Close encounters of the NY kind

“How’s it being back?”

“What’s it like being home?”

These are the questions everyone has been asking ever since I arrived in New York two weeks ago. I totally get it. It’s the normal thing to ask someone who’s been away for so long. Sort of like when you see a pregnant person and ask, “When are you due?” Or if a couple just got married, you may say, “Where are you honeymooning?” Or if you just changed jobs it could be, “How’s the commute?”

Standard protocol questions that usually elicit standard protocol responses: “In November” or “Africa” or “Not bad.”

Only, I’m having a hard time answering how it really is being back; and what it’s really like. On one hand, it’s like I never left. I know what staircase to take in order to exit the subway at just the right spot and I can count exact change for a cold brew at Toby’s Estate without having to look too closely at the coins. Then again, all stations still don’t have ETA boards and when the heck did Toby’s Estate open up in the West Village???!! I guess that old adage is true: The more things change, the more the stay they same.

I do find myself looking up more to see how the light hits the buildings and cursing the humidity for how terribly it treats my curls. I’ve also noticed a strange plethora of sunflowers growing on rooftops in the West Village and in front yards on Long Island.

But so far, the one major thing that’s really struck me about being back in New York are the awesome encounters one can have with strangers—and what a host of characters they can be.

Now, I’m not sure if I’m experiencing more of these encounters because I’m confident in actually being able to converse with said strangers; or if New Yorkers really are that personable and friendly. Or maybe now that I’m “visiting” as opposed to really “living” here, I’m walking around with less of a cloudy shield over my corneas. But there is nothing quite like a random encounter with a NYC stranger. There’s something so romantically “Only in New York,” Isn’t-This-City-Just-The-Tops? about it. You walk away feeling that all humanity is not lost in this crazy world we live in—no matter where we live, what color we may be or whose God we pray to. In the end, we’re all riding this wave together.

So far, the following have stood out:

Older Woman on Downtown A Express Train
Following last Wednesday night’s performance of Hamilton, I took the downtown A train back to my apartment. I pulled out the Playbill to look it over during my ride (as one without headphones or a book might do), and an older woman with soft wrinkles and a blue scarf sitting next to me asked if I’d just seen the show. I said I had and this sparked a whole conversation about theater and performances, and what’s worth seeing right now. (Kinky Boots? Meh. Hand to God? Yeah!) We chatted from 42nd Street all the way to West 4th Street, where we both got off and continued talking as we climbed the stairs to the street. Then, we stood there for a few minutes more before she went east on Waverly and I west, humming the finale to the show I’d just seen: “Who will write your story? Who will remember you when you’re gone?”

Construction Worker at Murray’s Bagel
After looking around for a place to sit, a bald guy with a bright yellow vest waved me over, shifted a table and moved his hard hat so I had room to wiggle into the shared bench. We didn’t really talk much as we sat and ate our noticeably similar sesame seed bagels with scallion cream cheese. He was reading The Post and I the Times on my iPhone. But there were a few shared nods and smiles: when his phone rang and I thought it was mine; or when I then pulled the table aside so he could get out. “Have a great day,” he said to me upon leaving. I knew I would.

Toddler at Murray’s Bagel
To be honest, I was bummed to be losing a quiet adult for a precocious toddler in pigtails, but “Stella” was actually quite adorable and well-behaved. Funnily enough, we practically had on the same outfit: She was in a white skirt with silver stars, paired with silver sandals and I was in a black skirt with pink watermelons paired with pink metallic sandals. I didn’t know whether to be proud of sharing a similar fashion sense with a girl who’s “4 and three-quarters” or embarrassed. At least while talking to her my vocabulary skills surpassed hers, as opposed to if I were in this same situation in Paris. I said she looks like a ballerina and she told me all about how she likes baseball. Go get ’em, kid.

Construction Worker on East 12th Street
I know: I also can’t believe I’m listing two (two!) decent encounters with NYC construction workers. Usually, it’s all whistles, sleazy winks and catcalls. But as I was shlepping two dozen books across four avenues on 12th street to The Strand, I came upon a section of the block that was undergoing major construction. Just as I was contemplating the path around it with the least resistance, a man lifted up the tape to let me through. Halfway under a giant piece of scaffolding and just about as a crane came swinging my way, another construction worker was all, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can’t go this way.” Startled, I tried to explain that the other guy let me through. He then gave him the stink-eye and ushered me to the other side of the street where he apologized for the scare and for briefly touching my elbow while escorting me. “All good!” I said. “I appreciate your concern.”

Guy Wearing a Velvet Bowtie on Sixth Avenue
His name was Monty. Though, I didn’t know this until we’d walked at least 8 blocks in sync up Sixth Avenue. The conversation began because we were both jaywalking at 2a.m. and nearly got run over by a cab. I can’t remember what else we spoke about because it was 2a.m. and I’d had three very strong cocktails, a beer and two pieces of Joe’s Pizza. Just as we were approaching my block, he suggested we go for a drink, to which I practically laughed in his face. Not only because my inhibitions were clearly loose and I was convinced he played for the other team—he was, after all, wearing an awesome velvet bowtie and smoking a weird skinny blue cigarette—but because I was Done-zo for the evening. So I thanked him for the enjoyable walk to which he said, “I’ll see you, then.”

The next day, as I was recalling this last encounter with my friend Saryn who I’d been out with, she said: “Are you sure he was real????”

I actually thought about it for a second. After all, we had some pretty strong drinks, one of which featured this crazy weird Hong Kong spirit called Baijiu that’s got 50% alcohol in it.

“OMG maybe I DID hallucinate it,” I texted. “It does sound crazy.”

The bowtie. The weird cigarette. The casual, “I’ll see you, then.”

“Sounds like the devil paid you a visit,” she joked.

But even in my hangover-induced fog, I knew it was real. Real New York.

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