Park Avenue to Park Bench, Uncategorized, Writing about New York

The Veteran of The South Bronx

The Veteran of The South Bronx , by Michael Domino – Photographer

This man approached my car on E 32nd and Lex. He had a paper cup and a walking cane. He asked for money. I asked if I could take his picture. He said “NO”.

I said, “I’ll pay you a few bucks in exchange for a photo.” He agreed.

His face had many battle scars and one eye was cloudy white. I asked him if he was a Vietnam Vet. He said , “No, I’m a Vet of the South Bronx streets from the 1960’s and 70’s. It was worse than The Nam.”

As I drove of I did not feel so bad because we made this deal that worked for both of us. I intended to give him $5.00 but as traffic moved, I fumbled and tossed a $20.00 at him. He could not believe his good fortune and cried out to his buddy across the street in a wheel chair that he struck it rich. I heard him say, “I’m buying lunch today brother. ” They were surviving.

 

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Is This Seat Taken?

Is This Seat Taken?

 

The little neighborhood park I usually go to was fenced off for renovations one day, so, with coffee and morning paper in hand, I decided to sit on the steps of a random pre-war, rent-controlled walk-up apartment building on East 32nd between Second and Third. This place is what would have been referred to as a tenement back in the 19th century.

 

The city was very quiet since it was the Friday before Labor Day, so I sipped coffee and read the paper on the stoop. Even on the quietest days, though, New York still has a good amount of foot traffic, so I had to pull my newspaper back toward me to make sure that passersby would not brush up against it.

 

After about 10 minutes, a woman in a house dress and slippers ascended from the basement apartment to deposit a bag of trash. Then she started to eyeball me as she sauntered over to the steps, nit-picking the smallest leaf droppings off of the steps around me. I could tell she wanted to make her presence known and sniff out who this stranger on the steps might be.

 

Luckily, she left, and I was able to stay. Then a guy came out from behind me through the front door. He had long, blond, greasy hair. I could smell last night’s sweet booze oozing from his pores and breath. There were six steps on the stoop, but he chose to plop his big sweaty body right next to me.

 

I read and sipped on. Following behind him a curly-haired guy in a stained gray T-shirt came down the steps. He gave me a suspicious trespasser look-over – just like the old lady did. I was beginning to feel unwelcome on the steps, which I might have guessed wrongly were free for the sitting. I sipped and read on until he spoke.

 

“Hey, asshole!”

 

Oh no, I thought. Oh NO. Here we go again. But the blond guy turned around to respond to the catcall which I mistakenly thought was directed at me.

 

“Why don’t you clean up the fucking cans and bottles you left all over the stoop from last night instead of sitting there like a bum? This ain’t the dump. People live here!”

 

“Who you calling a bum? You’re the fucking bum! Leave me alone, bum,” shot back greasy hair with spit spray.

 

“I ain’t a bum, you slob,” gray T-shirt responded angrily.

 

A husky female voice emanated from under the steps. “Shut the hell up, you morons! It’s still morning!”

 

“Oh yeah!” said greasy hair to T-shirt. “Why should I listen to you anyway? You ain’t the boss of me and besides you don’t even have any fucking teeth.”

 

That was enough for me. I decided the conversation, of which I was in the crossfire, was just going to go further downhill after the “no teeth” insult. I got up and moved down the block to another stoop, unfolded the paper again, sipped to the bottom of my joe, and I hoped I might be able to finish my coffee and the newspaper before another performance began.

 

Just when you think you’ve found the perfect, private spot, you realize that every square inch of this city is spoken for.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Streetwalker

Streetwalker

 

I walk the streets of New York.

 

I guess you could call me a streetwalker, but perhaps not the kind that word might bring to mind. I am looking for stories not pickups. It works for me. There is no membership required, no gear or team, no rules – sneakers are suggested, but not required. Walking related injuries are minimal; it’s healthy and therapeutic.

 

When I’m walking in the city I’m not eating and, instead of looking at myself, I watch others, and this is a good thing. Walking is simple and mindful. It sorts things out. City walking affords me the opportunity to do random acts of kindness just because there is so much going on and so many people, unlike walking in the suburbs where I always feel the people in cars are wondering why I’m on foot!

 

In Central Park the other day, I helped a lady carry her bicycle up the stairs to get to the reservoir. At the top, her husband, who was in much better physical shape, was already up there taking pictures of the skyline when the two of us sweated up the steps. He shot me a bad look – as if I helped his wife to make him look bad – but I kept on walking.

 

Did you know that it’s 2.2 miles to walk around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir?

 

On 34th Street, a FedEx delivery guy was pushing his overloaded box cart when it all came tumbling down. As oncoming traffic approached, I ran over and tossed him his packages while he frantically reloaded them into the cart. We both got out of there in the nick of time. “Thanks, brother,” he said. “No problem, man!” I said, and continued on my way.

 

Walkers in Manhattan rule the streets. Walkers in the suburbs make motorists angry. “Look at that crazy guy walking!” they say. They think that the only people who walk in the suburbs are either on medication that renders driving difficult, or have lost their license due to a DUI. In the suburbs, if you’re out walking without a dog after ten p.m., there is a chance that a bored and paranoid neighbor will call the cops on you.

 

Nobody cares in the city. Walking is a way of life here.

 

According to my calculations, it takes me roughly 40 seconds to walk one block, and twenty blocks is one mile, meaning I can walk a whole mile in just under 15 minutes!

 

It takes about 50 minutes to walk uptown from East 32nd Street to St. Monica’s Church on East 79th Street between First and York.

 

There are fewer people on First Avenue so I can walk faster up First. There are more people on Madison, so it takes me longer if I walk that way. I make sure to not stop and pet all the “designer dogs” – the expensive pure breeds that you routinely see. Just another example of class distinction, though I have to say, I prefer rescued mutts, in all walks of life!

 

It also slows me down if people talk to me, which they often do. I don’t mind if they are from out of town and lost. I’m always happy to stop and point them in the right direction. If you want to meet people in the city when you walk, then you need to walk with a dog; everyone will stop and talk to you. You will make new friends but you won’t get much exercise.

 

Of course, there’s lots of noise in Manhattan with the cacophony of sirens, construction, horns, whistles, helicopters, and cement mixers everywhere. People, though, for the most part are quiet and mind their own business. I hear glimpses of conversations as I pass and then fill the rest in from my own imagination. Occasionally, loud voices will attract attention, but it’s usually a dispute over a parking spot.

 

You have to be careful in the city, because I learned that, when violence does occur, it erupts suddenly. At times like these, it is best to move away quickly and keep walking. I once saw an angry-looking guy push a cyclist over into traffic near Union Square! When the enraged cyclist recovered, he immediately went hunting for the pusher, swinging a heavy bike security chain and lock. I happened to be standing where the pusher had been before he moved into the pedestrian flow. In an instant, the rider read my startled, fearful face and processed that I was not his attacker. While I was spared a chain across my teeth, he relentlessly tracked down the pusher, who took the bruising chain across his back. The whole thing was over in a flash, but remains burned in my memory.

