Tom’s Diner

The Times had a decent article about Sunday’s march, which is mostly a blur to me now of signs, crowds, skin, costumes, cops, heat, and noise. Unlike the jubilant nature of the anti-war marches I had attended in San Francisco, the mood of this march felt cautious, which is to be expected, considering what New York has been through. Or maybe I’m just projecting again, viewing the crowds around me with the watchful hesitation I felt all morning.

When we reached Madison Square Garden, site of the GOP Convention, protesters pushed themselves up against the barricades surrounding the building, chanting and waving their signs at the scores of police clad in riot gear. Helicopters hovered overhead, the chop of their propellers echoing down off the buildings lining Seventh Avenue. One man, thin, sweat running down his pale face, pushed his way to the front of the crowd and began yelling at the cops there; “Officers have been killed in Iraq! You should be joining us! You should be JOINING US!” He was a moment from snapping; everyone, including the other protesters, watched him warily. Everyone lingered, drawn cautiously to the most obvious point of conflict. Before we had reached the site, the avenue had been packed, shoulder to shoulder with protesters, but beyond the next corner the crowds thinned out. It was as though everyone there both wanted and feared for something to happen. I couldn’t look away from the cops and the plastic cords bunched together, hanging from their belts. I watched for signs that they might push into the crowd. I had been arrested at a protest once, many years ago in high school during the Contra War. I had been clubbed in the stomach and thrown in the back of a truck with one of those plastic cords wrapped tight around my wrists, and I didn’t care to relive the futility of that experience.

Every since then I’ve had mixed feelings about protests. I’m not always convinced that being at one matters in the grand scheme, and I have to set aside the ridicule and irreverence that rises within me when surrounded by crowds of idealists, waving their signs and chanting, “The people, united, will never be defeated!” But I don’t buy that anymore, and every time I hear it I question the chanters’ grip on reality. But the same urge that drove me to New York drives me to protests; not wanting to wonder “what if I had gone?” and instead, going and seeing for myself, and if nothing else being counted as one more body. Below the derision, there is still a spark of admiration I feel for the idealists and their tireless efforts, so different from my own defensive apathy.

Later, after a restless nap I dressed and walked down to a video/music/book store on Broadway called Kim’s, where I wanted to sign up for a rental membership. And I wandered around the store and downstairs through their aisles of dvd’s, waiting for someone to come back to the membership counter but nobody ever did. I smiled a bit at the categories under which the store had organized the CD’s. There were the typical Jazz, Hip Hop, and Electronica sections, but the rock/pop section was divided between “Establishment”; musicians who had signed contracts before 1990, and “Indie”; musicians who had signed after. Several shelves in the dvd section were reserved for the Criterion Collection (“For Connoisseurs of Fine Cinema”). The categories were both hilarious and somehow comforting to me, after so many years of wandering the obnoxiously bright aisles of Blockbuster.

Nobody ever came back to the membership counter, and the signs posted there were written precisely for keeping newbies like myself from pestering the employees at the main counter. My human interaction quota had been passed long before at the march, so I left, consoling myself with the fact that my dvd’s from Netflix would be arriving soon. I stopped back at the apartment for my laptop, and gave in to the eclair that was calling my name from the Hungarian Pastry Shop. I sat at a table back in the dimly-lit recesses and drank coffee cut with milk. I have yet to go anywhere in New York where they offer cream freely; milk seems to be the staple, but that’s probably better for me, considering the spectacular pastry that I devoured slowly, each delicate bite melting on my tongue. I’d take a bite and push the plate away, read a bit more of the script a friend had emailed me, then take another bite. I ate the whole thing in this way, stretching it out over an hour as couples and friends chatted together at the surrounding tables.

From time to time I’d glance up, startled to see a giant calico cat walking casually around the tables, hopping up on a chair and soliciting pets from a young woman sitting with her laptop. She lowered the screen a bit to murmur across the table at the cat, who sat with her eyes blinking slowly on the seat of the chair. Did you know that virtually all calico cats are female? I didn’t know that until I worked at the animal shelter for awhile. Next to the cat, at the young woman’s table, a man sat with his own laptop, his back to me. I could see his screen, and a snatch of writing visible from several feet away, the words in giant font read “The effects of globalization changes our…”

I stuffed a dollar in their tip jar on my way out, and it was dusk and the enormous cathedral at the end of my street rose up, its walls glowing dimly in the receding light.

And later I sat on a bench under the canopy of trees lining Riverside Drive as the sun slipped lower in the sky, talking on my cell to friends back in California, who told me my voice sounded good, that I sounded happy. And the evening was warm and it was summer and I sat in my t-shirt and jeans, the headband of my baseball cap damp with sweat, and a woman with an elderly collie shuffled by, and the collie gave me a sideways look, a look that said, “I have secrets that nobody will ever know.” And the woman smiled down at me because, like most dog owners, she liked that I paid attention to her collie. And when I hung up the phone I got to my feet and wandered back up 112th St, the lights of the apartments lit up and the air still and warm. And I was reluctant to unlock the door to my building and climb the stairs to my desk, where I sat and wrote this without thinking too much about it, since sometimes that’s the only way I can get things done.

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I’ve lived in New York for two weeks, barely enough time for first impressions. But the conversations I’ve had with the people I’ve met, some fellow bloggers, some Columbia students in other programs, have each lasted for hours. Yesterday a retired blogger met up with me for lunch at Tom’s Diner, which is, from what I’ve been told, both the exterior of the Seinfeld restaurant and the inspiration for the Suzanne Vega tune. I don’t recommend their food. But later we grabbed coffee across the street and sat at a table outside on Broadway and W 113th, under the scaffolding that surrounded the building. And as we talked the rain broke through the heat and fell in waves across the sidewalk, and we were outside but dry, and this made me happy.

I’m sitting now in the Reading Room at the Public Library on 42nd St, cool air washing over me, the ceiling above me painted with rose-tinged clouds. Orientation for the writing program begins tomorrow and lasts two days, and then classes start on Tuesday, just after Labor Day. I’m anxious to get started, to have the focus and the access to the school’s facilities. But I’m glad that I arrived when I did, in time to get settled, in time to see brief snatches of the city before school work takes over. Something tells me that I will look back on these two weeks with fondness, the weeks I spent in New York with each day free, taking the subway, buying things for the apartment to make it my home, meeting people and having conversations that lasted for hours, each of them a tiny spark guiding me through the city.

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