A grey-haired woman sitting in the Broadway median stares intently at me as I cross. Does she really see me? Or am I just a shadow of someone she once knew? Her eyes burn cigarette holes in my coat sleeves. Farther down, a pug squats, then scrapes. A mother bends to tie her child’s kicking sneaker. Up and down it goes, a tiny bow compass drawing arcs in air. A homeless man sleeps but hangs on to his hand-held sign: “Today’s my birthday.” His long hair and beard, his tilted face, sing like Jesus. Cars are lined up along the curb, nose to toe. In the windshield of a white Ford van, I see an etched universe of branch and sky. The intricate reflection stops me in my tracks. Everywhere I look, there’s opportunity to color in the blanks.
I don’t want a Maserati, I want a flying car. Ever since reading Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’ve dreamed of a vehicle I could drive over gridlock, through rivers and under mountains. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved these ingenious outdoor car parks. I like to imagine that the cars have swooped into their individual resting spaces like swallows into nests. I love seeing big metal machines stacked tidily like spice or wine bottles, two-ton weight be damned. At the push of the button they come carefully down, though there may be a wait if you’re the guy at the top. Even if cars can’t fly yet, they can still always pile up, up, up.
Like its ambitious citizens, the Manhattan skyline is always reinventing itself with an eye to the competition. The newest super tall skyscrapers—some still with cranes—look like fishing lines to the stratosphere. Are they trying to catch birds, helicopters, clouds? Here are views for billionaires (and maybe global criminals) who need to show they are on top of the world. Not just the one-percent, but the one-upper percent—the “my treehouse is higher than yours” club. Like NBA basketball players or super models, the towers look down imperiously on older buildings. The formerly imposing now looks short and squat. But reflected in the dimpled water of the Central Park Reservoir, the Super Talls shrink like Legos and belong to everyone. Nature brings them down to size, and wins.
My immigrant great grandparents ran a small grocery on the Lower East Side. It was essential that my Grandma Mary drop out of school at age sixteen to help in the store so the family could save money on staff. Her educational sacrifice paid off in helping “the boys,” her brothers, go on to college.
Since then, all of the siblings’ future generations, male and female, have graduated from fine colleges and universities. And the Lower East Side has morphed into a chic destination that contains expensive condos, craft cocktail bars and artisanal ice cream shops. The pushcart past has pretty much disappeared but can be glimpsed in a visit to The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street or during a historic walking tour of the old neighborhood.
My brilliant grandmother went on to educate herself through wide reading and concert-going. She was highly self-disciplined and aspirational and always rued her lack of higher education. One of the many things she did out of pride was train herself to pronounce “th” and “r” properly. Others might say “toity-toid” (Thirty-third) Street, but not her.
I can only imagine how she might have loved this trendy CornerGrocers at Delancey and Rivington that looks like a home refrigerator on the lam. Whoever stocks it has a keen eye for display—it’s organic street art. And best of all, perhaps the convenience of the self-service aspect (though you have to pay inside), has allowed future Marys to stay in school.
It took me decades to figure out that the New York City summer ends emotionally, but not literally, at Labor Day. Back to school supplies, best-of-fall media previews, and chilly boutiques stocked with winter coats all conspire to convince me that fall has started. In reality, it's still wretchedly hot. The summer sun continues to laser the concrete, my iPhone says it "feels like" 100 degrees, and a short walk outside is an act of faith and resilience. Inside, high humidity swells all my apartment doors so that they jam their jambs. They grunt with complaint.
The dog days of September?
I dial back to the August morning I awoke at a friend's beachside cliff house in Encinitas, California. From my perch on high, I watched a dog race joyfully through the surf while his owner trailed languidly behind with leash and morning coffee. A great splash of ocean lies between them. It's that cool, empty space I jump into now.
One of the strangest interviews I ever did as a cub reporter was at the Russian & Turkish Baths. It was done entirely in the nude. It came floating back to me as I watched my dusty car get soaped up at another cleansing New York City institution: the West Side Highway Car Wash. Here, cars of all makes and models—from proletarian to presidential—get spanking clean while drivers watch through a plate glass window. Colorful neon lighting gives a happy disco feeling to each cleaning cycle. The car wash is 71-years-old and has a vintage electric sign, but it continues to innovate with eco-friendly products, water recycling and surprisingly artisanal snacks. Delicious Underwest Donuts operates a small coffee shop inside and makes fresh donuts in flavors like "car wash" (lavender-vanilla) upstairs. There's always a line at this popular destination. Which all goes to show that in the naked city, grime actually does pay.
