The family and I had been wanting to see the Statue of Liberty for a while, so we recently hopped on a train and spent the weekend in the Big Apple. It was an enlightening adventure, New York style, a city so diverse it makes Tangier Island look ordinary.
We rode the Amtrak into Penn Station, walking up rust-stained cement stairs into the Manhattan noon daylight, as if swimming to the surface of an alien world. We floated among a tide of people as we walked to our hotel. Countless vendors selling sight-seeing bus tours accosted us, waving little credit card machines. After the third one I turned back and stared at my family. How did all these guys know we weren’t locals? I glanced at an older couple in Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, hauling bags. OK, those guys were tourists, but we were dressed in street clothes.
Then a mid-thirties couple brushed by a tour-selling vendor without even drawing a glance. I noted them, and over the next couple days catalogued all the things that makes a New Yorker, and why we couldn’t pass for one.
First, our sunglasses were way too small. New Yorkers wear immense sunglasses that cover more face than a welding mask. But with all the tall buildings, I could never figure out why. Direct sun never made it to street level.
Our kids were also a dead give-away. No matter where we went in New York, we didn’t see any others. I figure the mayor outlawed trans-fats and 32 ounce soft drinks, so who’s to say he hasn’t outlawed reproduction? That theory goes a long way to explain my next observation.
New Yorkers are prune-faced. I don’t mean all of them are angry, except for cab drivers, but in order to not have to respond to twenty-eight separate bus tour offers, they have to practice a healthy scowl. I envision that above every New Yorkers’ doorpost must hang a sign that reads, “Have a nice day, and try to look annoyed.”
The entire trip, I never saw an overweight New Yorker. Maybe it’s because dinner costs more than a mortgage payment, or because they have to walk everywhere since traffic never moves. In fact, all the streets in Manhattan are nothing more than parking lots with stoplights that flash, indicating when you’re supposed to honk. Green means you honk. Red means it’s the other guys’ turn. New Yorkers are polite like that.
To cope with all the pressure, most residents smoke. Everywhere. Streets are filled with jittering fingers clasping smoldering cigarette butts. Virginia may be a smoker-friendly state, but New York is state full of friendly smokers. The government is handling the epidemic with remarkable bureaucratic creativity – through taxes. I don’t smoke, but at a convenience store I noted a single pack of Marlborough’s cost as much as a year’s college tuition. Even so, with laudably defiant rebellion, New Yorkers jitter and puff away.
One beneficial side effect is drugs are no longer a problem. Most gangs have switched to the much more lucrative trade of illicit cigarette smuggling. I’m not kidding on this point. Cigarette smuggling to avoid paying the tobacco tax is a serious problem. Every time they crack down on it, the New Jersey turnpike is gridlocked from jumpy New Yorkers sneaking across the border to get a fix.
We met many beautiful people in the Big Apple. Even a tie-dyed two piece bikini clad man with a full beard. But the most memorable experience came on our walk to the Empire State Building.
At first there was a drizzle so we raised our umbrellas. By the end of the first block, the sky had darkened and rain fell hard. In the middle of the second block, the wind whipped around the buildings so strong it turned our umbrellas inside out. Lightning flashed, illuminating the towering grey structures above. Behind me my daughter screamed above the torrent, “I read the Empire State Building holds the world record for the most lightning strikes.” Great, and we were walking right to it. The obituary back home already ran through my mind. We wouldn’t go up the tower, but why not at least stand next to it just for a quick selfie?
We stopped under the canopy at the front and a bright-eyed young man with a card reader jogged up. “Want to go up?”
I pointed to the sky. “You mean to the observation deck?”
“Yeah. How many of you are there?”
I looked cross-eyed at my wife. “Four.”
“It’d be thirty-four dollars.”
I shrugged. “Not bad for all of us. Maybe after the rain –”
“No. Thirty-four dollars each.”
I shook the water from my bent umbrella, the fabric torn from one of the metal spars. “You mean you’d charge a hundred and thirty-six dollars to send my family up to an observation platform at the top of the Empire State Building during a lightning storm?”
He pulled out a smart phone. “I can check the visibility up there if you want.” He started to dial.
I peered up just as lightning creased the sky. A couple splashed by a few feet away, holding oversized sunglasses high as a shelter from the squall. This guy was good. He could sell air conditioners in Alaska, so I offered him a job. He spread wet arms. “I can’t leave my city!”
The same enthusiasm resides in many New Yorkers. Kind eyes over a wide smile. It didn’t matter if they were selling hats or running a Halal Guys food cart. Folks were excited.
So on our last day in Manhattan I decided to perform an experiment. I rolled a piece of paper from a hotel note pad to look like a cigarette, hung sunglasses big as dinner plates off my nose, squeezed earbuds into my ears, practiced my best “I’m constipated” look in the mirror (not hard to do after lunch from the Halal Guys), and set us out on a trek back to Penn Station. Even with the kids in tow, not a single tour vendor approached. I’d done it. Big Apple camouflage. They all thought we were local. The only people who came near were a white-haired couple with knee-high black socks. The man wore a blue Navy Veteran ball cap and clasped a map, pointing helplessly to its middle.
“Sir, can you tell me where we are?”
“New York,” I said, trying hard not to act polite.
“No, I mean, on this map. We’re trying to get to Central Park.”
I pulled out the fake cig and pointed with it. “East on 33rd, then north on 7th.”
It was morning. The bewildered man looked to the sky and spun around, trying in vain to get his bearings. “Where’s the #@&! sun?”
I smiled and patted his shoulder. “Welcome to New York, sailor.”