The Streets of New York – The People You Encounter

The Streets of New York

New York City Skyline - Google Images

We had just had lunch at the outdoor café in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library Main Branch on 5th Avenue.

Bryant Park
Bryant Park with NYPL in background

How better to spend an afternoon in the Big Apple.  New York City holds about 8 million souls, but Manhattan only 1.6 million.  At 23 square miles that’s a whopping 400 sf per person.  The value of all that land was estimated in 2016 to be $1.4 trillion, or $875,000/person or almost $2,200/sf.  As  a numbers geek, I can’t help seeing things that way.

All these people, on all of these very expensive square feet of land, are all constantly in purposeful motion, as if it just isn’t right to loiter on such expensive real estate.  And they’re in motion on foot, on busses and subways, in cabs and cars.  In a day, on foot, you might pass thousands of people. (I’ll let you figure just exactly how many, but think of a crowed sidewalk where you could easily pass 200 people in a minute)  In Oakland, where we live, we may pass a lot of people, but there, we’re all usually cocooned in our cars.

We were walking along 9th Avenue at about 59th street, Hell’s Kitchen, next to a young woman in a hoodie. She was an average young woman, beautiful in the way that all of the young are beautiful, but you might also call her plain.  She seemed sad to me and might have even been crying.

A little later, on 5th Avenue, there were throngs of people all around us.  Nobody particularly stood out.  Then, walking toward us, was a woman, very tall, very slim and very good looking in a fashion model sort of way.  She was dressed casually, but expensively, and walked with an easy gate with her head up.  She might have even been singing, or she just seemed to be singing.  You could tell that she was used to being looked at.

Later that afternoon, over a glass of wine, Susan and I were remembering the day.  Amazingly, out of the thousands that we saw that day, we both remembered these two women.

One way to experience a City is to look at the landmarks, buildings, parks and stores, and if you also pay attention to the people as they stream by, you can catch just a glimpse of who they are or who they want to be or who they think they are.  Most people, I think, are not aware of being watched, but every now and then there is a flash of somebody looking back. And then they’re gone.

busy street scene

There are the rushers, the cell phone callers, groups of men in animated conversations being carried on in all imaginable accents and languages, men in T-shirts, men in suits and men in really nice suits, women of all types, races, sizes, shapes, in running shoes and four-inch heels. You catch pieces of conversation; “…with these real estate prices….”, …and I couldn’t believe she said…”, “…Can you see if she is available…”, “…and he was holding a dildo in his hand…”, “…my bras are all stretched out…”, “…yes a colonoscopy…”, “…so he asked, where we keep the wine glasses.  My god, we’ve been married for 22 years…”, “…I’m not happy…” There are poems made of found conversations, and each day a million new poems unfold on the street.

One morning on the #1 subway from Columbus Circle, we heard beautiful classical violin music coming from the far end of the car.  It isn’t uncommon for performers to come on the train to earn tips.  Sometimes it’s fun and they’re talented, so you are glad to pitch in a dollar.  Sometimes it’s not good at all and there’s some resentment at the pressure to give.  But she was a talented musician.  As the music grew louder, a sweet looking young woman worked her way down the car.  Her playing was difficult enough, but doing it while keeping her balance in the pitching subway car showed both her musical and acrobatic dexterity.

She smiled and finished her piece.  We gave her some money and a coupon for a free milk shake at the Shake Shack, which she seemed to appreciate.  She got off the car at the next stop, Columbus Circle near Lincoln Center and the Julliard School of Music.  We have a game of inventing a back-story for people that we encounter and thought that busking on the subway was not exactly what her proud family in Indania had in mind for their little girl as they packed her off to Juliard.

Wait for the end

The next afternoon we noticed a man in the crowd.  He wasn’t tall or overly distinguished or expensively dressed.  It was as if everybody else on the street was spinning abound him and he was the calm center of all this activity.   He was in his mid-sixties, relaxed khakis, bow tie, sports coat, tweed baseball cap (Look at this hat; you have to have solid self confidence to wear a tweed baseball cap).  He and his wife were at a crowded crosswalk waiting for the light on the corner of 52nd and 6th Ave, mid-town, just at rush hour. They weren’t rushing and were both completely calm amidst the chaos.  They were on their way somewhere chatting amiably.  It’s clear that this man is in charge somewhere and mid-town Manhattan is his home court.

While you may pass thousands during the day, you may only transact business with a handful. Waiters and clerks, others waiting in lines … long lines, seatmates at a play. Wonderful and sometimes surprising conversations can ensue.  Or, at the least, you can indulge in extended period of voyeurism.

We were having an early dinner at Babbo Ristorante & Enoteca, an upscale restaurant just off Washington Square.  Even though we’ve mostly given up the high scale places, we almost never miss a meal at Babbo each trip.  When we settled at our table we were engrossed, as if we were watching a great tv show,  by a family tableau unfolding across the dining room and imagined their story.

Babbo’s diningroom

They were four.  A well heeled couple in their sixties sitting on one side of the table.  Both  nicely dressed, but casual.  She was appropriately thin and attractive, not showing a single strand of gray hair.  He was carrying a little weight, in the way that middle aged men do, balding with a fringe of gray curly hair and horn rimmed glasses.  Across from her was their daughter, unmistakably, also thin, maybe a bit painfully so, and also elegantly dressed.

Mom and daughter had a lot to say to each other and leaned in,  riveted by their conversation.  Then, there was the new boyfriend.  Overweight, overdressed, in a baggy gray non-descript  suit, rumpled shirt with the collar open and his tie in his pocket.  He engaged in some fitful conversation, mostly with Dad who leaned back holding the floor with easy gestures. The new boyfriend kept looking down at his phone.  You could feel the Dad’s annoyance from across the room.

