Five Days in New York

Our plane arrives five hours late at the nearly empty Newark Airport. We arrange for a shuttle into Manhattan with an elderly couple and a young man in a baseball cap who never stops placing calls on his cell phone. The shuttle driver arrives with a clipboard. – Hey, you came here on a hot day in New York, the driver calls out, gesturing for us to follow. – Not where we're from, the elderly man announces, brushing his navy blazer and walking ahead of his wife. No one asks him where they're from.

***
Some cities sprawl outward, but New York grows inward. Everything is wedged in or tucked under its neighbour, sharing bits of space in an entryway, grabbing a hallway or a crawl space there. Every single thing demands a longer look, until a slight shift of perspective makes it fan out into two, then three.

***

At an Italian restaurant with Schmutzie, Maggie and Kate, we talk about grief, obligation, Minnesota accents and the remarkable innovation of green lentils in olive oil as a bread dip. – I'm so happy, Kate declares, interrupting herself with a smile.

Kate also tells me that my eyeballs are juicy. It's the light, she says, and rapidly snaps five pictures of me with my eyes closed.

***

In the MoMA courtyard a man in lavender jeans and a smoothly contoured muscle shirt walks ahead of us. His butt is so small that it seems somehow tucked in between his legs. – When I see that I think of missed opportunities, I say. – Opportunities for what? Schmutzie asks. – Clothing. We sit on wire chairs and watch the birds. A sparrow with a crooked leg hunts for crumbs among the tiled stones. – Look! says Schmutzie. It's like he's posing.

***

At the BlogHer book signing, a man in charcoal trousers and an unblinking gaze like a forearm grip is fixed on Jon. – You're my hero, he says. – Yeah? The man holds his eyes open a fraction too wide, as if he were in the presence of a terrible angel. – Is there is a place to buy your book? he asks Kate, who points to the sales table. The man runs off to buy a copy as if he's been given a mission. We see him again at two a.m. outside the Hilton lounge, attempting to bully a woman into a having a drink. Come on, it's New York! Come on! Perhaps unkindly, we refer to him Mr. Date-rapey for the rest of the conference.

***

The endless jokes about the smell of urine on the city streets are true, but urine is only the most easily identifiable smell. Manhattan streets in midsummer emit a constant baking fug: hot rubber, discarded oil from halal food carts, split garbage bags on restaurant curbsides leaking into the drains. Faces contort as they walk over grates. After the fifth day I can only smell urine.

***

At the humour bloggers panel I heckle Jessica Bern, which brands me in conference goers' memory as "the cute and then not-so-cute almost bald guy," which reduces itself to "the bald guy" over the course of an afternoon. Women in cocktail dresses point me out in elevators: Hey, it's the bald guy! After a while I realize that heckling Jessica Bern was the best thing I ever did in my life.

***

I promise to take Schmutzie to see the site where the World Trade Centre buildings once stood, even though I'm not entirely clear where that is. We start off in the general direction of the towers, up Fulton Street to Broadway. We stop in the graveyard behind St. Paul's cathedral, wandering down concrete paths between the 18th century gravestones. The humid afternoon haze dissolves the gravestones and greys out the buildings in the distance, as if we we are walking through an inverted night. We reach the end of the cemetery. –There it is. I point. – Where? says Schmutzie. – Right across the street.

***

The stage behind the DJ is overtaken by women. Someone brings up a giant BlogHer sign and a dozen dancers hold the sign aloft. The DJ puts on Erasure and suddenly everyone who isn't dancing is suddenly on the floor. We follow Andy Bell's punchy, plaintive voice down the valley of thatyagimmeno thatyagimmenos and burst out when he sings soul. Jason and Jon stand on the edge of the dance floor, pointing and laughing. Probably at me.

***

I order another gin and tonic at Arthur's Tavern, vaguely aware that it's probably going to cost another ten dollars, but not caring. Schmutzie and I are sitting in the corner by the front door with Adam and James. A jazz group, made up of old guys who appear to have wandered in with instruments and spontaneously decided to get up on stage, play Gershwin. The bartender, a girl in a skimpy tank top and iPod earbuds planted firmly in her ears, looks visibly, violently angry when someone asks for a drink. – What do they have on tap here? I ask Adam. – You see that plate on the bar? I nod. That's where the taps used to be. Before they collapsed.

– What a great bar.

***

The cab drops us off in the financial district on Sunday afternoon. Water Street is a dead zone of closed restaurants and shuttered bodegas. The sky is a bright bronze but the streets are crepuscular. A group of kids launch themselves from railings and sail down the street, fanning out across the pavement and around the corner towards Battery Park. A crowd erupts from the Staten Island Ferry terminal and dissipates in moments.

Inside the terminal, pigeons fly from beam to beam. A little girl threads through the crowd, calling Mommy, pigeons! A man in yellow shirtsleeves and an impossible jumble of teeth protuding past his lips studies her as she runs past. – Fix your hair! he shouts.

***

A man leans against a wall on William Street, sorting coins in his palm. Several fall and hit the sidewalk. – Shit! he screams, but makes no move to collect them. A quarter and a dime drop from his hand and disappear down a grate. Shit! Again! He continues to count up his coins as we walk past.