Construction workers spend their day in al fresco cubicles. It's the ultimate transparency. They text, drink coffee, snack and have lunch just like the rest of us, but somehow these mundane tasks seem amplified outdoors. The snoopy public (me, for example), feels like an audience at the theater or an anthropologist in the urban jungle. I pity the guys eating out of lunch pails on a cement sidewalk, and I want to shout at the rooftop texters, "Don't back up!" I personally will jump through any hoop to get my morning coffee, so I watched with empathy as this nimble worker scaled a long ladder on a sticky summer day holding two large iced coffees and a bulky snack bag. When he reached the top he landed the cups, hoisted himself up and over, and prepared to climb higher to his waiting co-worker. I was so thirsty by the time he was done, I had to go get some myself. In his honor, I drank it outdoors.
Let's not talk about the Mets.
Taunting a Mets fan is like kicking a puppy or pinching a baby. You would have to be extra cruel to want to inflict harm on such a sweet and vulnerable group.
But hope springs eternal at the start of every summer, including on a ballfield shoved under the highway and dwarfed by skyscrapers. Here, Little Leaguers hit and run on a summer morning. Painted by imagination, it's a field of dreams.
The endless traffic rumble from the elevated Parkway? Really the roar of the crowds. The gigantic green metal curved highway supports? The magnificent arches of a stadium entrance in the Bronx. The imposing line of glass building windows? Press box and corporate skyboxes, of course.
Diamonds are precious here. You take what you can get.
Block out those stressed and anxious managers, aka parents, shouting tips and tricks. Keep your eye on the ball, wait for your pitch and swing for the stands. This just might be the time it flies over the chain link fence and straight onto the bike path. See-ya!
And the noise fills up the stadium.
Children are not always kind to beloved stuffed animals. New York is even worse.
It's not easy being plush.
In the concrete forest, anything can happen. Teddy bears may be dragged, dropped, hugged, hanged, clenched, clutched and even clawed. They lie on cement sidewalks like pedestrian roadkill. They go to the park in the drooling mouths of giant dogs. They do double duty as toddler backpacks. They are forgotten on subways, buses and taxis. Strange but true: discarded soft animal toys may be bound to the front fenders of sanitation, moving and fire trucks. So Fifty Shades of Grey to me but it's supposed to be...cheerful?
But all is not lost for lost guys. This one went straight to the top. Smile on his face, wind in his fur, arms wide open, he gives new meaning to hugging the road.
Summer travel is so cumbersome. I'd like to fly around the world—bagless, weightless and on bird wings. Because I can't, airplanes are a necessary evil. But they have their consolations. I do like looking out their windows and the way my head is in the clouds for real. I also love coming in for landings, particularly returning to New York. For once, I'm the master builder. Big city grids align, massive buildings shrink, and noisy traffic melts away. Here, the Throgs Neck Bridge by Othmar Hermann Amman gets the toy-size treatment as I come into LaGuardia one afternoon. For a moment, I had my wings.
I like to say I summer on the island...of Manhattan. The central city's pace and congestion make it easy to forget there's soothing water views on all sides. Every now and then, its true island nature reasserts itself. This almost mystical fog rolled into Times Square one early evening, haunting all the favorite haunts. It wrapped itself around tall buildings and spilled across wide avenues, dulling the city's brightest signs and blocks. Suddenly we were more like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. The velvet coastal softness rarely makes it way so far inland and came as a surprise.
An open hydrant belches water into rippling rivers down the street. Kids at play? No, men at work. A wrench on top suggests a plan. It's not the only one. All over New York City, something is being built up, torn down, drilled, filled, hammered, repaired and repainted. Flocks of neon safety vests build orange mesh nests marked by yellow caution tape. Drills whine like angry insects. Big clouds of dust explode like pollen. Worker ants move earth. At the end of my street, I see a four-ton magic trick: a massive truck floating in the air because all its wheels are jacked to stabilize a rooftop crane. Around the corner, six sunken men work inside an opened sidewalk. At a nearby bus stop, a digital sign bares computer circuitry to the world. The electrician tinkers and walks back to his truck, his work-in-progress left untended. Hidden infrastructure hums all around us. Here's a chance to peer inside. Who knew that time and use and winter cold could break us down so much? Luckily, we're on the mend.
Photos of people taking photos are so delightfully meta. But not everyone feels that way. Here, I had to shoot quickly and move on before security could approach. My sidewalk lens was a random element in the otherwise tightly controlled chaos of the star-making machine. The event was the Manhattan premiere of the new hit movie, "A Quiet Place" (nationwide April 6, 2018) and the see-through street tent with red carpet was erected to create and control visuals of stars like John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. The inside group performed their roles with intensity. Strong men and steel barricades walled off media and stars. Photographers scurried around like they were covering breaking news (though they were actually shooting portraits in front of a logo wall for sites like celebmafia.com and snowceleb.com). Interviewers got themselves camera-ready in well-oiled motions. Not a hair was out of place. It was all very serious business. The movie made $50 million on opening weekend.