 

Besides the parking space arguments, another, though less common, variety of street combat that I stumble into on long walks are what I call bum fights. A bum fight, like the parking spot disputes and bike chain incident, flare up without warning, sometimes right in front of your eyes. Drivers, riders, and cyclists may miss all this action, but when you walk, you see it all.

 

I’ve seen many bum fights, and have noticed a pattern. It usually goes something like this: There will be a few drunks on a street corner. One of the disheveled people will begin cursing and hollering, spewing out angry epithets. All heads will turn and look toward the commotion. The madness is almost always directed at another homeless person and often revolves around a territorial dispute or dereliction of duty. I heard one unfortunate homeless man accuse the other of spending all day long on the steps smoking and not doing what he is supposed to be doing– whatever that was! Another fight began over the arrangement of cardboard in a certain doorway, as one man accused another of horning in on his spot.

 

In the suburbs, neighbors fight over loud parties, disobeying property lines or barking dogs. The only difference between them and the bums is that the bums don’t call the cops or each other’s lawyers.

 

Just as I don’t stop and pet “designer dogs,” I don’t stop my walking to watch bum fights – I am too used to it. I know this is just their way of venting and getting things off their chests, but it’s best not to gawk. This is a live and let live city, which is why I love being an invisible “streetwalker.”

 

 

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Stop the Bus!

Stop the Bus!

 

My body was awake but my brain needed caffeine, and that’s just what I was aiming for at my local coffee shop that morning.

 

I could feel the presence of others gathering behind me as I looked across Third Avenue at East 32nd, waiting for the orange hand, the don’t cross signal, to become the walking man.

 

Manhattan was still slowly waking up, but the city has always had an uncanny way of catching us unaware, suddenly and without warning. A commotion erupted on the sleepy-eyed corner.

 

“Gramma, there goes the buses. We’re late!”

 

“No – those buses are white and fancy. We’re looking for yellow school buses.”

 

“Gramma, I think those are special buses they got for his trip.”

 

“Oh no, if those are the right buses, then we’re in big trouble. That first one is driving away! Oh, Dear Lord, your mother’s gonna kill me if your brother misses his trip to the country. She just gonna kill me.”

 

The words poured out of her like an open faucet, the only outlet for this woman’s pent up anxiety.

 

That was enough for me. I had to look back. This sounded important! What I saw was a grandmother squeezing the hand of a backpacked schoolboy – fifth grade, I guessed, as his older brother, a head taller, stood beside them. All their feet were pumping up and down in place, as if they were walking in quick-time, but they couldn’t move forward until the light changed. We were all stuck there, office workers, coffee junkies and school kids alike. Each of us had to wait for the walking man signal to let us go. We all had different reasons for wanting to cross Third Avenue but we were in the same asphalt boat together, waiting at the intersection.

 

It looked like a daily physical and emotional challenge for this woman, I thought to myself, early rising and just difficult to corale two young boys to school each morning.

 

“I have never seen any high-class, big ole buses like those for no public school. Where are the yellow buses? Maybe they’re around the corner?” Gramma wondered out loud.

 

The older boy assured her. “Gramma, those buses are filled with kids. They got special buses today, not the junky yellow ones.”

 

Their tension had become my tension.

 

“What’s going on?” I questioned the frantic faces fidgeting behind me. Gramma spoke first and without hesitation.

 

“I get these boys out for school ‘cause their momma gotta be at work uptown early. I live in the same building on 39th Street, but on another floor. We’re late and he’s got to get on the bus for a special trip.” She held up the smaller boy’s hand, meaning this grandson and not the other.

The older brother looked at me. “Those three buses right there, Mister.” He was very sure, unlike his grandmother, that those were definitely the buses his brother should be on and wasn’t – because they had gotten there too late.

 

Just then, I noticed the lead bus begin to slowly roll forward toward Second Avenue.

 

“Oh Good Lord! There they go. There they go. He’s gonna miss the bus for sure now. His mother is gonna kill me.”

 

Gramma was getting frantic, almost hysterical.

 

“Would you like some help?” I suggested.

 

“Oh, yes, sir – yes, sir – please help us!”

 

I inched my way off the sidewalk but the morning rush was heavy and I saw no breaks to make a mad dash for it, but I pushed forward, getting ready to run.

 

The second bus began to creep into line behind bus number one. They were on the move. I tried to will the walking man to appear. “Come on orange hand, CHANGE, CHANGE NOW!”

“Okay, okay, you guys take it easy. He’ll make that bus. I promise.” I promised? I just made a commitment to them. I could not fail now. Oh boy.

 

The light changed and I took off.

 

The three of them, linked together, ambled behind.

Bus three started to roll. I figured that the last bus would stay put just long enough for me to cross the street. That became the plan for my promise. But I was mistaken. I picked up the pace from trot to a full run, chasing after the coach as the hot exhaust rumbled into my face from its back end.

 

Gramma was shouting, “STOP THE BUS!” I could hear the rustle of backpacks closing in on me from the two brothers, but they were still too far back to be noticed by the driver to catch the attention of the passengers – his classmates. It was all up to me now. Just my promise and me.

 

The thought of this little boy sitting alone in a classroom by himself while his fellow students left the city was too much to bear. I had a vision of smiling kid faces jumping for joy as a game warden, in a green uniform, released barrels of little trout hatchlings into a pristine river somewhere in the woods.

Now, along with Gramma, I shouted STOP THE BUS and reached out and slapped the rear end exhaust panel…HARD!

To my surprise, the driver kept rolling along with no sign of stopping for us. So, quickening my stride, I ran faster alongside the bus, slapping it even harder as I made my way further close to the driver.

 

Can’t he see us in his gigantic side view mirror, a man pounding on his bus and a grandmother with two kids all over the place running down 32nd Street like maniacs? What’s wrong with this guy?!

 

He gunned the engine. I began to lose ground and, with all I had left, made one last desperate sprint and caught up to his window – finally.

 

“STOP THE BUS!” I commanded.

The window was wide open. Not only could he see me now, as big as life, but he could hear me too. I was right there! If his intention was to ignore me, hoping I would disappear, that was no longer possible. I was in his face.

 

“What are you doing?” he yelled down. “I can’t stop this bus. I got to stay in line with the other buses. Who are you? What the heck are you doing?”

 

“You see that kid back there? LOOK, LOOK! He must get on this bus! That’s his class in there, man!

 

He shook his head, “NO STOP.” The bus crept forward. At least it was at a fast walking pace now, but still he stubbornly would not come to a full halt.

