May 262011

Conversations heard between 11:15-11:35pm Thursday night on Houston St, from Avenue A to Thompson St.


“It’s easy. We just take the six.”

“The six?”

“Yeah, the six. We on the east side now.”


“I’m sorry, baby, I can’t take you ‘less you going uptown.” (a cabbie shouting out his window to the Australian tourist who had flagged him down.)


“Dude, she took him to Katz’s and then back to her apartment and… that was IT.”


“Why you always yellin’? Why you always so noisy?”

“Cause we in Manhattan! No one even notices here!”


“The whole places has like… bugs and stuff… eew!”

“Yeah, not really a place with that sexy feeling.”


“I been tryin’ to call you but you don’t answer your phone.”

“What’s that? Oh, yeah. I usually can’t hear it because of the traffic.”


Apr 302011

I had an appointment this morning on the southernmost tip of this island.

I don’t normally like to wake early on weekends (and to me, early is any time before 10 a.m.). However, I knew that today I would have to. I had booked the shuttle service to my storage container at Manhattan Mini Storage to arrive sometime between 9 and 11, and it was an appointment I needed to honour. Not only is spring here already — these winter coats and boots need to be gone already! — but I needed to assess what was in my storage container in preparation for my upcoming move, and I also needed to give the kind people at Manhattan Mini Storage my vacating notice.

So, I made coffee and sorted my coats, scarves, and gloves while listening to CBC Radio 2. I played with the cat and munched on toast while I waited for the phone call telling me that the shuttle van was on its way.  Sure enough, my phone rang just before 9. It was Mike from MMS telling me he was on his way and would arrive at around 9:30.

I like Mike.

You see, I’ve lived in NYC nearly 2 years now, and have made regular trips to my storage container every 2-3 months during that time — to swap things out, for seasonal changes,  travel, and so forth. That amounts to about 10 trips to the storage facility at South Street (Seaport). And every time save once, Mike has been the driver of the van who comes to shuttle me to and sometimes fro.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in a city as big or diverse as New York. If you haven’t, you might imagine it to be some teeming, crazy urban melange full of people who hardly know each other and are always in a hurry. If you have, then you probably know that one of the coolest things about living in a city like this is how the little, familiar things make life in the city feel so comforting and consistent.

Mike and I have next to nothing in common. He is at least ten years older than me, married with no kids, and he grew up in NYC. He and his wife now live in the Bronx, but I think I remember him saying that it’s far enough up in the Bronx that it’s nearly Westchester (I am really not sure where that divide is, by the way). Mike has been a driver for most of his career, albeit with different organizations. He likes working for MMS, as he likes the diversity of the clients he serves. He’s told me some of the ups and downs of his time at MMS. There was the woman who called at the last minute because she learned her husband was leaving her. When Mike showed up, none of her stuff was packed or ready to be loaded and she was crying so hard she was shaking. Mike calmly took his time helping her pack up and load things into the van (something drivers are not required to do), and she cried all the way to and from the storage facility. There have also been a handful of business executives, who hardly have any boxes or bags to move, spend their entire time in the van on their cell phones, and leave Mike with a 20 dollar tip for doing next to nothing. Mike and I have also talked a bit about the differences between Canadians and Americans. He tells me he and his wife have often fantasized about moving to Canada but “we’re just too comfortable here.” He can’t understand why the U.S.A. doesn’t have national health insurance, but he also can’t understand Canadians’ fascination with hockey.

I like Mike.

We never really talk about much — it’s a 15 minute trip one-way, max — but he’s kind and polite and friendly. When he picks me up, I usually ask him if there’s any chance he can give me a return trip back. Drivers aren’t really supposed to, though I’ve discovered that Mike (and that one other driver) often will if they have time before the next pickup. My turnaround time at my storage container is usually less than 10 minutes, in-and-out, and so Mike is often, though not always, able to give me a ride home. I never expect it, but when he’s able to, I tip him nicely.  So, knowing that Mike was my driver yet again this morning was really quite a relief. 

When Mike arrived, after the initial hello and as he helped me load my three bags into the van, he told me he wasn’t going to be able to give me a return ride today. Of course I told him that was completely fine. I hopped in the front seat and off we went.

We didn’t talk about much this morning; the road was blocked on Spring street at Mulberry due to some construction, which meant he had to get to Allen via Houston, and so we chatted about traffic diversions, regular week-day rush-hours, and the general conundrum that is driving in Manhattan. We both commented on how different Manhattan is in the mornings on weekends: the energy feels relaxed, open, and approachable. Mike observed (accurately!) that everyone walking about seemed to have a coffee cup in their hands, and poked fun at me, with my coffee cup, in a storage taxi, at 9:36 a.m. on Saturday.

The streets of Manhattan are special on weekend mornings. I’d argue that Manhattan streets are always special, but weekend mornings are different. Weekday mornings slowly come to life between 7 and 10; buildings and sidewalks creak as people make their way between a comfortable bed and their places of work. But weekend mornings like today are different. Handfuls of people are out, either on their way somewhere in not great hurry or just milling about for a walk with the dog. Toddlers with parents hang out at the park or playground. Locals sit together on benches on the corner with their newspapers (yeah, the paper kind); informal gatherings where they discuss the latest neighbourhood gossip. The occasional — and out-of-place — European tourist couple wanders down the street, map in hand, relaxed but perplexed, and comment in a foreign tongue how odd it is that none of the shops are open. There are no school crossing guards and the bagel truck on the corner is noticeably absent. The streets aren’t silent, but a calm murmur of traffic, children’s giggles, and an overhead plane act as the city’s audible safety blanket: we are still here, just less.

I hate mornings in general (witness: coffee), but I love Manhattan weekend mornings. All that I know and love about the city is still here, just with less intensity. It’s like a watered-down but flavour-filled version of Manhattan. It relaxes and comforts me — I want to absorb it all at once. I soak myself in it, then feel compelled to release that same energy. The cycle rejuvenates.  

Mike dropped me off, helped me unload my things, and we said goodbye. I suspect I’ll see him again, as I will probably have at least one more trip to my storage container before I leave NYC in June. But if I don’t, I’ll be happy remembering this morning as a time when the familiar things in this big, crazy city brought me immense comfort and contentment yet again. It’s the same way I feel when I see my super’s son hanging out at the bar on the corner, or I run into my pizza delivery guy at the coffee shop on the next block, or the owner of the pet store downstairs remembers my name and asks how my ankle’s doing (remembering that I injured it last summer). These are the people in my neighbourhood. (Thanks, Sesame Street.) These people and things become familiar, friendly, and habitual in a city that more than 8 million folks call home. And that is blessing like no other.

Familiarity breeds, thank goodness.