Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NY Story: Conversation and Conclusions in the Rain

Hello?  Hello?  Is anyone there? 

Oh, sorry.  It's you.  Do I seem a little jumpy? Yes, I guess I am.  I had a weird encounter just now, in the rain around midnight. Two, actually.  First, I recognized the former head of a major West Coast art institute, a guy I met many times in LA when we both lived there and a good friend of mine worked for him. He and I stood under a scaffold and talked for about 10 minutes on topics ranging from opera (he'd just come from one I'd never heard of) to museums, art critics ("museum groupies"), plants, and of course, our mutual friend.  It was a lively encounter that ended with him asking for my card and, as we went our separate ways, with me thinking about highly motivated people and my own crushing glibness. 

About 15 minutes later, still walking north, I was crossing 78th on the west side of Broadway near the Apthorp. I was chatting with a friend in LA about weighty issues (the usual), when a dark guy in a baggy dark coat strolled out from 78th onto Broadway.  He was about 20 feet ahead.  By day that block is a pleasant tree-lined stretch, but at night, the trees block the streetlights, and a wall of parked cars blocks any view from the street. So when the guy slowed under the second tree and reached into his pocket, I veered out into the street. I didn't make eye contact but crossed Broadway still talking.

My friend, safe at home in LA, told me the current vogue in muggings is to target people talking on cell phones, because they're oblivious to what's around them. Oh really? A block later, just as I reached the much bigger 79th Street, I was dismayed to see the same guy crossing ahead of me, as if to intercept me.  Was I imagining it?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I didn't like how it felt.  So I broke into a trot and crossed 79th away from him, explaining to my friend that I wanted to focus and would call her back. 

Broadway north of 79th was pretty empty -- the rain washes the streets clean, as Travis Bickle would tell you.  So I figured I'd just duck into the subway and take it home after all. I'd already walked more than a mile. If the guy were following me he wouldn't do so in the subway -- would he? Even if he did, I could just hang out by the station clerk's booth till the train came.

So I slipped down the stairs and found myself in a long, well-lit corridor, 40 feet away from the turnstiles.  I walked briskly down the hall, and when it opened up into the station lobby -- there he was. That guy. The station clerk, a small man in full uniform, was standing outside his booth, giving that guy the fisheye. Even so, that guy wasn't heading for the turnstiles: he was hovering, eyes restless. I looked at him. He looked at me. He had a nice face, but he seemed nervous and a little vulpine. Or did I imagine that?  The clerk's eyes darted nervously between us, and I didn't stop moving. I kept walking to the other stairway and then ran up it and back out onto Broadway. I didn’t look back. Why'd I leave? I had no desire to engage him in a staring contest down there with the station clerk as our witness. So now what?

The Dublin House, an average joint with a neon Celtic harp over the door, was nearby on 79th.  I almost never stop for a solo beer in a bar. But this seemed like a good time to dry off and hang out while the guy went away.  I walked in, full of nervous energy, but the crowd was too much, so I just stood in the doorway scanning the wet intersection for that vague silhouette.

He didn't show up again. After a few minutes I headed over to Amsterdam, where bar crowds throng outside to smoke. I called my friend to say I was okay.  I kept looking behind me. Then, walking under a scaffold, I wondered if he might have gone up Broadway and crossed over to Amsterdam on 80th to cut me off.  That corner was coming up. But the street ahead was lively, so I kept going. At 82nd a police van was idling at the light, so I waved to the cop (he was picking his nose), and after he rolled down his window, I related my little tale. He said he'd check it out and took off, lights flashing.

Did I overreact? Maybe. But I have cause. Long ago, in Harlem at twilight, I was chased down Broadway by about 10 teenagers in hoodies chanting "Howard Beach! Howard Beach!"  That night a taxi saved my life (or something). As my friend and I climbed into the cab, the kids stopped coming toward us and started laughing. Visiting again a few years later, it was around 1am when I saw a cluster of teenagers in hoodies approaching me on Eighth Avenue (back before Eighth was the wonderland of boutiques that it is now).  As I headed toward them, two kids stopped way up the block in a doorway. Two more split off to wait a few doors down. One walked out to stand between parked cars. And two kept coming toward me. I saw all that happen and veered out onto the avenue to hail a cab. They also started laughing as I got in and took off.

I walk late at night all the time. I try not to be stupid or paranoid. I try not to assume things based on color or clothes. I keep my eyes open. Was that guy tonight innocently heading for the subway all along? Would he have done nothing more than ask me for change? Did my bizarre reactions offend him? Worse, did the cop end up harassing an innocent, possibly deranged guy with nowhere better to spend a wet night?  I don't know. Am I trying too hard to justify myself? 

I do know that New York continues to provide adventures, and you meet the darnedest people on Broadway.

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