The best way to ruin a lovely Spring afternoon in Manhattan is to take a stroll down Broadway.
It’s a particular part of Broadway that I’m referring to, from Columbus Circle to Times Square. This was my path the other day, a day that had started out t with the promise of being more than fine. It had been a sunny day, the kind where people like to eat ice cream bars outside while exposing winter-pale feet in new sandals. I walked through Madison Square Park on my way to the subway, which was a sparkle of fountains and waving blossomy trees, a landscape of peach and violet tulips waving in the Shake Shack burger-scented air. My trains arrived just as I reached the platform, and on the transfer I snagged my favorite spot: first car, at the front window, so I could watch the tracks over the operator’s slightly balding head. I got the book I needed at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, and then arranged to meet my husband at his office in Times Square – it’s so nice out and I’m not far, let’s get a snack and then walk the rest of the way home together!
A plan that also started well enough, but began to crumble soon after I crossed Columbus Circle. My walking pace slowed dramatically, owing in part to the marked increase in the number of people confused about where they were going and in no particular rush to figure it out, but mostly to the enormous amount of photography being executed in my path. Families in coordinating stretch jeans, sneakers and laminated folding street maps posed for photos in front of cut-rate electronics stores. Young couples in backpacks with bottles of water and complicated leather camera cases around their necks snapped cell photos of the gaudy lit signs advertising the latest movie to be made into a musical. A guy in a Spider Man costume scooped up young children while their parents smiled, and so the children smiled, and all stayed as still as possible in the middle of the street to allow the camera lens its focus.
At the crosswalks, less photography, but more confusion, as some people crossed without glancing at the lights or looking around for cars, others stopping on the curb suddenly insensible to the international symbol for “walk”.
My internal sighs became external, although I’m sure they couldn’t be heard above the din from which I made out questions like “do you ladies like comedy” and something impolite whispered to a group of men, who eagerly accepted a brochure for a sushi-themed strip club called Cheetahs. I myself declined the offer of bible literature from a woman in a yellow sandwich board painted red with warnings of eternal damnation.
I spotted a group of young ladies, sitting on the sidewalk, leaning on each other, surrounded by piles of shopping bags. I thought of all the shopping bags I’d just been able to observe closely as they’d been banging into me— whole armfuls of Aeropostale bags, and M&M store bags with a brown Hard Rock Café shopping bag nested inside its bright yellow maw.
This is not my city, not my Manhattan, I thought irritably, those shopping bags could have been in obtained in countless other places around the world. What could anything in those bags possibly have to do with the real New York City?
That was the verdict I reached as I crossed 45th street. But then I looked around, and had to concede a few points.
First, I had shopped at that Swatch store and that giant Toys R’ Us, and what’s more, attended my high school prom at the Marriott Marquis now just across the street.
Second, the stretch I’d been suffering through could be described with many adjectives but “unreal” was not one of them. It’s inarguably corporeal, and part of this city. Not the best part, certainly, but not imaginary, not even a hallucinatory.
And besides, I thought, feeling more generous since I’d just spotted my husband waiting for me outside his office, I myself have tourist-shuffled down many a well-known street in a foreign city, wearing that slightly glazed, what-the-hell-is-happening-here look on my face, haplessly violating traffic law and custom, and often with no idea where I was going. And what’s more, I’ve enjoyed it.
So I resolved that I would mentally apologize to all the people that I’d been silently condemning in the strongest possible terms throughout that little stroll through the middle of Manhattan, on such a lovely Spring day.
But only after I’d gotten well past Times Square.
Alison J. Stein
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