It was a dark and stormy night when a scofflaw snuck this unloved TV with shattered screen out to the curb. I've seen a lot of random refuse in my time, including an entire piano soundboard and a sweet hand-painted sign saying "Mom loves Norm" (was it Mom or Norm who put it out?). But this was my first sad and forlorn flat screen stuck out in melting spring snow.
All trash tells a story: This one's a double crime in progress. New York City law requires e-waste to be taken to an electronic recycling station. Also, household garbage is banned from sidewalk sanitation baskets. Who could do such a thing? Maybe there's a registered serial number here. No doubt the perp is chomping popcorn and streaming Netflix on a newer model at this very moment.
The questions ask themselves. How did the screen crack? Did the TV fall off the wall or was an object thrown at it? Who opts for Vizio over Panasonic? Let's look at motives. Did a lazy owner with a guilty conscience think, "Nah, not lugging it on the subway. But I'll almost do the right thing." Or in blind denial, "Perhaps someone will want it?" The plot lines are endless.
Spring cleaning can be ruthless. Could have been a condo-owning Kondo-izer (The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up by Marie Kondo) or a foresighted Swedish death-cleaner (The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning: How to Free You and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson. Broken TV's certainly do not spark joy or thrill heirs.
The only thing I know for sure. It was a dark and stormy night. All better to avoid the $200 fine.
In Wes Anderson's fabulous film Isle of Dogs, canines are removed from daily life and banished to a remote island. Here in Manhattan, it's the opposite. We're an Isle of Dogs that has Aisles of Dogs. I've seen pets tucked, lifted, dragged, walked, seated and scooped just about everywhere, including to Starbucks and the movies. Trendy owners now bring fur babies to the office, or even the post office (above). The problem is not all breeds are good walkers. Some tire easily on skinny little legs; others may be heavy as bowling balls. Enter, four wheels. Compared to, say, bringing an emotional support peacock to the airport, doing chores with a bulldog in a baby stroller is a walk in the park. But the sight of a regal dog in a cushy throne always makes me wonder. Who's the real master?
King of the Mountain is serious business in Manhattan. It's not easy ruling the unruly kingdom (ask any builder or Wall Street trader). Usually, kids are on the losing end of the city's scale. Tall buildings shrink them down to mice. Elevators threaten to eat their tiny hands and sneakers. Dogs bark or growl nose to nose. Even kind strangers engulf like giant lampposts. But every now and again—on a swing, a parent's shoulders, or atop a manmade snow hill in Central Park—perspective reverses. Buildings become Lego blocks. Traffic runs on Matchbox toys. A snowscape becomes a moonscape; the sky tastes like cotton soup. Suddenly, the city is entirely theirs.
I've seen just about everything lugged on a city bus, from musicians hoisting 6-foot-tall double basses to millennials with unassembled furniture. This was my first live Christmas tree though. The passenger swiped himself on and positioned his fragrant cargo in a seat in the back. I hoped the miniscule bus forest might inspire a round of holiday carols ("Deck the Halls" would have been nice), but the M5 bus is no La La Land. So I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply and imagined I could smell fir boughs all the way home.
You'd have to be very jaded or a retail atheist not to get excited by the visual artistry in New York City's holiday windows. Each year Barney's, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue create bedazzling sidewalk displays that in my mind outperform the towering spectacle of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Bergdorf's theatrical stage sets—perhaps due to the architectural scale of the actual window frames and the bottomless talent of visual director David Hoey—are usually my favorite. This year's BG masterpiece windows (slideshow here) are no exception. Fanciful, elaborate and technically superb, they celebrate the city's great cultural institutions like The New York Philharmonic, above.
In the window, a cascade of neon instruments light up in sequence and crescendo visually to full blast. Prismatic perspective shows how symphonic music pours out, around, and over you. A flamboyant and flame-haired conductor ignites the scene with back turned and arms raised. My secret fantasy is that as she conducts, she shatters something—not the window—but the notorious gendered glass ceiling of most of the world's great symphony orchestras.
What's that sound you hear? It's a #metoo army of stiletto heels grinding glass shards into grains of sand. Applause, please.
Smart cars are so adorable you just want to pick them up and put them in your pocket. Whenever I see one, I hope these extremely efficient and small-is-beautiful Mercedes are counterbalancing the horrendous number of gas-guzzling black SUV's picking up in the city. The jelly bean-sized cars are so well-designed for the Rush Hour maze that even the NYPD bought a fleet.
Some owners can't resist gloating. When I saw this blue subcompact backing up into a luggage-sized space, I thought, what a real New York car. It wasn't just Smart, it was also Smart-ass.