Manhattan first impressions
FAIRWAY MARKET on the Upper West Side is like an open-air market trapped under a roof. Located on a busy commercial street, the entrance to the store is flanked by open fruit and vegetable stands over a large faded awning which reminded me of street vendors in Thailand.
Inside, there is a scramble of activity. A general checkout line stretches from the cashier stands far back into the dairy products aisle. Lines are everywhere—to the seafood stand, the deli, the aisle with the cooking oils—but they are all rapidly moving forward.
Men in suits coming back from work squeeze through the narrow space between shelves to get around other shoppers: young women with strollers, older ladies in puffy black coats with fur collars, hipsters sampling different flavors of olive oil, a gray-browed man pounding an air piano with one hand as he listens to an iPod.
Two employees hidden in a nook are busy servicing a separate line of customers wanting to get coffee. They take orders, scoop pungent black beans from barrels, sprinkle them into grinding machines, pack the resulting powder into paper packets, and give it to the customers. The nook is heavy with the sweaty scent of crushed beans. Ahead of them is an even larger nook whose three walls are resplendent with fine cheeses.
Two men—one on a ladder—empty a wooden cart onto an unreachably tall pyramid of oranges. It has a sculpted shape formed by perfect layers—like bricks—of fruit, but I notice that the men aren’t forming the newly-plumped oranges into the pyramid themselves. Does this mass of fruit just take on its own shape?
I FLY INTO New York City yesterday morning, the plane’s landing pattern taking it into a swooping turn over the center of Manhattan on its way to land at LaGuardia Airport. The sun rises over a clear atmosphere. Bridges from the other boroughs stretch over waters—pink-lit—and onto Manhattan Island like ropes over Gulliver.
Flying over Brooklyn toward LaGuardia, I see an enormous patch of elevated dull green ground amid a landscape of brownstones and projects. It is a group of cemeteries, and their yellowed grass seems to be sprinkled, like salt on a wound, with tiny white specks—tombstones. Two busy highways run through the cemeteries like arteries coursing through a dry heart.
What is there? A whole swarm of New Yorkers—dead. Citizens, civic leaders, strong-hearted men and women, contemporaries of Whitman and the Roosevelts, some once rich and some once poor are now all dry bones collected in durable boxes. The dramas and struggles of their lives continue in the city all around them, passed on to more animated hands and hearts.
TODAY, I WALK down the streets of Manhattan to a café near my brother-in-law’s apartment. There are people everywhere. They abound in the shop-lined avenues that intersect streets with multi-storied ancient townhouses. They run and walk their dogs in Central Park, that enormous sculpture of stone, hill, grass, tree, and lake loved by wildlife.
At the bottom of a hill, an old white woman in gray coat and a young black man in a varsity jacket are talking. Their dogs, leashed, play tag in a circle around their legs.
Even on a snowless winter day, Central Park is beautiful. The park benches have dedicatory inscriptions. I read them and think about the New Yorkers—now gone—that they commemorate. Who were they, these citizens that looked upon these same trees and boulders as I do? The inscriptions on the benches are a narcotic: I lose myself in these thoughts.
Halfway down a ridge overlooking a vista of forested hills furrowed by walkways, there is a bench and an inscription that I stop for. It reads, “Dear Leonard, / Meet me here. / I love you.” Two whole lives and a wish for immortality are summed up in those three lines of poetry.
I WALK ON Columbus Avenue. Window cleaners slop soapy water onto a tall shop window and squeegee it down with a long-handled mop to reveal an invisible surface. A sturdy man in a coarse blue-gray jacket prepares to unload boxes from a parked white truck in the salty mid-winter morning air. A fragile old woman sits with her head buried in a fur coat. She has jade-colored jewellery flowers in her faded blonde hair. As I pass her hunched alone in the outdoor seating area of a corner café, her leashed puppy lunges at a nearby pigeon. The bird flies away.
A man emerges from the metal door-flaps of a basement cellar carrying a large uncovered basket of freshly-quartered onions. He walks into a door below a maroon awning on which is written in white letters, “Indian Bistro”. There are many such cellars in New York City. They are twenty-foot traps gaping in the sidewalk with descending iron ladders. Their doors are flung open for much of the day. If you don’t look when you walk—and if you are really unlucky—you could actually fall in.