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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Warm Breezes, Cool City Vibes

Warm Breezes, Cool City Vibes
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

New York, NY – The advantage of living in one of the suburban areas surrounding New York City is the opportunity to shoot down to the Big Apple on a moment’s whim and take in any number of cultural experiences, sights and/or sounds. And even to see an old friend, one of over 1.6 million people that call Manhattan home and have stubbornly chosen to keep rooted in this often tough but always amazing place.

One early June Saturday was such a day. After browning myself at a nearby beach close to home along Connecticut’s southwestern shore, I motored in. The very southern tip of Manhattan is only 57 miles from my home, so at an average clip of 60 miles an hour, it takes less time to reach the city’s limits than it does to watch a morning news program. The air was heavy this day so my car windows were up, the A/C max’ed and the radio ticking off a summertime playlist.

I followed the mostly North-South running Interstate 95 from Connecticut into New York State, down through Westchester and into the Bronx, where 95 is briefly called the Cross Bronx Expressway. Robert Moses conceived of this stretch back in the 1940s and bulldozed a swath right through the middle of Manhattan’s sister borough and all the way over to the Hudson River.

Before the George Washington Bridge crossing, one has to hop off onto Route 9, which is the westernmost approach into New York. It was a beautiful – and fast – drive along this shore crest and boating traffic dotted the Hudson. The pace slowed up a bit at 59th Street, which is where the traffic lights begin as well as all the piers that encircle Manhattan, which are home to tour boats and cruise lines and the floating museum U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier.

This same area had been jammed with sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen a week before, during a period known annually as Fleet Week, when navy men and women have shore leave. They fill all the clubs and restaurants and streets with their mostly white uniforms and are usually full tilt in their gregariousness blowing off steam pent up at sea. But this day, it was just tourists milling about.

In its sporadic wisdom, city planners had built a long-stretching bike/pedestrian path along the length of this route, which was enjoying much activity from joggers, walkers, cyclists, rollerbladers, moms with strollers and other wheeled and non-wheeled outdoor enthusiasts.

Approaching the Financial District and the northwest corner of the former World Trade Towers site, I noticed quite a bit of progress had been made installing 1 World Trade (formerly called the “Freedom Tower”). This $3.1 billion skyscraper will rise 1,776 feet into the sky, feature an illuminated mast and taper into eight tall isosceles triangles, forming an octagon at its center. There will be an observation deck at 1,362, the height of the original Towers. Builders predict the structure to open in late 2013. Like the tripod-like aliens from the sci-fi thriller “War of the Worlds”, several massive cranes busily operated at the site, moving rebar and beams from one area to another.

Being careful not to get accidentally channeled into the Holland Tunnel, which would deposit me in Brooklyn, I curled right into the heart of the District and around to the other side of the site headed back northwards. Here, the site was not visible like the other side and surrounded by plywood mounted on fences. There was, however, an oversized photo showing an aerial view and a solid, virtually impenetrable concrete and steel core.

At West Houston Street, I hung a left to access one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city and popular Bleecker Street. After a number of minutes circling for a parking spot, I found one on Washington Place and docked my land cruising sedan. It was late afternoon at this point and things were really hopping. At the center of the hive, there was a street fair, running for several blocks west of 7th Avenue South. Here, both sides of the road were clustered with vendors, of everything from food and jewelry to clothing and artwork.

“Two fo’ five dollah!” was the first cry I heard as I wandered over, from an Asian woman hawking smoothies. Directly across from her was an organic pizza vendor, and he was squawking, “Slices! One dollar! Ice cold water! All one dollar!” I liked the latter offer and for two dollars and eighteen cents, I was off and running with a bottle stuffed in a shorts pocket and a tasty slice curled up in and slightly sticking out of a paper plate. In this way, I started combing the wares on display.

I marveled at some sepia-toned photos. Listened to some old jazz tunes. Saw a woman strip down to a purple thong right there on the street to try on a skirt. The latter’s name was Angela, a cocoa-brown lass who said she was prepping to leave for Italy for a three-month visit.

One popular vendor had a display of Silly Bands. These are the very trendy bands that look like regular rubber bands when they’re stretched around your wrist but, when you take them off, they retain the outline of an animal or an insect or some other themed item. Kids love them, but so do adults. A woman visiting from Louisiana was selecting several packets – each containing 10 bands – which were being offered at $2/packet or three packets for $5. “Can we give this lady a Southern discount?!” I said to the vendor on this visitor’s behalf. She laughed, held up a couple packets and asked me, “Which would you go with – dinosaurs or zoo animals?”

I just had to buy a packet myself and chose sea life. The packet included seahorses, sharks, penguins, sea lions and dolphins, two of each. Stuffing the package into my pocket, I u-turned to follow my path back and my nose to a nearby grill, which was bedecked with chicken and beef kabobs. I got a beef kabob and a chunk of bread to go for the bargain price of $2.50.

Starting to near the six o’clock hour, vendors began dismantling their booths and stowing things in boxes, containers, suitcases and bags. The vendors that had operated grills were dousing water on the coals, sending steam up into the air.

A foursome hovered near a barricade, maps out, I LOVE NY t-shirts on. “You’re lost aren’t you?” I jokingly said. “How could you tell?” came the reply, as joking. “Where are you trying to go?” I inquired. “We’re trying to get to our bus… here,” this woman said, pointing to a spot marked “10”. I shared the route that I would take to get there and they seemed satisfied with that and thanked me.