 

“Is there a teacher in there?” I was quickly running out of breath – and road. A resolution had to come within seconds. I knew, or the four of us would be watching as all the buses drove away. I couldn’t accept that vision.

 

A teacher stretched across the driver’s steering wheel, craning her neck to look down at us on the street. Traffic was backing up behind us. Cabs started honking.

 

“Do you know this kid, this little guy here? Is he your student?” I said urgently.

 

She looked more closely.

 

“Yes – he’s in my class.”

 

“Then please tell the driver to STOP THE BUS and let the boy on!” I screamed.

She exchanged some words with the driver and the bus finally stopped moving.

 

The teacher came out to speak with the grandmother and the boy as I got out of the middle of the street. Clearly, the teacher was not happy and she was giving them “what for” and I didn’t want to hear or see that. The bus driver frantically checked and rechecked his mirrors as the cabs continued to honk.

 

Finally, the teacher took the boy’s hand and they boarded the bus. The deed was done, the promise kept.

 

I went to get coffee. The line at the coffee place was unusually short, so I got my container of hot java to go and exited where I had entered. The aroma was delicious, as usual.

 

As I walked out, much to my surprise, I saw the big charter bus number three, the one with the late kid on it, directly in front of me, stopped at the red light at Second Avenue. I figured they were long gone by this time. The bus appeared to me as a giant white rectangular room on wheels, filled with kids.

 

Every little face in every window was smiling at me, waving and pointing in my direction, as in “There he is.”

Excitedly, they bounced up and down in their bus seats as they headed toward the Midtown Tunnel and out of the city for the day. I nodded and smiled back at them all. I made direct eye contact with the kid I had promised to get on that bus. His smile was an ear-to-ear grin, and at the same time he gave me a “thumbs up!” I gave him my widest smile in return and returned the thumbs-up gesture as the driver made a wide hand overhand turn into the flow of traffic streaming along Second Avenue, leaving a wake of sooty exhaust behind for me to walk through.

 

I raised my fresh hot coffee to my mouth. The first gulp of the morning is always the best.

 

For about fifteen seconds, I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be a Super Hero.” Then I continued down the sidewalk, to carry on with the rest of my day.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

A Very Smart Shopper

A Very Smart Shopper

 

New York is a city full of health-minded, discerning shoppers. I came across one the other night, right outside my neighborhood Gristedes gourmet supermarket. As I rounded the corner there he was, right at the store’s dumpster. He was a white male about 65. His clothes were not tattered or dirty; his hair and skin also looked clean. I was 100% sure he was not living on the streets. My guess was that he might have a room in an SRO or some little rent-controlled studio apartment. He might have been living off of the streets, but not on them.

How do I know this? Well, he actually told me so.

On an impulse, I had stopped, quietly watching him for a minute, and then asked him “How’s it going?”

“Great, thanks for asking,” he said, clearly a friendly guy perfectly comfortable with what he was doing.

I noticed that he had five shopping bags jammed full of food and all of it looked perfectly fine to me. He said he was especially excited about the Artesian Flat Breads. “They are made with Canadian wheat and you can turn them into Pizzas or dip them in olive oil,” he said. “They are just like the ones you see baked fresh in the Indian restaurants on 28thStreet.”

“Do you cook? “ I asked, after seeing carrots, celery and an onion in one of his bags.

“Not anymore,” he said, “but I do have a kitchen, so I could if I wanted to, but I haven’t really needed to bother since they started putting out the pre-cooked dinners. Whatever they don’t sell that was cooked that day has to go out. I got a dish of spaghetti and meatballs in there. The fresh veggies are for my salad. Why cook?”

“Sounds like Manhattan living to me,“ I said. He smiled.

There was a pile of discarded cakes next to the grey trashcans, away from his groceries.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Not interested,” he said. “They’re loaded with preservatives. I’m not eating unhealthy foods made with chemicals.” He picked up a box with a sugar-free blueberry pound cake inside and showed me a long list of ingredients that he said “will kill you.”

“And no bottled water either. The plastic leaches into the water and it’s some kind of poison.”

“I’ve heard that too,” I said.

“I have a big collection of glass bottles that I take up to Saratoga Springs three times a year and fill them up with the different kinds of natural mineral waters in the nice park up there.”

“I was just up there a few months ago, but one of them tastes like sulfur,” I said.

“That’s the healthiest one,” he said. Then he got busy again, rummaging some more. He told me he has to get there before 10 every night because that’s when the garbage truck comes and takes away all the food that the Gristedes Supermarket throws out. He said that he has to be extra careful where he gets raw meat, and there is a different Gristedes he gets that from. He said he used to get sushi from the D’Agostino Supermarket on 36th and Third but not anymore. He blamed the Freegans for messing up that sweet spot.

I knew a little bit about the Freegans. They are also “pickers.” However, for them it’s more a movement than a necessity. This man was not only not a Freegan, he blamed them for messing up the deal at a few places because of all of the attention he said they attracted when they showed up to rummage for food, take videos of their activities and then post their videos online. Some markets he frequented had even begun destroying the food rather than putting it out for people to pick through, he reported in a “can you believe it” tone.

What he was, was a struggling city dweller, a crafty and very health-conscious person “living off the land” in the only way one can in this city. Unless you have a little backyard vegetable garden to farm – or the money to actually buy your groceries!

I bid him good night and went into the store. When I came out, he was gone and I heard a garbage truck rumbling and screeching up the street toward the market. I passed a trash barrel full of Artesian Flat Breads. I picked one up. It was soft and fresh. I looked at the ingredients and there were no artificial preservatives. It was vacuum-packed and sealed. I almost took the one I was examining but at the last second tossed it back into the can.

There is one thing that happened between us that I deeply regret. From his stash, my new acquaintance had offered me a mini sweet potato pie. I can still see how his face changed at my knee jerk refusal to accept his sincere goodwill offering. Instantly, I sensed his disappointment from my rejection – a dessert no less. The gift came along with cheerful words. Holding the pie out to me, he said, “Look at this! Since it’s Thanksgiving time, there are always lots of extra pies out here.”

I wished that I could have taken that moment back and graciously accepted his generosity, but I had never before been offered food taken out of a trashcan and I hesitated too long.

Now the image of that little pie that I should have accepted, thanked him for and taken with me, even if I just tossed it into the next trashcan I came to, haunts me. It would have been the right thing to do. Furthermore, I truly believe that it would have been perfectly fine to eat. Just an hour or two before, I might have taken it off the shelf and paid good money for it.

This encounter was thought-provoking in many ways and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. To be honest, there was something I admired about the man. He looked a lot happier than many of the people shopping inside the store. I think it went beyond the fact that he didn’t have to pony up at the cash register. He was making the best of what life had thrown at him, and doing it on his terms.

I think I’ll seek him out again, and if he offers me a gift, I will take it.

