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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Mr. A and The Big A

I couldn't help but think, "So, this is how it felt," as my plane made a gut-droppng bank over Manhatten. The buildings seemed too close. The plane seemed to low. I couldn't see an airport. But I played it cool, stared out the window with what I hoped was a reasonable facsimile of the look shared by frequent travelers to New York. Shea stadium looked big. The runway that appeared below me seemed to small.

The cabbie giggled more than he talked. He was taking curious pleasure in beeping his horn at no one in particular. My first bridge, Triborough, spanned the water between me and a city that, admittedly, scared the hell out of me. I watched the meter on the dash climb over ten, fifteen, and twenty dollars before settling at $21.

I never saw the cabby's face. I pulled a roll of cash out of my pocket, started throwing bills at whoever held out their hand. A tip here, a tip there, an elevator ride and I'm in an ultra-modern hotel room. The TV is big screen. The mini-bar has motion sensors. The hip managers traded pillow mints for Twizzlers. The Do Not Disturb sign reads "Fuhgeddabouddit."

So, here's the thing: I was alone and had four hours to kill. The bed was comfortable and the TV was big and the city was big and scary. What'd you expect me to do?

Midtown Manhatten, behind cheap sunglasses. I am, all at once, nobody. I am in a sea of color, smell, and noise. I'm not a city mouse, but I'm no tourist. I am Mr. Anonymous.

$3.50 buys me a hot dog and bottle of water on the edge of Central Park. The vendor wanted a small bill and I didn't have one. Again, I found myself with a wad of cash in my hand and trying to remember to stop flashing the roll around. It mattered not. The dog was as I'd hoped and three steps into the park introduced me to an unexpected but pleasing fact: The women in New york, especially en masse, are enough to stir the loins of the chilliest of men. I stood staring into a sea of sunbathing beauties, gold skin reflecting the sun--already reflected from a small lake. The initial guilt I felt staring vanished quickly. I was Mr. Anonymous. Ketchup, mustard, large unexpected rocks rising out of the park, women with next to nothing on. I moved from Utopia to the street.

Make no mistake. A horse's ass is no flower. Three dozen horses' asses make for an unfortunately smelly street.

For a block and a half, handsome cabs lined the street. Hot and tired horses licked their feed from the asphalt. Drivers napped in the carriages. The street made this part of the city smell like a barnyard. Street vendors ignored the musk and manure to hawk flowery signs bearing the buyer's name or three dollar "I Heart NY" shirts. Mr. Anonymous wanted no part of it. Mr. Anonymous wanted a beer.

It couldn't be just any bar. This was my first beer in the city. I wanted a dark, hole-in-the-wall where Mr. Anonymous would apreciate the atmosphere and slide into the shadows. I walked for a few blocks. Tourist trap, martini bar, hey, look, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Deli. No bar. An Indian man lured me into his tourist trap. The four-foot hookah in the corner quickly gace away his real merchandise. It was a religous thing, I'm sure.

Martini bar, pizza joint, fancy restaurant...waitwaitwait...SALOON.

The sign hung from the side of a tall building. It had the look of an old-school watering hole, maybe barely still in business. At least, the sign did. It was a gimmick. I walked closer and realized the joint was just another place where they fold the napkins to look like sea shells. Mr. Anonymous was getting thirsty.

Other than the horse's ass, the first real scent of the city that turned my head came out of a place called Lace. Unintentionally, I had made my way to Times Square. I had recently passed NBC, CBS, and Radio City Music Hall. They were sights I hadn't intended to see. I was just the guy behind cheap sunglasses, being inconspicuous in plain sight. It was completely by accident (or some inate man-ness) that I found myself thirsty and nose-tingling in front of a strip club.

The rationale was actually pretty good: For the love of all that is holy, I was on a mission to find the perfect place to have my first beer in New York and I stumbled upon a strip club in Times Square. The story would be one I would tell my grandchildren.

The familiar smell of stripper perfume surfed out on the conditioned air. The sign read "Free admission 12-8pm." The bouncer at the door gave me a look that said, "Mr. Anonymous, we've been expecting you."