Tugging with my teeth the kabob cubes off the wooden skewer, I kept walking, and eventually crossed back over 7th Avenue South. I was now on a cocktail hunt and it was a toss-up between Caliente Cab Company and Sushi Samba. The latter, open to the air, pumping out samba tunes and featuring two scantily clad samba dancer hostesses in front, got my vote. I settled onto a long, cushion-covered bench seat and, soon, Alice the Asian waitress with her translucent eyes was taking my drink order. I would try a 22-ounce Asahi, which would both refresh me and keep me out of trouble for a little while. And it seemed appropriately priced and a good value at $11. The Asahi came ice cold and looked golden as Alice poured it into a tall, slender glass.

Beside me to the right, there was an Indian guy, Rob, who was part of a group of six just having cocktails before being seated for dinner. He and a female friend were visiting from San Francisco. He passed off a business card identifying himself as a product marketing manager for a silicone company and said he regularly hires freelance writers for technical writing projects and there might be an opportunity for me. Our heads swiveled for a moment as a very long-legged hostess passed through. “I’m very single!” he called, not quite after her, but perhaps loud enough so she might hear.

As Rob and his group were summoned to dine, an Indian couple, Pete and Jan, settled in. I decided to have some fun with them and had them close their eyes, pick from my hand an Animal Band at random and then pose for a photo. They were amused by this creation and slipped the bands onto their wrists.

Another trio dropped in, this group directly across from me, led by Zed, yet another Indian guy and visiting from Boston. “I like an American who knows good beer!” he called across to me, noticing the bottle of Asahi. He and his girl pals seemed like good sports so I had them do the Silly Bands selecting, too. They were delighted with their choices, and held them up and compared them.

Alice suddenly appeared with a large bottle of Duvel Belgian beer, which Zed had treated me to, unbeknownst to me. It was a big-hearted and thoroughly unexpected gesture and I shared the contents with him, refusing to drink alone. We toasted and wished each other luck, with promises of getting in touch through Facebook.

An excellent breeze that had kept things cool kicked up outside, pitching back and forth a paper lantern that hung from an awning out front and glowed orange. Above it was a Brazilian flag, which flapped and rustled.

A private party, that had been going on upstairs, concluded and the party guests – the ladies in their short skirts and high heels – stepped down a curling open stairway into the main room. Some stayed on but most exited as the place continued to fill up and the wait for tables grew lengthier. At the back of the room, the wall holding all the bottle displays glowed red and a pattern of circles on the ceiling above the area where the food prep was occurring glowed pale yellow.

More guests rolled in, including leggy Misty, her cohort Doshia and Doshia’s brother Carl. The three said they were “on rotation”, going from place to place without a real plan. Misty, an attractive black woman with very long legs, said she was visiting from Dallas. She spoke about the new stadium there, even showed me a few photos and remarked about the famous Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. “Boots should be brown or black, not white,” she opined. Fair enough, but who was looking at the boots?!

They became receivers of Silly Bands, as did the lovely Mariana, who had spent much of the day apartment hunting with a roommate to be. The part Chinese/part Hispanic woman had seen 10 places and was preferring the Upper West Side. I put her on the horn with my friend Nikki, who was up in that area and whom I thought could help provide guidance.

Nikki was actually an old high school friend who, believe it or not, I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. We had reconnected through Facebook and would be meeting shortly up in her neighborhood. As it was about time to start heading up there,
I bid adieu to my new collection of friends and stepped out into the night air – tropically warm, long tan legs everywhere, bright lights, a cacophony of sound and hustle of traffic.

Just around the corner, two women were perched on a stoop, sharing a square of cake. I bent close, they looked up and the nearest one said, “Would you like some?” And some say New Yorkers are not friendly. I gladly accepted a pod of the sweet confection, bid them a good night and hopped in my sedan for the cruise uptown.

Again, like any busy summer Saturday night in New York, parking was an issue. After circling for a time, I pulled up in front of Soldier McGee’s, walked in and, though it had been eons, immediately spotted and summoned Nikki. It seemed as if we’d seen each other yesterday the way the encounter went down. She was elegant in her long black summer knit dress, which contrasted the pool stick she had firmly in hand as she ran a nearby table.

I explained that I was double parked and she called over to a firefighter friend, “Danny! This is my friend Mike. He needs a place to park. Can you help him out?”

Danny sprang into action, I followed him out, we shuttled in my car to his own just up the block, he grabbed a firefighters’ parking placard and we took a spin around the corner to the firehouse where he’s employed. “Here, pull up here and put this on your dash.” It was the second big-hearted gesture of the evening and I was greatly appreciative, rewarding the act with a beer as we stepped back into the lively tavern.

Nikki introduced me to her boyfriend Keith, then friend Christy as well as Marion, Christy (who was sporting a finger cast and told an amusing story of catching the digit in a shirt), the bartender, assorted staff and even security. “Put Mike on our tab,” said Nikki to the beautiful, dark-haired Israeli-born bartender. “She’s married but we’re the only ones that know. Everyone thinks she’s single. She gets better tips!”

Soon, a quesadilla appeared, which I sliced up into squares and offered around. I also watched the pool play, and Nikki’s accidental but effective skills. She took down player after player as we caught up on the span of years that had passed since our tender days at Scarsdale’s Edgemont High School.

Folks streamed in and out at a regular clip in this high-ceilinged establishment, which had a large flatscreen mounted at one end that was marked “Barfly TV”. One visitor that stood out was Yani, a Dominican-born woman from Washington Heights who was out with a friend. We both knew enough of each other’s language to communicate, though the friend would step in periodically to help with a translation. She had a long stemmed rose in front of her, which a vendor that had visited the bar had passed off.

Midnight then one o’clock ticked by and I was starting to feel the length of the day. It was going time, I bid my goodbyes to all, shuffled to the firehouse to collect my steed and made the speedy trek back to my oceanside Connecticut home. It had been a fine day in “The City” and I would hold closely the images and snippets of chat that I had experienced.