What is a New York moment? A moment that brings a revelation, a surprise, or even a sudden death or injury that is unique to New York, a moment that couldn’t happen just anywhere, a moment that is quintessential New York.
My latest New York moment: recently on Hudson Street I saw a man of about forty walk by with his hair in a bun on top of his head, and, sticking up out of the bun, what looked like a sprig of a plant. As he walked off I then saw, on his legs below his shorts, one short black sock, and one long yellow stocking reaching up to his knee. This sight garnered from me and other bystanders, not shock or stupefaction, but just a casual smile. We’re New Yorkers, inured to oddball sights. In New York, it’s Halloween all year.
Not long ago, coming back from the Union Square greenmarket, I entered the Union Square subway station, a maze of passageways where a tangle of subway lines meet. Several trains had just unloaded passengers, and streams of striding New Yorkers were flowing in from all directions. Amazingly, they didn’t collide; each flow managed to avoid the others and surge briskly on. This sight, which I have seen many times, struck me at once as typical New York: brisk, energetic, intense. Some Con Ed workers had ribboned off one corner of the station and were doing maintenance work there, and off in another direction, just to one side of the flow, there was a pudgy man with only stubs of arms, seated, pounding an array of drums, hoping for money and seeming to give the striding streams of people a tempo. A first-time visitor would have been terrified by this spectacle of purposeful New Yorkers striding briskly toward some destination; the very intensity of it – quintessential New York – would have put them off.
My day begins and ends with a New York moment when, looking out my bedroom window, I see what I call the Tower of Light: a soaring tower, windows lit up, topped by a red dot of light. This of course is One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, the main building of the rebuilt complex on the site of the destroyed Twin Towers, a 104-story structure topped by a spire: the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth tallest in the world. The spire will be outfitted with antennas to service broadcasters lured away from the Empire State Building.
Asking some acquaintances for their New York moments, I recently heard two stories. One told of coming away from a flamboyant drag show in midtown Manhattan and meeting on the street, coming from the opposite direction (and therefore not from the show) a costumed individual so ostentatiously and exuberantly wild as to defy description, except to say that he (assuming it was a he) was wearing what looked like a space helmet. All of which reminded me of the one time I marched in the Gay Pride Parade back in 1994, when, just behind my group, came a contingent from San Francisco, the first row of which consisted of drag costumes so outrageously weird that they looked like creatures from outer space. But that was the Gay Pride Parade, the once-a-year gay Halloween, and this experience was on a very ordinary evening in midtown, if ever there is such a thing as an ordinary evening in New York.
The other New York moment they told me of was, in some ways, even weirder. Walking in midtown past the legendary Seagram Building on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street – once hailed as a miracle of minimalist architecture, but to my eye just a big glass and metal box – my acquaintance saw a bunch of people on the sidewalk looking at a pool in the building’s plaza. So he too stopped and looked, and there in the pool, with its soaring spume of water in the center, a penguin was splashing happily about. A real live penguin, with no indication of how it got there. A New York moment, not likely to be repeated in Peoria or Dubuque or Kokomo (with all due respect to those estimable communities). And when I googled “Seagram Building, penguin,” all I got was Wikipedia on the building, and a Penguin anthology of poetry. So the mystery remains.
Yes, if one keeps one’s eyes open and alert, there is lots to see in New York, much of it surprising. If one looks up, you may see a red-tailed hawk or a peregrine falcon soaring, and if you’re near water, an osprey. And in winter, high above the rooftops, hundreds of starlings circling round and round with a precision matching the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. Being on the Atlantic flyway and near the coast, New York is a “birdy” city. And the New York Times, that inexhaustible font of information, recently informed me that crows and ravens are returning to the city. So residents can expect to hear the crow’s familiar caw and the raven’s less familiar cr-r-ruck adding their music to the symphony of urban dissonance.
So much for looking up. And if one looks down? Graffiti, and pavements torn up for construction -- nothing special there. But if you were an archeological consultant during the recent reconstruction of Washington Square Park, you would have discovered brick burial vaults containing centuries-old coffins, and the tombstone of an early immigrant. The park, now frequented by New York University students and citizens like myself, and adorned with Stanford White’s magnificent Washington Arch, was once a cemetery.
I’ve also promised moments of sudden death, and they do happen. All too familiar are the deaths of the elderly who live in an apartment alone and are found by neighbors. Such was my friend John who died last spring, and another friend whom I hadn’t seen for years, who was likewise found in his apartment, with a glass of wine on a nearby table – not the worst way to go, in my opinion. But here I’m chronicling unusual deaths, as for instance: on February 25, 2010, a 46-year-old man from Brooklyn was crossing Central Park near 69th Street when the snow-laden branch of a massive elm fell on him, striking his head and instantly killing him. He was found with a pool of blood beside him in the snow. The branch was thought to have weighed 100 pounds. So next winter watch where you walk.
But that could have happened anywhere there is snow; it’s not unique to New York. Agreed, so how about this: on January 16, 2004, a 30-year-old woman who was walking her dogs on East 11th Street stepped on an electrified metal plate and was electrocuted. The metal plate, installed on the street by Con Edison to cover wiring, had become electrified by a wire not properly insulated. In November 2004 Con Edison agreed to pay her family $7.2 million.
Still, that might have happened somewhere else. So here’s a story of an injury that could have happened only in New York. In 1997 a 33-year-old woman, an investment analyst, was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with her husband and child at 72nd Street and Central Park West, when a mammoth balloon, buffeted by high winds, got loose and knocked part of a lamppost onto her head; for nearly a month she lay in a coma, then finally recovered. And that could have happened only in New York, the site of the one-and-only Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And to top it off, on October 11, 2006, a plane crashed into her high-rise bedroom at East 72nd Street, setting it on fire and killing the pilot and his flight instructor, minutes before she arrived home. Having survived a Thanksgiving Day disaster, how would you like to come home and find your bedroom in flames, with an aircraft’s engine lying beside your bed? Only in New York. Alas.
One final only-in-New-York incident: on Saturday, October 29, during the second intermission at the Metropolitan Opera’s matinée performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, a man approached the orchestra pit and sprinkled some white powder around the tympani and the conductor’s podium, then left. The musicians reported it, and the Met, fearing some dangerous substance like anthrax, canceled the rest of the performance so the police could investigate. Several thousand operagoers, some of whom had traveled a great distance to attend the performance, were obliged to leave the building, and as the investigation continued, the evening performance of another opera was also canceled.
Another act of terrorism in the Big Apple? No, for the white powder proved to be, not anthrax, but the ashes of human remains. But why would anyone do such a thing? The answer soon came when the police, following a lead from an audience member, located one Roger Kaiser, a jewelry maker from Dallas, at a bed-and-breakfast in Manhattan. Kaiser admitted having sprinkled the ashes, explaining that he had promised a friend, now deceased, who was a great opera fan, that he would scatter his ashes in opera houses around the country; he had meant to do so discreetly, without any desire to disrupt the performance. “Not a bad guy,” a police official concluded, and no charges resulted. An Instagram selfie of Kaiser shows a bald man, wide eyed with a somewhat silly grin, with an apple on top of his noggin – a tribute to William Tell, the Swiss hero who shot an apple off his son’s head. The Met manager announced that the Met of course welcomed opera lovers, but not the ashes of their friends. Again, where but in New York?
* * * * * *
My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: The north shore of Staten Island, where the forgotten borough strives to be cool. Watch out, snooty Manhattan – marvelous things are happening there, and maybe you can’t compete.
© 2016 Clifford Browder