It was about that time I thought of author James McManus. While writing a book, he'd been on a trip to Vegas and had promised his wife he wouldn't visit a gentleman's club. McManus wrote in his book, "I've made promises." The line echoed in my head. I, too, had made promises about a year earlier. I've never understood my wife's disdain for strip clubs, but I figured at the time it was a reasonable promise to make her happy and, admittedly, to make her shut up.

I took one last look at the blacked out windows of Lace, breathed in the cheap perfume one last time, then looked around for a street vendor selling fake Gucci purses. I thought it would be a perfect gift for my wife. She could carry my testicles in it.

Mercifully, an Italian joint two block away infused the air with oregno. My mind sulked away from thoughts of passing up such a good opportunity for a story.

"BITCH!!"

That was to be expected. After all, I was in Times Square, hell, I was in New York and I hadn't see one crazy person.

"Gotcha at your own game, BITCH!."

The skeleton man wasn't directing his comments at anyone in particular. He held his baby blue electric guitar above his head and broke into maniacal cartoon laughter."

"Gotcha, BITCH!"

The children walking out of the gigantic Toys-R-Us ignored skeleton man...as did Mr. Anonymous.

Still thirsty, confused of nose, and sufficiently bitched out, I abandoned my quest to find the perfect "first beer" joint and settled on the next available bar. That happened to be Hamburger Harry's. It had baskets of pretzels on the bar, cheap beer, and a cute bartendress. That should've been enough, but I still felt like a tourist in that place. Too bright. I drank my beer and left quickly. There was more city through which to flow anonymously. The sidewalks were full of the smoking set. The mayor kicked them out of most indoor areas (including bars) last year. They compete for space with the hot dog vendors. I couldn't help but smile and be satisfied when two unrelated but neat things happened on the same street corner.

First, two bike messengers crashed into each other, tangling together their metal, cursing, and blaming each other for the crash. Then, as if to even-out the ju-ju, an ice cream vendor stopped his truck at the curb and ordered a dog with kraut from a hot dog man. The dog man served Mr. Ice Cream through the truck's serving window. Ice Cream said thank you to Hot Dog, goodwill was resored to the corner, and all was right with the world. It felt like a good time to head to the hotel.

I should mention at this point, upon stepping foot in the city, I abandoned all worry about how I should dress. It became apparent very quickly that it just didn't matter. That's why on Saturday night, I felt at least basically comfortable slipping on a pair of gray slacks and a shirt that shows off my little chest hair, nipple-protrusions, and stark possibility of being a gay, white, male in America.

The subway and its almost constant stench of urine were as unremarkable as you might expect. Its ability to transform me into a 21 year old city boy...that had more merit. A ten-minute ride dumped me in The Village. Bohemia, full of glorious smells, beautiful women, and the kinds of rhythms that make me smile.

Lamb and pita bread for dinner, beer and acoustic music for dessert. The walk is head shops, fruit stands, and a sign that reads "Men and women, Best Back Rub in Town."

In Washington Square Park, the guy who sauntered by me was a man of wares and was not afraid of broadcasting his menu. In step, just like suppliers at Dead shows, he whispered, 'Smoke. Coke" and never broke stride. If I were shopping, it would've been my responsibility to turn around. But, I was content enough with my slight beer buzz, poofy nipples, and recently-recognized love for America's largest city.

Again, somehow, i found mysef in Times Sqaure. It was more crowded and it was daylight at midnight. The strippers lament had waned and I found myself with an understanding of the city that I didn't expect to find after only 36 hours. I, quited unexpectedly, liked the place. Anonymity is not only possible, it's almost required. I am nobody and at the same time a cog in a giant human engine. It is reality. Not my own, but one that in the past only existed in television dramas. As much as I expected a city full of aliens, I found neighbors.

From Central Park, to 5th Ave., to Bleeker St., I walked, rode, blended, smiled, drank, smelled, lamented, laughed, ate, and for a few precious hours stepped out of my life and into the shoes of Mr. Anonymous.

The plane banked hard over the city and turned back down the eastern coast and I went home...where, trite as this sounds...the heart is.

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