Staying in Manhattan was not an option on our tight travel budget for our trip to New York City, so we opted for a budget hotel in Brooklyn. As soon as we checked in, we dropped our suitcases and headed back out to ride the subway. The woman at the front desk supplied us with a crude map and highlighted the Nostrand stop in case we forgot how to get back to the hotel. On the way to the train, a man on the street was midway through a semi-coherent rant about the evils of white people and gave us hostile look as we passed. I wanted to explain to him that we were only in town for a history conference at Columbia University and we would be gone in a few days, but I was certain that this information would not quell his rage.
I was not prepared for the amount of urine that permeated the concrete in New York’s subway stations. I don’t want to come from Michigan and tell you how to run things, but maybe a public restroom or two would help the situation. After we figured out how to ride the A train in the direction of Columbus Circle, we walked around Manhattan in search of food and beer. Rad spotted Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant with a kindly bartender who bought us a Negra Modelo. After consuming ropa vieja, Cuban sandwiches, black beans and a few beers, we wandered around before hopping a train toward Battery Park.
Several tour guides on the street were absolutely convinced that we were there to see the Statue of Liberty. It didn’t matter that we turned down the first four people that shoved leaflets in our faces, the fifth and sixth tour guides were certain that they could convince us to visit Liberty Island. We waded through a sea of people wearing green foam crowns and carrying small statues of Lady Liberty on our way toward the Staten Island Ferry terminal. A woman stood out front and urged commuters to repent immediately or suffer in Hell for eternity. We kept moving. Soon, there were more guides. This time they were hawking helicopter and boat rides.
We soon ran into Chinatown and subsequently Little Italy. I stopped for a moment to snap a photo of a building that was painted in the colors of the Italian flag. A hipster girl on a bike slowed down enough to ridicule me for my obvious lack of coolness. “Seriously?!” she called to me as she flippantly rolled her eyes. She reminded me of a girl who called me a bitch at a yard sale one time because I had just purchased something she wanted. Some encounters just stick with you. We continued on and ate at a hokey barbecue restaurant with a rude staff before finding the train back to Brooklyn. After a few stops an intoxicated man boarded and began threatening passengers with a plastic butter knife.
“I’ll cut you!” he yelled. “I’ll slice you up! You can’t run to your momma now. I’m gonna kill somebody!”
As passengers spied a weapon in their periphery, their heads jerked around before realizing that the knife was likely swiped from a 7-11. Though his speech was slurred, I picked up on his contempt for white people. Was a he friend of the guy near the Nostrand station? Even though I was pretty sure that a plastic knife wouldn’t kill us, I was positive that it would involve some measure of pain and possibly leave a scar. My strategy of avoiding eye contact paid off and he soon moved on to yell at other white people.
The next morning, Rad put on a sport coat and grabbed everything for his presentation at Columbia University. We headed for the subway and left ourselves extra time to get to our destination by 9 a.m. The train didn’t move for several minutes. An over modulated voice came over the speakers and indicated that there was an “incident” on the track. We sprinted from the idle express train and boarded a slower local train on another track. Time was quickly passing and there was a good possibility we would be late. After a transfer, the crammed train approached our stop. I tried to politely make my way to the doors so we could make a mad dash to the conference. I tapped a woman on the shoulder and asked, “Do you mind if we squeeze past you?” She didn’t budge. Puzzled, I inquired again and told her that we needed to get off at the next station. “We’re all getting off here!” she thundered at me as she shoved Rad out of her way. “Uh, I’m sorry. How was I supposed to know?” I said. As the doors opened, Rad pointed at her and announced to the other passengers, “Hey everybody, I thought you might want to know that she’s getting off here!” A few people snickered at her and we felt vindicated as we briskly walked to the conference. With minutes to spare, we made it to the correct building and choked down a bagel and cup of coffee before the presentations began.
After the conference, we grabbed a beer with a friend and then made our way to a Tex-Mex restaurant with a mariachi band that played “Canción Mixteca” in exchange for a few bucks. A drunken man from Michigan who claimed to be spotlight operator on Broadway was throwing cash around as if it were spring break. He bought us a beer and shoved a wad of bills in the front pocket of the guitar player. After eating a plate of meat, onions and peppers that was ensconced in cheese, we took the most expensive taxi ride of our lives back to the hotel.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant and strolled through a street market before returning to Columbia to see a few presentations that I only partly understood. Later in the day, we met up with a friend at the Guggenheim and later went to grab some food at a Shake Shack. As we crossed the street near the Papaya King, a taxi pulled over abruptly, blocking the crosswalk. The driver got out and began to shout at another man on a bike. We naturally stopped to see what the commotion was. Evidently, the man riding the bike dropped the N-bomb in reference to the man driving the taxi. As the cabbie was telling the man on the bike to prepare for a supreme ass beating, his passenger became aggravated and exited the vehicle; presumably without paying. The guy on the bike threw out a few more racial epithets before pedaling off with the taxi driver chasing him down 86th Street on foot. I’m still hoping the taxi driver caught up with him.
On the last day, we rode the subway to Coney Island. We were some of the only people on the train and the most of the attractions were closed when we arrived. Nathan’s Famous was open, so we had a late breakfast consisting of hotdogs, cheese fries and lemonade. Maybe the hotdogs were excellent a few decades ago, but I might as well have been eating a hotdog from a roller grill at a gas station. Since there was not much to do down by the shore, we headed back to Manhattan to kill some time before we needed to leave for LaGuardia.
Central Park is free and seemed like a good place to waste some time. We sat in a shady spot and pitied the horses that were pulling hansom cabs while bathed in sweat and pooping onto pieces of tarp that were strung up under the carriages. We then walked over to the pond and gazed at all the people rowing boats backwards through the filthy water. Finally, we decided to just get to the airport and wait on our flight. When we arrived at the gate, the staff at the Delta desk was yelling at passengers and threatening to give their seats away. We struck up a conversation with a desperate man who had been trying to get on a Florida-bound plane for a few days to no avail. Naturally, our flight was oversold and they were asking for volunteers to give up seats. There was no way I was going to surrender my ticket. A sense of relief washed over me as the plane took off from New York back toward Detroit. I looked at the city lights and wondered aloud, “How many people are down there being assholes to each other right now?”