Excitement around every corner

March 7, 2010 at 8:02 PM Leave a comment

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The New York of my youthful imagination was a city of dusky skyscrapers in which ordinary people — my future self included — worked at jobs where telephones never stopped ringing and Telex machines clacked out urgent confirmations of multimillion-dollar trades. For this enterprising image of the Manhattan workplace I can thank That Girl, I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, situation comedies whose central characters lived or worked in a pre-World Trade Center Manhattan of checker cabs and elevator bellhops, and where every day ended with a glass of vermouth at the Stork Club.

If you ask me to describe even one episode — I can’t. All that remained for me of these TV shows was a conviction that living in New York would draw me into a world of sparkling conversation, glittery evening gowns and cozy three a.m. nightcaps.

Today I know that my image of New York was shot through with no small amount of magical thinking. The fact is, my work life has more closely resembled the dreary desk jobs that typify the misero-comic situations in “The Office,” and the bulk of my days have been filled with mind-numbing meetings that make the recent international climate change conference look like an Etruscan javelin-throwing contest. I could weep at the split-screen movie of my life: Bejeweled ladies dining on lobster newburg at the Stork Club and me around the corner on Fifty-Third Street typesetting pharmaceutical rags on the lobster shift.

Yet reality hasn’t made any serious inroads into my hope that some day, when I walk into an office or a cafe or a book store, I will come face to face with the thrilling sweetness of life.

You native New Yorkers can stop laughing now. It’s only us cosmopolitan wannabes who still believe, in spite of personal experience, that we will stumble upon some life-changing moment in a stray conversation with a drunk or on a subway ride down the length of Broadway.

Hot chocolate, hyperactivity and a kiss

The first snowstorm this winter had me thinking that a fifteen-minute jaunt to the Indian Road Cafe on 218th Street might finally bring me to that moment. I bundled myself into an ungainly get-up of waist-high trousers, boat-neck pullover and my twenty-year-old hiking boots and trekked a block to the #7 bus stop and waited. And waited. I was ready to trudge back home and re-enter my predictable world when the #7 appeared like the old man in Yiddish lore who arrives out of nowhere to announce that he is the Messiah and he’s here to tell you your fate.

The bus was only partly full with Filipino churchgoers, Puerto Rican mothers with young sons and other unremarkable souls who had waited a long time in the cold for a bus that could only take them as far south as 168th Street. Something told me that none of them were expecting to encounter the sweetness of life on this route.

P.G. Wodehouse once wrote about a young man who meets a girl he loves and wastes no time in marrying her. Wodehouse’s young hero understands that a bigger and better love was not around the next corner; and he knew that life will not galvanize your senses at every bend in the road. I read that sentiment in a Wodehouse novel a long time ago, and every time I feel myself looking for excitement, I take that memory out and examine it like the perfect gem that it is. Then I put it away and preserve it like a luxury too good for daily use.

You won’t be surprised to learn that on the day after New York’s first snowstorm, Indian Road Cafe was the scene of the most mundane reality: Young couples and their little children drank hot chocolate. An unmarried aunt attempted to entertain a hyperactive nephew. An emaciated waiter settled his wife down at a table near the back of the cafe and kissed her — at least I think it was his wife. My breakfast mate and I shared a few secrets and then we went our separate ways.

The excitement I’d been yearning for

The bus back home was on time and more crowded, this time with people like myself who had refused to stay inside because of the weather. A woman eyed a seat mate’s  extravagant fur hat and asked him if it was raccoon. Two Italian workingmen in their early forties carried on an incomprehensible conversation in which the only words I could understand were “tomatoes” and “The New York Times.” Both of these were to be presents for their father. Nobody had to be outdoors in the slush, but anything was preferable to letting Sunday build a high wall around the day, the way it always does.

As the bus made the turn on 231st Street that separates working-class Kingsbridge from more affluent Riverdale, I spied the slice of excitement I had been yearning for: A hundred kids were hurtling down Suicide Hill in Ewen Park on plastic flying saucers. The bus blocked out their howls of glee as they wove and spun with abandon around a thousand corners of gravity’s making.

Why hadn’t I thought of that? A plastic flying saucer!


Related links:

Finding the city of no  limits, a Bookpod audio essay by Terry Teachout

Bronx Bohemian

Back to www.bookpod.org


Entry filed under: New York City, Winter, Working. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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