When we first moved in together, Les and I lived in a loft at the corner of West Broadway and Canal Street. It was a fun, interesting place to live at it was way before the gentrification of the area, and it had its own special brand of funky. There was a luncheonette on the ground floor of the building that provided many a much-needed breakfast after a long night of clubbing. Canal Street itself was a wonderful mixture of army surplus stores, jewelry outlets, greasy spoons, Asian restaurants, and dive bars. The street itself was kind of a boundary; to its north was “the Village”, to its south, well it wasn’t quite known as Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal) at the time but it did have some crazy clothing stores, a few pretty good reasonable restaurants, and bars maybe one level above “dive” status. At its western nexus, near us, Canal met the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and New Jersey beyond. It continued clear across Manhattan until it met up with the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge that would take you to Brooklyn. There was constant commercial traffic all day and all night. We would at the tall windows in the loft and just watch the flow of business and humanity; it was a comforting sight; we were not alone, but part of a huge crowded Metropolis.
There were lots of vendors on Canal Street, whose wares spilled out onto the sidewalks in cardboard boxes, or used plastic milk crates. You could score anything from an Army Surplus machete (I still have mine) to a fake Rolex. Can you imagine selling machetes out of a cardboard box on the streets of New York now? Or anywhere for that matter? It was a strange and wonderful time. All the items being sold were clearly priced, pieces of torn paper taped to the outside of the box telling you how much that boomerang cost. And you knew, just as the seller did, that you weren’t paying that price. It was understood there was a time-honored process to be played out.
“Whaddaya get for the coffee urn?”
“I’ll give ya fifteen”.
“Alright gimme twenty and it’s yours”.
It was virtually impossible to take a walk along Canal and not find something you wanted; not something you needed but something you wanted.
“How about that meat slicer?”
“Fifty?! Are you outta yer mind – Ill give ya thirty”.
And on it went day and night; the street that never slept. Always crowded, always vibrant, with enough colorful characters to staff Disney Studios.
We loved our time there and never found another neighborhood like it. It was strange, years later to come back to pay a visit, a week after 9/11; a painful pilgrimage to see everything covered in dust – mailboxes, cars that hadn’t moved, hydrants, the sidewalks themselves; the streets deserted, except for some lost souls like ourselves trying to recognize our beloved city again.
But that lay ahead, in the future; when we lived there, those towers stood tall on the horizon and there was hustle and bustle all around us.
We, of course, didn’t have a car, a totally unnecessary luxury when we had the subway. While cars were stuck in traffic, the A train zoomed uptown; when bad weather made the streets treacherous, the rails of the D train stayed dry and firm. It was, for all of its faults, a miraculous system. The Canal street station was a hub for a number of lines, with many pedestrian tunnels leading to different lines, and even with the signs, there were days when you would find yourself back at your starting point when you swore you had followed the signs for the AA line perfectly. I always suspected that the MTA did that on purpose and watched on cameras laughing, as people went round and round in endless circles vainly trying to find their connection.
One memorable night, we sat in the loft and watched Canal Street become blanketed with snow. It was a major storm; even the city buses couldn’t get around. It was rare to hear a silence in the streets of Manhattan, but that is what the snow was doing that night, hushing everything up. The neighborhood looked different. It was warm and cozy in our home, as the storm intensified outside. So of course, Les had an idea:
“You know what we should do?”
“Go to Central Park.”
The first stop (of course) was to the liquor store around the block. A pint of Jim Beam for Les, a pint of Jack Daniels for myself, and off we went trudging through the snow to the subway. Life goes on in a city the size of New York, despite snow, strikes, and crime. The subway was packed with people, some making their way home from work, others on their way to work. I didn’t think too many were on their way for a stroll through Central Park. The trip to Columbus Circle was about twenty minutes, and when we climbed the stairs to street level, we were greeted by even more, heavier snow. Even there, a confluence of streets usually clogged with traffic, most everything was empty. An intrepid taxi fishtailed its way down Broadway, a couple of trucks still were making deliveries, and a city bus crept along, its interior lit up to reveal the faces of tired New Yorkers just getting through another day.
The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up and I was having doubts about the plan. But Les was game and if she was in, I was too, and on we mushed. We entered the park and made our way too the Zoo, all buttoned up for the night, but its near Gothic architecture, and now strange-looking statures made a surreal backdrop to the ice accumulating on top of the snow. We went on towards the Great Meadow. After a while we couldn’t tell if we were on a path or not, it was all just snow. Visibility was limited but I was able to tell we were rising, climbing up on one of the many bridges that allowed vehicular traffic to transverse the park. I could make out the outline of the roads below. The wind thankfully started to die down a bit, and our spirits were keeping us warm. We reached the summit of the bridge, at about the same time there came a break in the clouds and a bit of clear night sky peaked through, stars bright.
And then we looked down to the expanse of the Meadow below, soft, white, peaceful, framed by the dark shadows of hundred-year-old trees, and beyond them, the hotels and apartment houses that lined the park, their lights twinkling in the dark sky.
I don’t think I had ever seen the city look so beautiful, and we were the only ones to witness that beauty in that particular way, in that particular spot on that snowy night. I took another sip of Jack and reached out to take Leslie’s gloved hand. We just stood in awe; no words were needed. I remember thinking ‘well my son, don’t ever fear death, cause I have a feeling it has already happened – how else to explain this walk, this night, this glimpse of Heaven?’ I stood holding the hand of the person I loved, looking out over the city I adored. There was no place on earth at that moment I would have rather been. It was like some unseen benevolent force had led us to this one spot, this one moment, as if to say “Look, look at this, remember this time, and how you feel….you only see this once in a lifetime….savor it.”
That was a long time ago. Now when I see snow, I have to shovel it. It’s not as much fun living in the suburbs – actually, nothing is.
Every once in awhile, as I am straining my back in the darkness of the night, cursing at the weather, I will look up into the night sky, gaze at the stars through the falling snow, and I will remember. And when I look over at Les and find her looking back at me smiling, I know she is remembering too.
There have been many great nights in my life, but that one……that one was special.