If you can just make it across 35th Street to Sixth Avenue, then you can meet Emily. How long has it been? Did you ever really know her, or is that just some Facebook memory illusion? Get with technology: variable algorithms, the interlacing of codes. Same schools + enough mutual friends = a vague past relationship. Jesus, go already.
But you’re still marooned on the east side of Fifth Avenue waiting for a break in traffic. A lone, orange safety cone sits by a trash bin signifying what? Caution? The whole street, the entire area is a fucking disaster zone.
Merge with the build-up of humanity lined on the corner, anxious, preparing to launch themselves over toward the far sidewalk. Grim-faced blondes in baseball caps and yoga pants lunge like gazelles, tour groups mass around trinket stores while their idling bus sulks at the curb, and steam billows from manholes to ghost the faces of passersby with ancient hobo ass, subterranean funk.
“Holy shit, look!” People crane their necks amid the burning pretzel smoke to spy the Empire State Building thrusting vertical above the forest of buildings. A subway rumbles below, vibrating the asphalt—nothing is stable–the smell of grilled meat wafting up in dank courtyards from Korean restaurant kitchen exhaust fans, and listen deeper for the god-like “om!” hum of the larger industrial fans mounted atop World War something-era brick hotels.
Men in suits run in comfortable shoes to catch buses already tilting away from their stops and turning precipitously onto narrow streets. Dodge around the plywood sheets stacked for no apparent reason, beyond the workers loading mattresses into storage areas, and a dedicated soul rummaging through garbage, as girls in leggings pass, and students parade in black rim glasses, three jeers to the goggle-pated fuck-face, the dumb-ass white guys yell provocations from a packed car speeding by. “Seriously, who still wears leather jackets?”
High-heeled ladies in short skirts stride with muscular thighs and black women sprouting dyed blonde hair turned dark at the roots, ignore the karaoke bars pumping out ’80s songs from behind fogged windows. Is there a crowd? Is it empty? Don’t you want me, baby?
Irish pubs blast classic rock and wave aimless cruisers inside for happy hour specials on well drinks, but their attempts are wasted on people texting, shouting into speaker phones, dodging and weaving around one another. Distracted. Don’t gawk at the man in a tank-top with a non-ironic mullet or he will wear your teeth as knuckle rings.
Tourists roll heavy luggage and their facial expressions wonder, is this a vacation or a punishment? The thundering surge of traffic stops at a red light but three kamikaze bikers speed through screaming at pedestrians crossing in their way. Pedicabs dodge–for the moment–their imminent destruction by a swerving bus, long rows of garbage bags sit waiting for Godot, seedy men chewing toothpicks hand out cards to secret palaces of pleasure, or some DJ rave way-the-hell-out in Brooklyn. A black female traffic cop admonishes jaywalkers while signaling to oncoming cars. Some people wear short-sleeve shirts, others are in down jackets, because one minute it’s humid spring, the next a cold wind nags at you like an angry ex.
You realize that this area of Sixth Avenue is now Koreatown because you saw it on a street sign, and Chinatown already exists miles to the south. There are Japanese and Chinese and Filipino and Vietnamese and Korean strollers, and you will never understand a single one of their languages in your short human lifespan. But they are all shopping and talking and rushing through their lives and seem to have money to survive in Manhattan. European families stagger out of swinging glass doors to hotel lobbies, carting enough baggage for a month, past the Middle Eastern T-Shirt, gewgaw, souvenir emporiums that seemed to have multiplied during your visit.
Emily? You see someone resembling her ahead and you close in–too close–only to shock the stranger. Everyone is clustered tight in Greeley Square, but never ever touch them. Don’t nitro their glycerin. And the noise of diesel horn honks, the shriek of brakes, the oppressive hallelujah of sirens, and foreign conversations all blot out the pings. So when you eventually stop, a hapless stationary man among constant movement, the jostling of thousands converging on your point, your momentary inconvenient space in their universe, you find that Emily has texted.
So sorry. Almost broke my leg. I should really see a doctor. Hope we can meet on your next trip.
You are left staring at a gigantic Victoria’s Secret video display, sexy yet robotic, wondering where you can find a small bottled water for under two dollars? But you’re already drowning and lost in a place once familiar where time’s passage has rendered you a stranger. Let the current drag you with its whims. Struggling in the riptide can only bring misery. Throw away your plans, recede back to the shallow tide pools and observe. Smile. Youth is eternal as long as you don’t try to hold on to it, or claim it for yourself.
Some friends never planned to see you, but rather hoped to text locally.
Great to know you’re in town, man. Come back soon. Drinks next fall?