Not necessarily to eat.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

A Voice in the City

A Voice in the City

 

I’m hearing voices again. This time it’s in the all-night supermarket at one thirty in the morning.

 

The city had been experiencing a massive July heat wave. Beginning that Thursday afternoon Manhattan began to empty out, like a colossal amusement park roller coaster ride coming to a halt after the final hair-raising plunge. Riders just get off and go elsewhere, leaving empty seats behind.

I’m not leaving for the weekend, so I just get off the ride, buy another ticket, then get back on until something else happens. Or maybe nothing at all, which is fine with me. So here I am, walking around this shiny-floored, fluorescent lit, overstocked food warehouse, carrying a blue plastic hand basket, tossing in sustenance items for my bare essentials studio apartment existence. At the same time, I’m wondering who on earth is going to buy all the rest of the stuff in this place. I can hardly fathom that, so I kick that thought out of my head. It’s none of my business who buys it all since I don’t have to worry about selling it all. As soon as I leave the store I’ll just think about something else anyway.

 

I do believe that just then I am the solitary night owlish shopper lurking in this cavernous subterranean market at this late hour. This sensation of aloneness is weird enough – and now things are getting even weirder.

 

The static-blurred, half-tuned late night soft rock radio station breaks the silence of the vast aisles. In the back of my mind, the music is mildly annoying, but not to the point of being irritating. I shop on.

 

As I browse the coffee aisle, balancing my half full basket, the scratchy music suddenly stops. A few moments of complete silence, and now a melodic and soothing woman’s voice, which echoes throughout the store. I surmise that the voice is that of the radio station’s graveyard shift D.J, alone like me but behind a door somewhere in the city, down some lonesome office building’s hallway, broadcasting airwaves out into the night.

 

Normally, I expect to hear a man’s voice on nighttime radio, so that catches my attention first and momentarily takes me away from considering the bounty of coffee brands before me. The Voice comes through loud and clear and, oddly enough, static-free.

 

The Voice:“Remember – there are so many people out there in the city who need help – so much suffering. The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life, don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, ‘Is there something I can do for you? Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden. You don’t have to struggle in silence – share some of your heavy load with me.’”

 

I look around, unsure if that clear-as-a-bell rhythmic voice is, in fact, coming from the radio, or what. After all, aren’t I the store’s lone shopper? So who could be talking to me? Is the night manager or cashier some type of spiritual preacher, using the supermarket’s public address system to send out a message in a store they think is completely void of shoppers, just to pass the time, rehearse a sermon, or whatever? In any event, I feel as if The Voice is speaking directly to me, and it’s spooky.

 

“When we help others, asking nothing in return, the effect of our actions will radiate out in ways that we cannot even imagine, and touch so many other lives. Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives, mystically and beautifully. We are not alone. We are all connected. So people, listeners, fellow New Yorkers, we are so fortunate to live in this great city that affords us limitless opportunities to reach out and help our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters. Good night for now…”

 

Her clear hypnotic voice trails off to dead silence as soft rock music fades back in, with static once again.

 

I find myself stuck in my tracks, staring at the coffee selection for who knows how long. I come to, wondering what has just occurred. It’s like trying to recall a dream within a dream upon awakening.

 

I am in Manhattan – it is late and I am shopping.

 

I continue to fill my basket, proceed to the checkout, pay, exit and carry my bags back across the street. I take the elevator up eleven floors and go to bed. Sleep comes quickly.

 

The next day the unrelenting heat persists. On my way out in the early afternoon, Henry, the doorman, suggests that I prepare myself for the scorcher that waits beyond the thick glass front doors and the pleasantly air-conditioned lobby. He is not kidding! I get blasted, as if I’m standing behind jet engines on a concrete tarmac at LaGuardia Airport. However, it’s my usual time to take a break, get some extra strong coffee, and take a stroll to relieve a writer’s double vision and help shake the cobwebs out of my head at the same time. I walk east from Lexington toward Third to pick up my Columbian Java on the corner of East 32nd and Second, a walk I’m very familiar with and can do on autopilot.

 

I write stories about Manhattan and what goes on here. Not only is the island smack in the middle of a confluence of great rivers, rushing ocean tides, glacier gouged sounds and bays, but it’s equally a place where humanity in all forms, shapes, colors and sizes collide within a grid of avenues and streets – especially at the intersections where they all merge, like the one I am approaching on the corner of Third and East 32nd.

 

The exodus of the city continues in full force. Third Avenue is a parking lot with gridlock, honking horns, angry faces behind windshields, sweaty walkers and traffic cops. The latter seems to have all but given up and are just standing around, helpless to even urge the congregation of city buses, yellow cabs, delivery trucks and passenger cars to move mere inches ahead.

 

At this moment I feel most fortunate to be a walker. When I see cars now I don’t perceive luxury, comfort or prestige; I envision problems, seventy-dollar tank ups, insurance bills, traffic tickets, danger and worry. I like to walk. Sneakers don’t need 5,000-mile check-ups and oil changes, E-Z passes, yearly registrations or inspections. When they get worn out from overuse, I just get a new pair and leave the old ones behind at the sneaker store.

 

I snake my way through the insanity, thinking only of coffee. After ordering the usual rich bold roast and kibitzing with the servers, an activity which has become expected and is always enjoyable, I turn back toward Lexington, deciding that it’s just too darn humid and brick-oven furnace-like to hang around and drink hot coffee, even while on a bench or leaning against a wall someplace, people watching. I’ve never been a fan of iced coffee – it does nothing for me. The pull-back effect of my little air-conditioned studio apartment is too much to resist on this day. On Third Avenue, nothing has changed congestion wise. It’s still massively and miserably gridlocked.

I notice that an extra long, double-length “Galaxy” articulated bus blocks the intersection, so there is no way to see the GO/DON’T GO crossing signal. It doesn’t matter anyway, since Third Avenue has now become one solid rail of interconnected vehicles, and they are all stuck, stuck, stuck. I weave my way around hoods and trunks to cross, coffee in hand, sipping away.

 

Midway across Third Avenue, containing layer upon layer of solar-absorbing asphalt, not to mention the presence of heat emitting engines, it must be at least 120 degrees. The heat and humidity make it feel as if my lungs are trying to suck breathable air out of the exhaust pipe of a city bus.

That’s when I hear the odd noises, over and over.

 

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

 

I wonder where that noise coming from.

 

As I look around the jumbled vehicles, my ears zero in on one blue work van emitting the sounds of a stalled engine that is desperately trying to start up but failing, time and again and getting weaker with each turn of the ignition key.

 

The hoped-for cha ching of a successful start is not happening. The battery is slowly failing. A few more unsuccessful tries and it’ll be completely dead.

 

This repeating motor turning over noise is an unnervingly familiar sound to me, left over from my younger penniless days when I could only afford to drive old heaps that were on their last legs before the car crusher ate them up and they would’ve sold for nickels per pound as scrap carted off by the junk man. I can also strongly identify with the feelings of panic and frustration the driver must be experiencing.