At one point, the daughter broke off the conversation with her mother and leaned over, put her arms around the boyfriend and kissed him, bubbling something positive to her parents – an enthusiastic if not somewhat desperate pitch.  We imagined the parent’s conversation later that night. “Where did Sarah get this guy?  She can’t be serious.”  “Now be calm Sheldon.  He isn’t so bad.  He has a good job and he certainly isn’t as bad as that Patrick or Miles, especially not as bad as Miles.”  “Let’s just hope that this one passes quickly.”

We had been sitting on a bench by the Delecort Theater in Central Park enjoying our street stand dinner while we waited to go into the theater for a performance of The Tempest, put on by the Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park


We had wanted to do this for years, but weren’t prepared to endure the all day line that snaked through the park.  These days there is a lottery, no long line.  Susan discovered that there are also a limited number of advance tickets available to those who make a $200 donation, certainly in the range of New York theater price and a great way to support this wonderful event. You do, however, have to get your tickets very early in the season, before the limited tickets are gone.

As we sat waiting, we heard thunder in the distance.  How clever, they are setting the mood, practicing sound effects for the Tempest?  No, the sky in the east grew very dark; it was real thunder. We hadn’t seen a drop of rain in two weeks until then. The rain started, first as a few drops.  We begin to pack up.  Then it stopped and we sat back down happy to have dodged the bullet.  Then the downpour.  Hundreds of us crushed under the overhang of the theater waiting for them to decide whether the show would go on.  This is where we literally bumped into a couple, Marty and Matt.  We talked for more than an hour and a half, sharing pieces of our life stories.

Marty was raised on the Upper East Side where his doting mother stayed at home and pampered him, making him his own special meal each night.  His dad was on Wall Street and rode the melt-down to the bottom, never recovering. Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps,  Marty is an accountant working on feature films.  He has lived in Harlem for years.  His mom was the child of parents, both blind from birth. They took on a foster child as an infant but when she was six, the birth mother claimed her and they never saw her again.  He keeps a vacation flat in, of all places, downtown Atlanta.

Matt, some years younger, had grown up in Virginia, the child of professors at Univeristy of Virginia, and had moved to New York.  He recently landed the job as event coordinator at a major museum. The donors are a very high-powered group and he was having a great time, living the life as an onlooker to New York high society.

Everyone has at least one unexpectedly compelling story and we were delighted with the two that the rain storm brought us.  The rain stopped, we all rushed in to take our seats and our new friends were gone.

We went to see Larry David in Fish in the Darkthe creator of the Seinfeld TV show and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, though the role has since been assumed by Jason Alexandar.
fish in the dark

Fish in the Dark is a farce about a neurotic Jewish family.  It’s funny quick-witted Jewish shtick, with more than a little misogynous and mean spirited humor, though I do remember laughing a lot.  When we arrived, we sat down and started talking to our seatmates, a Jewish couple from New Jersey.  Then another couple sat next to them and another in front of us, all Jewish, all from New Jersey.  Several conversations erupted in the group, with each of our neighbors moving effortlessly from one conversation to the other.   I was the odd gentile out, hardly able to join in, but Susan, who is Jewish, managed to hold her own, as much as anybody from California could.

One of the men was surprised that the others didn’t know Jordan Zimmerman; though the conversation was moving so fast I could never figure out just who Jordan Zimmerman was and why he should have been so memorable…”Yes, Jordan Zimmerman. What?  You don’t know Jordan Zimmerman?” At one point I was convinced they all knew each other.  When I asked, they assured me that they had just met, looking at me with suprise at my question.  I thought, “Wait a minute, this isn’t possible, they’ve planted actors throughout the auditorium to warm up the audience.”  I turned around half expcting that I might find Larry David sitting behind me as he started the performance from the crowd. ” No,” Susan assured me.  “None of your suspecisions are correct.  This is the real deal.”   Life imitating art.

The next day we went through the newly opened Whitney Museum, top to bottom.

The new Whitney Museum

It was thrilling to go through a brand new museum but we wern’t alone at the end in being foot tired and needing a break.


We sat at the bar in the café and had a cup of coffee to give us the strength to head off on our next adventure.  We were served by a tall dignified, black man, very attentive, making sure that we all got the special little caramel treat that came with our coffee.  “Did you get the caramel with your coffee?” he asked a very Upper East Side woman carrying a fancy logo-ed hand bag that I’m sure cost more than we spent for dinners all week. “What?” she asked.  “The caramel, you get one with each coffee,” he answered. “They’re a special treat for the opening.”  She asked him to repeat himself two or three times and each time he was clearly more uncomfortable that she couldn’t understand his courtesy.  “Oh,caramel,” she finally laughed, “I thought you said Karma.” and turned away.

A little self consciously, he leaned over to ask us, “Is it car-mel or cara-mel?”  He was concerned that he wasn’t pronouncing it correctly.  The women immediately lost interest in the conversation and the moment passed.  Susan, thirty years a community college English teacher glared at the woman and  said, “No you said it perfectly, both ways are good and so are the caramels.  Thanks.”

Some people know that their lives will be all right, whatever that means to them. like the model on 5th Avenue.   Then there are those for whom things simply aren’t working out, like the sad girl in Hell’s Kitchen.  You can see it, at least a little, as they pass.  I want to stop everybody on the street and ask their story. But they stream by, without a pause, and the people and the glimpsed stories merge into our day in New York.

Index of links:
Bryant Park
New York Public Library
Shake Shack
Lincoln Center
Julliard School of Music
Babbo Restaurante & Enoteca
Public Theater – Shakespear in the Park
Fish in the Dark
Whitney Museum
How to pronounce Caramel
Human Beings of New York – a book by Brandon stanton

See the next post Not Exactly a Guide to New York for more suggetions of what to do in New York

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