The City That Never Sleeps

December 04, 2006 by susan

The trouble with NYC isn't that it never sleeps, it's that I don't either when I'm here. I guess that's the metaphorical leap we're supposed to be making with that tune.
I've been in NYC for the last 6 days, visiting family, friends and museums, walking the length of Central Park, going with grandsons to the palaces of over-consumption, gawking at the marvel of so many people managing day after day to get to wherever they go, and without major mishaps.

This is an island, after all, a crowded bit of rock, and yet food comes in, tons of it, fresh and safe (for the most part) along with everything else from knock-off handbags the size of army duffels to cell phones no bigger than a stick of gum, all readily available on the street. Or, for the real deal and the real dollars, behind windows transformed into Siberian forests complete with romping white bears far more animated than those in the Central Park zoo, who, by the way, appear to have grown weary of city living. Yes, I'm a little over stimulated. The high-energy jolt of NYC has a way or reving my idling engines, and it never fails to remind me what a homogeneous place our town on the prairie -- a place I love -- really is.

Before the weather went from balmy to brrrr, I walked miles on the city's lively streets. What I noticed this time around was the lack of any English-speaking person doing the "dirty" work. There were truck drivers hauling the cases of St. Pauli Girl into the taverns and sliding crates of bananas down sidewalk chutes to the cellars-- teamster types -- who appeared to be English-as-first-language speakers, but almost everyone else, from cafeteria workers to bathroom cleaners to check-out clerks -- the vast hive of worker bees who keep this place humming -- appeared to be newer arrivals.
New York has always been the city of immigrants, so this is nothing unusual, and maybe I was only hyper aware of it on this visit due to their new political status as Problema Del Dia, and the various plans to wall 'em out, round 'em up and ship 'em out. America has always been a junkie for the sweat and muscle of those last off the boat, whether they made their passage willingly or in chains, and in that regard, nothing's changed. Without their astonishing labors good old go-it-alone America will screech to a halt.

Like any big city, New York can look daunting, even scary, from a distance. But once you zoom in and hit the streets, it feels surprisingly familiar and friendly. Random acts of kindness abound.

When I arrived I took the #60 bus from LaGuardia to 106th and Broadway on the upper west side for $2, in coins. It's a colorful slow ride that traverses Harlem, then angles down Amsterdam Avenue and over to Broadway. It's crowded, and bleary-eyed travelers cram together with work-worn locals.

Early on the route a young Asian woman inched her giant suitcase on to the bus, then dug through her purse trying to come up with the right coins for her fare. She grew flustered as others tried to board behind her, and the driver waved her past, telling her to pay him when she found the money. She gratefully plunked down in the seat next to me.
Across the aisle sat a doo-ragged, droopy-panted, doe-eyed young man, watching her. Her hands scraped at the bottom of her purse, but clearly she didn't have enough change. Without saying a word he reached over, tapped her knee, and handed her three quarters, enough for the rest of her fare. She gratefully accepted them, thanking him in what I took to be Mandarin Chinese. A sweet smile broke across his face, but be said nothing. She paid the driver and we lumbered on across Harlem in the winter's early darkness, retreating into our own thoughts. He got off at 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, giving her only the slightest nod, as if the gulf they'd bridged was no bigger than the aisle of a bus. To them, I realized, it wasn't. It was just -- New York.

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