What a mess – what a furnace – what chaos. I want to be back in my air-conditioned writer’s nook where I can enjoy my Columbian brew. With that single purpose in mind, I creep past the world of cars, traffic, worker bees and would-be city escapees.

 

That’s when I hear The Voice again. It sounds vaguely familiar but it is not yet in the forefront of my consciousness. The Voice is dim, and more like an emanation from an old forgotten dream or déjà vu, or like a flashback to the distant past suddenly awakening cerebrally recorded sights, smells and sounds, desperately trying to make connections to the present moment.

 

The Voice clearly says, “The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, is there something I can do for you. Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden…”

 

I reach the sidewalk on the opposite side of Third, merely a few tiptoes from the relief beckoning me back to my cool and safe nook. But, hypnotically, I turn in my tracks with that strange DJ’s voice, or what I believe might be a DJ’s voice, whispering in my brain, and walk directly over to the van, where the frantically sweating driver was still struggling in vain to get his vehicle’s tired engine to kick over.

 

My approach, coming to him right in the middle of the road, startles him out of his trauma. “Hey, man – what’s going on?” I ask. “Do you need some help?”

 

He desperately responds, “Oh yeah. Thanks – it won’t start. I’m screwed here. I’m surrounded, stuck – this thing won’t start – always on a Friday…” His voice trails off in disgust and utter frustration.

 

“Okay, first, stop trying to start it,” I suggest. “You’re killing the battery. Let it sit for a while and let it cool off. It might be flooded. I’ll go back there and direct traffic around you so you don’t get slammed from behind, and stop these jerks from honking at you too, okay?”

 

“Oh, man, yes, thanks, that would be great.”

 

Now that he has me with him, I can sense some of his burden lifting as his sweat-soaked brow unfurls a little. For my part, I feel oddly peaceful to take on some of his worry, and my own cares seem to shrink in my head. I am living in the moment.

 

The Voice:

“Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives mystically and beautifully…”

 

After waving away the traffic behind him, I walk back. “Try it now. If it still doesn’t start, when this bus on your right moves we’ll push it to the curb and at least you’ll be out of the middle of the avenue and danger. Then you can call for help, sound like a plan?”

 

“Okay, great plan. Thanks a lot.”

 

He tries again to crank it to turn over.

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

 

It’s clear that nothing has changed, so I tap him on the shoulder. “Okay, stop. Forget it. Let’s push.” I head for the rear. He’ll steer and shove from the driver’s door and brake at the same time.

 

As I travel to the back, a large black diesel smoke-emitting 18-wheeler creeps alongside this much smaller blue van in the lumbering stream of traffic. At first there appears to be ample room for me to safely pass between the two trucks with room to spare. Seeing at least an easy two-body width’s passage, I march into the passageway without concern to get myself into pushing position. Meantime, the bus on the opposite side finally begins to move, opening up the necessary curbside space to complete our operation. It is time to push hard and fast before the crucial gap closes.

 

I’m committed now. As I walk back, the 18-wheeler suddenly veers to the right, shifting dangerously close to the stalled van. This ever-so-slight rotation of tire and tonnage instantly narrows the gap I need in order to pass safely to less than a single shoulder’s width of my body.

 

The voice:

You are about to get crushed between very heavy metal. Act fast – lightning speed fast, or say goodbye.

 

In a flash of mind over matter, I twist my body sideways, cutting my width by less than half. Miraculously, the back end of the huge 18-wheeler slips past me, just barely brushing my shirt and covering it with soot. I feel the slightest pressure of its traveling mass against my upper torso. My heart beats like a drum. A close call, to say the least.

 

It is the luck of all times but there was no time to dwell on my narrow escape and The Voice that made it possible.

PUSH! As the 18-wheeler passes ahead, the stalled van’s driver forces his steering wheel hard to the right. I plow my shoulder into the rear doors, releasing a Herculean grunt as my sneakers dig in. I hold fast in the softening 120-degree asphalt. With all our might we both PUSH and PUSH!

 

It is a beautiful thing. The van coasts, engineless, into a rare vacant curbside parking spot. It goes just as planned, with impeccable timing and precision.

 

Voice: Good Job!

 

The driver reaches into his van and grabs his cell phone, makes a call, and then comes over to me. I am in the shade, leaning against a mailbox for support.

 

“Will you be okay now? I guess your company will get help for you?” I ask.

 

“Yes, they said they’ll send a tow truck. Listen man, I can’t thank you enough for helping me.”

 

“Not a problem. I was glad to.”

 

We shake hands. I walk away feeling fortunate that I have less than half of a city block’s distance to cross to arrive at my cool and comfortable sanctuary, and do not have to fight my way out of the city for hours like all those stuck in the nasty traffic jam. I feel grateful and at the same time troubled for all those working folk desperate to get home or get to some cooler weekend destination. With all its wonder and intrigue, New York is still a rough city. Its romantic skyline can be painfully deceptive at times like these.

After a short while, cooling off and reflecting on what had just happened, it occurs to me how close I had come to being crushed between a truck and a bus, and having the life snuffed right out of my body.

 

I hear The Voice again, as if it has read my thoughts.

 

How fragile life is.

 

Without thinking, I answer out loud, in my small, safe apartment.

 

“Thank you for giving me the compassion and courage to help the man in the stalled van and for warning me of that danger I was in, so I have a tomorrow to be available for more opportunities to care, and try to reach out and help our fellow citizens – brothers and sisters.”

 

Just then I realize that I left my cardboard coffee container, still full, somewhere on the street. No problem! I opened the new grinds I had the night before and make a fresh cup of Colombian brew. It sure feels good to be alive right now.

I know what you must be thinking, but no, The Voice was not in my head.

 

 

Standard
Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Don Quixote de la Manhattan

Don Quixote de la Manhattan

Was I crazy? Had I gone completely nuts? Most of the people in my life had already reached their conclusion and answered in the affirmative. It seemed that I alone had reservations about whether or not I was a certifiable lunatic. After all, if someone has lost all sense of reason and is operating in a delusional state, how can they judge for themselves if they had or had not gone over the edge? Add to this the fact that defining what constitutes insanity is relative to the culture, societal norms, and subjective opinions of those doing the judging, and not by the subjects themselves—and what have you then?

For example, consider street life on the island of Manhattan. Compare it to the average lifestyles of those who live in quiet, leafy suburban hamlets not far from the city, such as Long Island, Westchester or North Jersey—places where many commuters live in nice houses and only come to the city for work. Behavior and appearances that are commonplace here in New York would attract negative attention from the locals in the small towns surrounding the Big City; they might even bring out the police. By the same token, those same persons wandering the city streets in their own private Eden might be labeled crazy and brought to the nuthouse for their own good or for the perceived safety of others.

