charge $60, but for you, my writer friend and neighbor, I take $25. Is this fair?”
“Very fair, thank you.”
“Have good full moon night.”
“You too. Good night and thanks.”
As I pass the cantina on my way home, I see the crowd has thinned and it occurs to me that I haven’t eaten yet. There’s a $1 slice of pizza place on the other side of Third Avenue that used to be a tanning salon, and before that it used to be an ice cream store. I cross over to get a slice.
“What’ll it be, pal?” the man behind the counter asks me. He’s a dying breed, a real New Yorker.
“One slice and a small coke, please.”
I study the man’s face. He looks like an old boxer. His ears are bent and disfigured and his nose is pushed to one side with scarred eyebrows over his dark eyes – a face one might only find selling slices in a place like this in a city like this.
I pay for my slice and soda and head back to my apartment. I turn on my computer and open up a blank Word document. My first sentence:
“What’ll it be, pal?” the man with the broken face asks. Vinnie’s Restaurant
There is a sign on the wall near the entrance to Vinnie’s Restaurant that says: