She sat under the Oaks in Union Square, pondering the direction her night would take. It was the last one. Her last night as a resident. It was as if she looked back at a dream seven, no 27, years in the making. Her dream of surviving and thriving in the Big Apple. A city that showed no mercy to the weary. A city that swallowed tourists and spat them back out. A city she would always love.
Thoughts of sadness, loneliness and regret started to consume her. She was at risk of spiraling down, of spending the evening wallowing in self-pity and sorrow.
Then the acorns started to fall. One by one they bounced off her head to the pavement below. She looked around…no one else seemed afflicted, nor to even notice what befell her. Sitting atop the bench now posed a hazard. Beware of falling acorns…don’t look up, you’ll get one in the eye.
It was all she needed…she snapped out of it. A smile crept in. Then she was off.
After procuring the spot — a four-seater facing the window — she sits solitary, nibbling a croissant that fails to satisfy. Despite it, she feels relaxed; refreshed; even excited for where the day will take her. One iced coffee quickly downed, she orders another. With time to kill she takes notes, skims a pamphlet and pauses to relish this simple moment to herself. Her gaze wanders outside.
An unlucky barista mans the sidewalk cart filled with gelato, ice-cold beverages and a carafe that advertises watered down Crystal Light as “Homemade Lemonade.” The owner steps outside for a smoke. He points, says something to the fresh-faced barista, and soon the young man squirts and squeegees the plastic counter top until any fingerprints are gone.
Most passersby continue on, not giving the small café cart a second glance. A few, however, stop for a treat and some relief from the heat. She observes it all silently from behind the glass, unnoticed.
The couple, with antique bike in tow, choose a can of Coke. The girl stands smiling, a wreath of bright-pink daisies rests atop her mane. The boy orders. His loose sleeveless tank looks as if it could use a wash — hair peeks out from all sides. The two struggle at the straw wrapper, then wave a friendly goodbye to the barista.
He stands and waits patiently behind the counter. She can tell he, too, is a seasoned observer.
Ms. Sourpuss steps up. She nods to the water bin and inquires, “how much?” Exaggerated distaste flashes across her face as she walks away.
A family of four — Italian — stops. Each one grabs at something different. For a second she thinks she’s been caught spying, but no. The daughter simply checks her own reflection, bumps her ponytail and then looks away satisfied. Mom requests a cup of ice for her orange-flavored San Pellegrino and lets her husband pay for their loot.
She wasn’t fooled…it’s not the city that never sleeps. It’s just a city where at least someone is always up. In reality it seems as though most people sleep days away, leaving nights for pitter-pattering. And that hardly counts as never sleeping, if you ask her.
The city does have a quiet place, however. In summer, as the sunlight first hints arrival from beyond the East River, that’s when you’ll find it…the quiet place. In winter, there’s no time to wait for the sun, but the hour remains the same.
An occasional errand or obligation makes her part of it. A secret club of New Yorkers start their days here. Nudging the city awake, some are still half asleep as they wash windows, bake delectables, and walk dogs of all sizes…all the while enjoying a little peace — because even one hour more and the real buzzing begins.
An outsider might witness this place and mistake it for full speed, or at least close to it. But locals know better — she knows better. The only one pausing to observe, she tiptoes on freshly rinsed sidewalks and breathes in morning air not yet polluted by cigarette smoke. A mere two or three customers await cups at Starbucks (soon enough the line will end out the door).
To her the streets are empty. She almost tingles with excitement at the rare scene surrounding her. No one else seems to recognize it. Perhaps they’re all used to it now. Not knowing any better, they start each day like the one before…with blinders on. Blinders that lead them to their destinations without bumping into, tripping on or even witnessing anything. It’s easy to forget the wonder of the mundane and the wonder of what surrounds us always. No two mornings are ever exactly the same in reality, but as memories, days blend together.
Maybe she’ll find this quiet place again someday. In the meantime, she’ll take her own blinders off.
Stepping off the boat was like stepping into another world. Leaving behind a metropolis filled with honking taxis and speeding sirens, she touched new ground — with ne’er an automobile in sight. “What is this place?” she thought as she took it in…soaked in the smells, the people, the mysterious intangible that made it markedly different.
An outsider, it was as if she merely observed from afar. Was there some partition? An invisible force? Fellow wanderers milled about the grounds. But they, too, were in a daze — quieted by the intrigue surrounding them.
Once inhabited houses, yards and playthings were left, forgotten. Perhaps their owners vanished into thin air…forgetting to lock doors on the way out. A small stone church still sat on its perch, almost as a warning. Of what, who knows. Inside, the footprints of long-since moved pews were still obvious to the eye.
As she tread along the well-worn path, a fenced-in green materialized up ahead. Music! Dancing! A festival of sorts…at last! Walking on, she was transported to a time when jazz ruled and flappers were scandalous. An attempt at recognition proved she would remain unseen. She must be content to simply witness.
Revelers twisted and twirled — in twos and threes — to a five-piece jazz band on the makeshift parquet floor. One wearing nothing but a cream-colored slip with a dropped waste and black undergarments. Off to the side, children in vintage swim trunks pulled snacks from wicker picnic baskets as their mothers sipped cocktails and laughed the afternoon away…their beaded headbands already slightly askew.
Moving past the dance floor, a gaggle of men laughed, passing cold beers from one to the next while two young innocents twirled their parasols and looked on longingly from the next blanket over.
Distracted by a monkey on a bicycle, she snaps back to reality. Suddenly boat loads of neon and tie dye-covered ravers storm the beat-bouncing, DJ-inhabited beach. Departure nears. Ah yes, the horns and sirens come back into focus. Where was I?
With no book, no headphones, and having learned long ago to sleep anywhere, she fades in and out at each stop…checking with one eye to see the latest pair of shoes to hop on. Silently taking it all in as she feigns indifference and displeasure, she inwardly rejoices at this life. Her attention turns to others.
There’s a mother-daughter pair, headed somewhere special…an excitement building between them as the train barrels northward. The mother-son tourists scrutinize a paper map — yes, they’ll get off at Grand Central. Mr. Blue Shoes/White Laces is just happy to be in out of the pouring rain when he sees a friend — have you seen the exhibit? Yes, yes. They were just finishing it up when he left. It’s going to be exciting. And we can’t forget the 20-something, using her phone as a looking glass before punching colorful dots on a screen to pass the time.
It’s no bother without the headphones, really. There’s always someone willing to lend a listen…in this case, from three seats down. So kind of him to share…even if it’s not what he’s after.
Sometimes to amuse myself I live in a story. Growing up in Massachusetts I often read about how fabulous people lived fabulous lives in New York City. And here I am. I get to live those stories now, and it’s all fabulous in its own way. Perhaps to remind myself from whence my dream to live in the Big Apple came, I’ll tell stories in my head as I do the regular mundane things I do. Here’s one now. Stay tuned for more.
The birds, flowers, honking horns and humans all collide on a sweltering Monday morning in New York City. Buzzing like bees, each commuter charts his or her course five steps ahead. The more practiced of speed walkers can weave around, duck, and outpace any tourist stuck in the way. Occasionally two of these experts meet…misjudging the other’s move. They reach a momentary impasse with either frustration or apologies and then carry on.