You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is he talking about?” That’s a good question which I’ll try to answer. Let me tell you a story that may help you, as it helped me, decide who is crazy and who is not in this admittedly always-a-bit-crazy world of ours, as seen in microcosm on the streets of “the city that never sleeps.”

My story, which actually happened, begins with a chance meeting I had with a woman I encountered while sitting on a park bench in Manhattan. I call her the “Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle”—and it was a meeting that transformed my life.

I had just turned fifty, a milestone in life and often celebrated as such. Some say making it to the half a century mark is a significant achievement. Others say it’s the last stop before the downward slide into decrepitude. But everyone agrees that it’s the time to begin considering slowing down.

I’m married and my wife and I have three grown daughters in their twenties. I own my own business. I have employees and a house in the suburbs. I also own a modest pied-a-tier in Manhattan that I purchased ten years ago. When my wife and I first acquired it, we used to use it together. We would come to town, attend Broadway shows, and do other “city things” in an attempt to add some pizzazz to our rather routine (often humdrum) existence. It was our place to escape.

When two of our daughters graduated from college and took jobs in Manhattan, they lived in that conveniently located Midtown studio co-op apartment, until such time as their careers took off and they could move to bigger digs elsewhere in the city. After they both had their turn with the place, I began to spend more and more time there. I liked being away from the ‘burbs, away from everything that was familiar.

This is when the first whispering of “craziness” started in my life.

I always liked taking photographs and long walks, so to pass the time I began exploring the city with my camera, snapping away while venturing further and deeper into the city’s landscape. I began absorbing diverse neighborhoods, from Harlem to The Battery and every place in between. The vibrations of Manhattan were a far cry from the serene, uneventful life I had been living a mere fifty miles away.

One day, while on one of my walks to nowhere special, I realized I had forgotten my camera. Feeling at a loss, I began to record images and observations in my mind, and on returning to my small apartment took out my laptop and began to write them in the form of poems, essays and short stories. A new life of daily adventures had begun for me and writing about these adventures had set me on an irreversible course—destination unknown.

Those inclined to shun the artistic lifestyle I seemed to be venturing towards were puzzled, and in some cases felt threatened, by what they could not understand and the craziness label began growing deeper roots. But my artist friends, who were longtime city dwellers, encouraged my venture into the new world of words, images and urban adventure. They saw it not as a so-called “midlife crisis” but as the awakening and blossoming of a dormant spirit.

Unbeknownst to me at that point was that walking with no particular plan in mind had pointed my rudderless ship on a course that would lead me to a fellow writer who took pen to paper in Spain over 600 years ago, and to his fictitious hero whose adventures would rearrange the world for me, as it had for so many others. I was about to meet a fascinating woman on a park bench who would introduce me to one of the greatest writers in history, Miguel Cervantes, and to his fictional Knight errant Don Quixote de la Mancha!

Before we meet The Lady, let me tie together some loose historical threads.

Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 and discovered America in 1492. He died in 1506 in the Spanish Villa of Valladolid, which was founded in the 11th century. During the next two centuries Valladolid become the seat of the Castilian crown. It was here in the Palace of Los Valero that Ferdinand and Isabel, the “Catholic Monarchs,” got engaged, thereby uniting the two largest kingdoms of the time. Columbus attended Salamanca University, which is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded by Spanish King Alfonse IX in 1218. Thirty-six years later Pope Alexander IV acknowledged it as one of the four greatest universities of the world.

Miguel Cervantes, author of the epic novel Don Quixote, was born in the same Castilian region of Spain as Columbus 41 years after the great explorer died. Cervantes also spent his later years in The Villa of Valladolid. Just as Columbus did in his day, Cervantes also walked the hallowed halls of Salamanca University. Some scholars speculate that Columbus may have even been the inspiration for Cervantes fictional hero Don Quixote de la Mancha, as an abiding prototype of human folly, delusion and greatness.

In 1892, to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas, New York City placed a monument created by the great Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo at the center of Columbus Circle. As I approached the statue after a long, exhausting hike through the streets of Manhattan, there stood the mighty landmark, commanding attention on the southwest corner of Central Park. It was Christopher Columbus, a towering legend sometimes called “The Don Quixote of the Seas.”

I was feeling somewhat unhinged at the time. I had to figure out a sensible way to navigate through this challenging period. When it came to business, if I could imagine it I could make it real. In this case, however, it was easier said than done. This was my life, after all, and my life’s experiences to date had always been geared towards building, not dismantling. I had responsibilities, but at the same time I needed to write, to take pictures, to think in a new way—to allow the lava in my heated inner core to rise to the surface and flow. But…how to make it work, and not destroy all that I had worked for and built to date? It was a conundrum, an enigma wrapped in a paradox.

Instead of extending my uptown walk into Central Park, as I often do, I felt needed to sit down, quiet my mind, and stop worrying. As I approached Columbus Circle I noticed an attractive, shady spot with granite benches just outside one of the entrances to Central Park. Ambling across Broadway, I got a large coffee and then returned to that inviting spot. There was a lot of people traffic in front of me, vendors selling food and other vendors selling tourist art. I soon realized that I had positioned myself smack dab in the middle of a bicycle renting bazaar of sorts, where pedicab drivers were relentlessly soliciting tourists and passersby who were traveling through the busy paths leading to and from the park, the Circle and all the shops and sights of this historic area of the city. The park was behind me, the statue was before me. Trump International Tower and the buildings of the Time Warner Center complex loomed to my right, with Central Park South and its lined up horse-drawn carriages to my left. The sights, sounds and smells were abundant, to say the least.

I had been hanging onto bromides of late such as “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” “One day at a time,” “When there’s no change there’s no chance,” “It’s none of my business what other people think about me” and so on. With all this in mind I sat and pondered. I never placed much stock in television self-help gurus such as Oprah and Dr. Phil. Nevertheless there I sat, surrounded by the headquarters of America’s major TV networks. The impressive CNN blue glass tower, ABC, CBS, NBC and the Time Warner Center were all within blocks of where Christopher Columbus stood watch and I sat sipping coffee.

Despite my fiercely independent “I can take on the world alone” approach to life’s challenges, personal or business, I suddenly felt very alone. Isolated and helpless to come up with a solution to this conflict between the two worlds I was straddling, I was on the fence, as they say, which is never a great place to be.

Fortunately, help was the on the way—in the form of a slender, attractive, mid-60ish woman, dressed in jogging clothes and sipping fresh orange juice from a container. She had just finished a jog through Central Park and sat next me to cool down. As she settled in, I glanced over, nodded and said, “Hi, nice day for a jog.”

She finished her sip, got her breathing under control and responded, “Sure is. It’s beautiful.” After a pause she began. “What do you think of these pedicab guys out here? Aren’t they amazing?”

