Even after 30 years going about my life in this city, I remain surprised by how New Yorkers, drivers and pedestrians, do not get out of the way of ambulances and fire trucks coming up one of the avenues, sirens blaring. Police cars and unmarked black cars—one might be afraid of getting run over, but it seems often the case that there is no emergency, no one’s life hangs in the balance, it is simply that a government official or a couple of police officers want to feel above the law, or go get a bite to eat without having to wait at any red lights. But ambulances and fire trucks? It’s a matter of a minute at most to move out of the middle “fire lane” or to wait on the curb. A minute wasted, apparently, or lives not worth bothering oneself about. Or this is about something that feels to “me” rather more important: me—in a city of 8 million me’s.
One mild October evening I had spent a nice hour playing tennis at a court inside a midtown hotel, and, warm and relaxed from the exercise and inconsequential competition, I was waiting quite patiently for a taxi. There were in fact plenty of empty cabs going by, but they were all on the other side of the avenue, the drivers likely busy talking on their cellphones and so anxious to get somewhere, to make money in a hurry, that they did not see me, watching bemused, and occasionally putting up my hand in the traditional cab-hailing manner.
I was standing just off the curb in front of a van, illegally parked or illegally “standing.” There were two or three people inside, chatting, perhaps snacking, perhaps waiting for some sort of signal that it was time for them to go and complete whatever errand they might have been on. As I stood waiting, bemused, as I said, watching the empty cabs streaming by—all of a sudden the driver of the van honked. I was in his way. But only for a split second, as instinctively I jumped away from the automobile. Looking back over my shoulder, however, I realized that the light was red. The driver had been impatient that I get out of the way so that he, after having bided God only knows how much time snacking and chatting by the curb there, could now slip through the red light.
I rapped on the passenger side window with my knuckles. As is my wont, I used just the “f” rather than pronouncing the whole word as I spoke through the glass at a doughy form, matted black hair, hunched over the steering wheel. “What the f— are you doing?” I said, shaking my head at this honking man, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, as the saying goes. And in this moment I felt, as I often do, that we New Yorkers more generally, and homo sapiens as a species, are a few fries short.
This is New York to me.