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A Benician in New York

On jaywalking, tall buildings and subway rides in the uber-city
by Steve McKee on October 23, 2007

The family and I took a four day trip to New York City recently. I’ve made several visits there in my life and have always really dug the energy level. I was overdue, and it also felt like it was time to introduce my kids to this uniquely American city. As cities go, New York is indeed the alpha – a city thoroughly energized in so many of the ways a city can be a city, so big and strong, a sort of masculine counterpart to the curves and delicacies of San Francisco.

Melody shopped online for a basic yet comfortable hotel in the theater district and we used our air miles to cut the cost of our airfare. Going to shows was a big catalyst for the trip. For my fifteen year old daughter who loves musical theater, it was a dream trip, or perhaps a goal met. Four shows in three days, she would do, with the rest of us happily tagging along for some or most of them, taking turns.

The first night my eleven year old son and I opted out of seeing “The Color Purple” in order to explore midtown on foot. Much walking we did. Our main goal was to visit the top of the Empire State building. By ten-thirty that night we were taking in the endless nuance of the city from high above, Zeus-like. The city was so vast yet jewel-like when seen at night, all the little cabs with their little headlights moving in streams between buildings, all the little bits of neon making for little color accents. The hum of city life was still strong at this height. Many buildings had wonderfully articulated tops, all lit up with sloped roofs that included flag poles and terraces – features that made it easy to imagine oneself occupying those special places. That’s what this city does so well: in spite of the huge size of the buildings, there are elements that give them human scale. Most of the skyscrapers are from an era when all the windows actually opened.

The next day we all toured about on foot to Times Square, Grand Central, Rockefeller Center, several gothic churches, a clothes store on Fifth Avenue. We walked though Central Park to visit Strawberry Fields to look at the “Imagine” tile mosaic and the John Lennon tributes. Then we took the subway. Maybe my short visit never got me out of a “honeymoon” phase, but I love that subway. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, but it kicks butt. It’s what allows a city this dense and urban to exist, these long trains filled with people that move about hidden under the city, like some circulatory system of an organism.

Subways below, cabs above. Together they do most of the work of getting people around. The vast fleet of cabs is a wonderful resource in a densely configured city: a common pool of vehicles constantly on the prowl that everybody shares. I worked on my cab skills. “A little something extra for your favorite charity,” I told one cabbie as I slipped him a sawbuck.

It was also important to me to be a good jay walker and be able to hang in there with the locals. I wanted to hone my skills in the timeless art/science of flowing through the streets and sidewalks in a manner that got me where I needed while not hampering anybody else. Moving along with the crowd on a wide sidewalk, a little dodge here or there, somehow instantly reading and reacting to the subtlest of body language of everyone around and flowing through them untouched, all standard crowd maneuvering skills that every human somehow has built in.

Then there were the more advanced tactics like the glimpse sideways before joining others in crossing a short intersection against a red light. If an approaching cab was far enough way, the stream of people continued across the cab’s path until a bip of a horn signaled that a car-sized hole must form. People paused, an opening was created and there came the cab at full speed through the momentarily still group, mere inches from kneecaps. And then the flow of people resumed. Dang, that seemed way too close for comfort for a small town guy like me. This maneuver happens all day long with willing participants throughout the “Apple.”

What a city: the distance to the rooftops so large, the distance between cars and pedestrians so small.
That night, after seeing “Spring Awakening” (best musical of 2007 and you won’t hear any argument from me) Melody and I joined our daughter for some “stage door-ing” in which fans wait outside the backstage door after the show to have their programs signed by cast members as they leave for the night. In the theater district these gatherings are common and pretty much are just part of the street life and ongoing party that is New York. The actors linger for photos and even earnest conversation. It’s really very nice. When the actor reaches the end of the receiving line they simply say bye and walk off and blend into New York.

One night my son and I were walking along the edge of Central Park looking up through the trees at the wonderful old-world apartment buildings and talking about how nice it would be to have a big comfortable place to live overlooking such a park. In a third floor window we could see an oak beam ceiling lit by a chandelier. It suggested a life of repose and comfort that seemed so completely restful. I knew there were thousands of places like that all around me and I suddenly wanted to be able to visit them all. Penthouse patios as well. To be able to live in a city with this level of action but then be able to rest in that room with that view.

Too rich for my blood, true enough, but it made me glad to just know such places existed in the world.

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