“Yes!” I replied. “I’ve been studying them. They are incredible salesmen. They just don’t give up. Here,” I pointed, “watch this guy in action. The stories they tell to make a sale!”

“They sure are persistent,” she agreed. “They remind me of characters in my favorite novel of all time!”

“What novel is that?”

“Oh, Don Quixote,” she said. “Have you ever read it?”

“I’ve heard of it of course, but no, I’ve never actually read it.”

“You should! There’s everything in life in it; even the meaning of what these bike guys are doing.”

“Everything?” I said, in astonishment.

“EEEEEE-Va-Re-Thing.” She was emphatic.

“Please tell me more,” I was all ears, “if you have the time.”

There we sat, a man drinking coffee, desperately searching for answers, next to a woman sipping juice after her Central Park jog who had just mentioned a book she swore possessed the answers to “everything in life.”

 

I stared at the statue Christopher Columbus, wondering where this conversation was going. I wanted to know more, and this chance encounter seemed almost too good to be true.

 

“So this book Don Quixote, uh, it’s your favorite?”

 

“Oh by far. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent half my life studying it!”

 

“Really! Half a lifetime? Incredible!”

She nodded her head. “Actually, I teach a class on Don Quixote, part-time at NYU. Before that I was a full-time Professor of Spanish Literature at Harvard University. I’m retired now but still enjoy teaching Quixote here in New York, which is my home.”

 

One of the reasons I love this city is that you never know who might be sitting beside you—sinner or saint, celebrity or genius, billionaire or pauper. No matter who and what they are, everybody has a story. I wasn’t sure I believed her but said, “Wow, that is fascinating.”

 

Just then a tall man, his wife and two daughters stopped walking and stood directly in front of us, taking a moment to take in the sights. One of the pedicab peddlers saw an opportunity and pounced:

“Good afternoon Sir, ladies! What a perfect day it is to take a leisurely bicycle-driven cab ride and see all the sights in our beautiful Central Park. Don’t you agree?”

 

The man and his family ignored the sales pitch. Undeterred, the bike man persisted.

 

“Since there are four of you I’ll give you an extra-special price. Normally we get twenty dollars an hour, but for you and your wife and lovely daughters I can let you keep the bikes for two hours for the same price! But we must keep this a secret. If the boss finds out, I’ll have to pay him the difference, and I can’t afford that.”

 

The tourist’s wife and daughters were looking towards the father. Feeling pressured he said, in a European accent I couldn’t identify, “I give you fifteen US dollars for two hours. Deal?”

 

“Oh man! Girls, your father is a good businessman. You guys are lucky to have him for a dad.”

 

“Good,” said the father proudly, believing he had assumed control of the negotiations in front of his family.

 

“Oh man, oh man! All right I’ll do it. You win. But remember, don’t talk about this price to anyone. This is very important. Deal?”

 

“Deal!” snapped the father as he reached for his wallet. The tension broke. The family was all smiles. The bike man led them towards a tangle of shabby looking pedicabs under a tree where all the grass had been worn down to dirt and not to the newer cabs neatly lined up in a row across the street from Trump International Tower.

 

The fledging conversation between The Professor and I paused while the drama unfolded before us. The process was to repeat itself time and time again, not always with success, but the bike peddler hunters were hungry, relentless in pursuit of their prey.

 

“Did you catch that?” I asked the lady sitting to my right.

 

“I most certainly did,” she said. “These guys are great.” We were both impressed.

 

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to work the conversation back to Don Quixote.

 

“So, there are guys like that in Don Quixote?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“No kidding? In what way?”

 

“Well, here we sit,” she said, “surrounded by the greatest wealth in the world while these young men work and maybe even live on these same streets, flogging tourists all day every day for a few dollars per trip. I would bet they are even indentured to some boss who’s watching every move they make. What a paradox.”

 

She pointed out a building under construction rising up into the Manhattan skyline behind CNN and the penthouses overlooking Central Park South.

 

“Someone just purchased an entire floor for 100 million dollars! Hah—when they look down this will all be going on right here under their noses, from dawn to dusk.”

 

“Maybe some will see where they came from,” I said.

 

She looked me and nodded. Then she did something unexpected. She reached into the pocket of her jogging suit top and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is one of my favorite quotes,” she said, and began reading…

 

“We shall find that in poverty itself there is no one poorer; for he is dependent on his miserable pay, which comes late or never, or else on what he can plunder, seriously imperiling his life and conscience so great that a slashed doublet serves him for uniform and shirt, and in the depth of winter he has to defend himself against the inclemency of the weather in the open field with nothing better than the breath of his mouth.”

I had just gotten my first formal introduction to Don Quixote and began feeling less incredulous, that maybe it was as she said, that maybe everything in life is in that book. If it indeed offered insights into both the pedicab guys on the street and billionaires in penthouses, maybe it could help me put my own sorry plight in perspective.

 

Continuing my park bench education into all things Quixote, she said in a professional tone, “Sancho’s disorientation engrosses us directly in the story and emphasizes the question of sanity that arises throughout the novel. If someone as mad as Don Quixote can write his own story, create his own reality, as it were, we wonder what would prevent us from doing the same.”

 

I can’t speak for the Professor—who I’d already began to characterize in my mind as The Don Quixote Lady—but a sudden lull in our conversation began making me uneasy. I searched for sensible questions or comments to keep our talk going, but my mind had gone blank. I was afraid that if the silence continued any longer she would pick herself up and leave, even though we had just begun to scratch the surface of this Don Quixote thing.

 

I was enormously relieved when she began to speak again.

 

“Are you a reader?” she asked.

 

“Oh yes, I love to read. I read all the time.”

 

“What kind of books do you like to read?”

 

A former Harvard professor and renowned Don Quixote expert asked me what kind of books I read.

 

Was I up to this?

 

“Well,” I answered vaguely, “I like many kinds of books and stories.”

 

“For example?”

 

“I like history—mostly military history, especially World War II and Vietnam. I just finished an excellent book about the Korean War that was the basis for the movie Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck.”

 

“I see,” she said noncommittally.

 

“Oh, and I also like crime books—the mafia and things like that.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

For some reason my mind had skipped over the fact that in the past few years I had been reading such classic and influential authors as Henry Miller, Celine, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and a slew of poets such as E.E. Cummings, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, along with short stories by Billy Collins and Studs Terkel.

 

“Oh,” I added, “I like Jack London’s adventure stories too.”

 

I still did not know my bench-mate’s name, but I cared about what she thought and watched as she tipped her juice container for a last sip. I expected her to speak, but there was another long pause.

 

“Okay, okay,” she said blandly. “I get it.” I felt like such a fool.

 

She began to stir. She was looking for a trashcan.

“Damn it Mike,” I chastised myself. “You should have mentioned Dostoevsky and the others—in place of various wars and Call of the Wild. Maybe then the conversation would have lasted.”

