The woman in front of me walked a straight line about 18” parallel to the buildings on our left. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the sidewalks were full of New Yorkers and tourists enjoying the autumnal weather. The woman and I were headed the same direction and our separate paths carried us together for about a half a mile.
“Beep-beep,” she honked loudly at the people coming toward her and they obligingly stepped aside.
“Beep-beep,” she honked at people dawdling before her; they glanced over their shoulders to see who was beeping them then, seeing that she wasn’t slowing her pace to avoid them, stepped aside. Tourists stared; New Yorkers shrugged. Occasionally, someone commented, “You don’t see that every day.”
She looked like she was in her 20s, not disheveled although she wore a hoody on such a beautiful day. Perhaps she was on the autism scale and the people made her anxious. She was clearly wrapped up in her own frame of reference, a perspective where people were just obstacles that were in her way. Her voice was loud, piercing, arrogant, demanding. And people moved.
I watched her as she approached each group, demanding that the well-dressed, and the baby-strollered, get out of her way, let her continue on her singular path through life, not interacting with them beyond her verbal shoves. If they were on her left, between her and the building, she wanted them OFF HER LINE (as they say in bicycle racing). If they were on her right, she measured the cushion – too close, “Beep-beep” – far enough, let them be. Woe betide the couples or families who spanned the sidewalk. It didn’t matter if they were young or old, rich or poor. They were getting out of her way. Old ladies in walkers, beware!
Then she fell silent. A group of homeless men sat, backs to the wall, legs outstretched into her singular path. She moved respectfully to the right and didn’t beep a single person. Until she had passed them, when she resumed beeping walkers.
Was she afraid of the men? Compassionate? Or did she recognize that the effort required to move them would exceed her capacity?
Did their presence, just for a moment, jar her out of her frame of reference?
Her mind seemed so full of thoughts, anxiety, that it consumed her, propelled her forward. That she was racing away from something, whether something real, some emotional situation from that morning or from an earlier point in her life; or just away from her anxiety, that she didn’t dare stop for fear it would catch and consume her. The people around her were just slalom flags on a downhill course, to bat aside as she flew by. Perhaps the mental storm was natural, a result of inner turmoil and a mind that works differently from most people’s. Perhaps it was chemical, drug-induced or drug-enhanced. Perhaps she was racing towards something – a late appointment, a required check-in with some supervising authority, a parent, a doctor, a parole officer – and, on top of everything else, she was late.
Visitors often complain that New Yorkers are rude. That is because we are often late, conspired against by overpacked schedules, late trains, traffic, unexpected security, and crowded sidewalks. And you, as a tourist, are not late, you are on vacation, you have all day to linger and enjoy the city, while we are racing to our next appointment. While you dawdle on the sidewalk, we weave around you, sometimes brushing your shoulder or your bag, as you pause distracted by all there is to see. If you’re lucky, we call back over our shoulder, “Sorry!” as we race on. If you’re not lucky, we mutter something else.
Yes, sometimes we are the beep-beep lady.
Please forgive us.
Two days later:
Something about this post has been bothering me and I’m guessing it bothers you, too. So I’m doing something I don’t usually do (in fact, I think I’ve only done it once before) – update the post.
The thing that is bothering me is that I took this story that so perfectly encapsulates a moment that I think of as a New York moment, and made it an excuse for New Yorker’s running over tourists on the street – trite. I wasn’t 100% happy with the section with the grey text when I wrote it — but the blog is about change and sometimes with change you take small risks. I’m not going to rewrite that story, but I will add two other stories that struck me as “typical” New York stories, that happened in the two days since I wandered down the same street as the beep-beep lady. Just to make up for the bad ending of the original post.
Story 1: On the subway. It’s late-afternoon crowded but not so rush-hour packed. I get on, there’s one seat available, between two men, both man-spreading. One guy is taking up half of the seat next to him. The other guy – in, believe it or not, a pin-striped suit worthy of the movie 1941 and, I kid you not, a black fedora with a white band, and he wears this outfit seriously, he thinks he looks swank – is taking up the other half of that seat and half of the seat on the other side of him. I look at them, decide it’s not worth it, and stand aside. A few stops later, an older lady gets on. She stands in front of the “empty” seat between the two men and finally says, “Excuse me.” Guy 1 moves his leg out of the way. Guy 2 sort of moves his leg and she sits. She has barely touched down when he bursts out at her, “Don’t kick my foot.” She apologizes. “Don’t kick my foot. I don’t want you kicking my foot. Do you think you can just kick my foot?” he continues. She manages to placate him – the price she pays for daring to sit – and he settles down. Until several stops later, when he rises to leave. He just can’t resist, one more time, jabbing her about kicking his foot.
Story 2: On the subway again. The train comes to a stop and the doors open. Three men get on, my guess: grandfather, father, son. They are carrying instruments: accordion, guitar, accordion. Doors close and they begin playing. The father and son, standing by the door. Grandfather, wandering through the car, cap in his outstretched hand. The music is amazing, bright, energetic, festive! And they sing along! They don’t ask for money, they just make music and offer the empty cap. I miss it on the first pass but drop in some bills on the way back. I’m sad to see that the hat is otherwise empty – I would have given more if I had seen that no one else would give. The music was so good that, when the train stopped again, and the musicians stopped playing to step through the doors, I almost spontaneously applauded. I looked around, my afternoon brightened, expecting to meet eyes with another passenger, maybe share a smile. (Not an unusual occurrence. Really!) It is as if I had imagined the whole thing – no expressions. People lost in phones, daydreaming, gazing out the windows. Totally blasé – as if nothing had happened. I look to the left, to the right, across from me, beside me. No reactions whatsoever. Nobody seems to have noticed.
My point is, that sometimes the story – like the beep-beep lady – stands on its own and doesn’t need the author reaching in and forcing it into something just because I feel like it needs a point.