 

“Well, it was very nice talking with you,” she said. “I have to get on with my day now.”

 

“Oh sure,” I replied. “It’s a beautiful day. Enjoy it! It was nice meeting you too, and thanks for telling me about Don Quixote.”

 

As I watched her walk off into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller, I felt as if a joust of the intellect had just transpired, and I had been—deservedly—knocked off my horse.

 

Nowadays the number of bookstores in Manhattan has become increasingly sparse—as it has everywhere else. For this reason among others I am grateful that Posman Books is still thriving in Grand Central, a mere 10-block walk from my apartment.

 

I strode into Posman Books, red of face and full of purpose.

 

“Good afternoon,” said the sales clerk. “May I help you find something in particular?”

 

Quixote,” I blurted. “Uh, sorry—I mean Don Quixote!”

 

“Of course,” she said. “Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. That’s in Literature. Follow me please. I’ll help you find a copy. I’m sure we have a few different translations. Do you have a particular one in mind?”

 

Different translations?!? I thought, What the…

“No, not really, maybe just the most popular one. That will do, I think.”

 

“I have a good edition in mind. It’s the one I studied in college when I was getting my Masters. It’s by Tobias Smollett. It’s a wonderful translation—easy on the eyes, if you know what I mean.”

 

She handed me the book. It was heavy. I said, “Oh my God, look at the size of that book. It must be more than 1,000 pages long!”

 

“Excuse me Sir. Did you say something.”

 

“No. No, it’s okay, nothing important.”

 

I felt as intimidated as I’d felt back at Columbus Circle with the professor.

 

“Would you like to buy that one?”

 

“Sure. Yes. Why not? I mean…absolutely!”

 

I bought Don Quixote and walked from the store. The moment I turned the key in the lock and entered my apartment I wanted to dive right into the oversized book. But before I started, a cool shower was definitely called for. I set Mr. Coffee on brew and jumped into the shower.

 

As I stood under the refreshing spray, the words of The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle ricocheted inside my head. “Everything in life is in there. Everything is life is there.”

 

Could this be possible? I had not yet even read page one but still felt more alive, more optimistic, than I had in some time. What was with this book? What kind of journey would it take me on? Was I really prepared for a 900-plus page read? Or would I truly prefer to remain the central character in the ongoing pity party I kept throwing for myself?

 

After drying off I made my way to the couch, hot coffee in front of me on the table, book held steady in both hands.

Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote got down to business from the get-go!

 

(Page 1) Our gentlemen, who bordered upon fifty, were of a tough constitution, extremely thin and hard-featured, an early riser, and in point of exercise another Nimrod (like a mighty hunter).

 

(Page 2) Be it known therefore that this said honest gentleman at his leisure hours, which engrossed the greatest part of the year, addicted himself to the reading of books of chivalry, which he perused with such rapture and application that he not only forgot the pleasures of the chase, but also utterly neglected the management of his estate.

 

(Page 3) And more than once inclined to seize the quill, with a view of performing what was left undone; nay, he would have actually accomplished the affair, and published it accordingly, had not reflections of greater moment employed his imagination, and diverted him from the execution of that design.

 

Dulcinea, I read, the unseen simple peasant woman, unknown inspiration for all of Don Quixote’s exploits, clearly has no knowledge of the valorous deeds that he performs in her name. Even though his vision clears enough to reveal that the inns he sees are just inns and not castles, and the windmills were not monsters as he previously believed, he never gives up on his absolute conviction that Dulcinea can save him from all misfortune. Similarly, could my own visions have been just as delusional?

 

As I continued to read, a stalled low-pressure weather system had positioned itself over the Northeastern part of the country. The jet stream was dipping down where it normally does not venture in June, stubbornly preventing the hot humid weather from traveling, as usual, either northward or out to sea. In New York City the temperature and humidity began to climb almost as fast as the pages I was turning. The streets had become too sauna-like for any more outdoor adventures, even for an all-weather wanderer like me—l of which made it the perfect time to burrow down with Don Quixote in my comfy apartment.

 

The first breakthrough, that first aha moment in my skepticism about the Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle’s claim, that “Everything in life is in there” became particularly significant where it reads, “…until death it is all life”.

 

I’ve learned a great deal about life from Don Quixote.

Reading Don Quixote dispelled the notion that my situation was unique and that no one else could possibly feel the pain I felt. If no one could ever understand how I felt, how was it that 407 years ago Miguel Cervantes, through his fictitious Don Quixote, who was coincidentally my exact same age, felt precisely what I was feeling! Our experiences were different, but we definitely felt the same pain. My Dulcenia was not a beloved woman worthy of chivalry but rather my chivalric adventures, wandering throughout my beloved city, “my right to write.”

 

“I know who I am…and who I may be, if I choose.”

—Don Quixote

 

My personal journey into the world of words is now in its tenth year, and I know I will never stop writing. My new hero, Don Quixote de la Mancha, had Rocinante, his faithful steed. I have my faithful Keds. Once they are on my feet l too, like Alonso Quijano, aka Don Quixote, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, am free to venture out into a world that this is both within my grasp and beyond my wildest imagination.

 

The lingering question “Was I really crazy?” finally had an answer. Thanks to The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle, and to Miguel Cervantes and his Knight Errant Don Quixote de la Mancha, I have the answers—which are both Yes and No.

 

Yes, perhaps I am a bit crazy, paddling against the current of established norms and expectations of the society and culture in which my physical body exists. This can be dangerous, and isolating at times, which no sane person desires.

And No, I am not insane, because to live a life of quiet desperation, enthralled by material possessions while missing out on adventure, had become a kind of waking death. After much experimentation I realize that, for me, writing was the solution that could remove the emptiness that had grown unsustainable.

 

Later on, reading these passages reinforced my new confidence in the choices I had made.

 

DON QUIXOTE TO SANCHO PANZA: “Forgive me, friend,” said he, “for having been the cause of thy appearing in the eye of the world a madman like myself, by drawing thee into the eye of the world. A madman, like myself, by drawing thee into my own erroneous notions concerning the existence and adventures of knight–errant”.

 

SANCHO PANZA REPLIES: “Lack-a-day! dear Sir” (cried Sancho, blubbering), “do not die; take my advice and live many years upon the face of the earth; for the greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon than the hands of melancholy. Hark ye, senor, be not lazy; get up and let us take the field in shepherds’ apparel, according to our agreement. Who knows, but behind some bush we may find my lady Dulcinea disenchanted and a comely sight to see.”

 

These days, whenever I walk through Columbus Circle, I look around, past the pedicab drivers, past the horses and carriages, past the tourists that congregate in one tiny quadrangle on the island of Manhattan, in hope of seeing The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle again. If and when I do, I will rush over to say, “Thank you, dear lady for changing my life; by taking away the confusion and guilt. I get it. I truly do get it now.”

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