Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Streets of New York

There are few things more interesting and exhilarating than a walk through the neighborhoods of New York City.

At one moment you may find yourself in Little Italy and a few steps later you are in Chinatown. There are many such communities throughout the city teeming with activity and life, each possessing its own unique culture, stores, shops, restaurants and aromas. They exist in Manhattan, as well as in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

And while this time of year is particularly wonderful because of the beautiful trees and colorful flowers on display, nothing beats people watching. Granted, most often you only have time for a brief glimpse, but the diversity of people and the variety of styles can make any walk a fascinating experience. But, as an avid walker, I have a few observations.

It seems that the sidewalks are more crowded lately, bustling with businessmen, baby carriages, students and laborers. Maybe the recent increase in gasoline prices is beginning to hit close to home. And it appears there are more tourists out pounding the pavement and taking in the sites. I often see tourists huddled near a corner pouring over a city map. As I pass by, I frequently hear some discussion in a foreign language. It is most reassuring that most New Yorkers will stop and try to help if asked.

New York City is in the midst of a building boom. There is scaffolding, heavy equipment and big cranes on every other block. I have noticed that more people are looking up before they walk under one of these structures. My guess is the recent spate of accidents has increased general awareness of potential accidents.

Walking can be frustrating at times. People weave in and out of crowds, sometimes darting sharply to the side, or they suddenly stop dead in their tracks. Some are talking on a cell phone or thumbing the keyboard of a Blackberry, oblivious to life around them. Adding to the problem is the proliferation of bikes, scooters, prams and luggage carts. And there are the food and ice cream stands that pop up every day. Averting a collision can be a real problem, consequently you must always be on your toes.

Street lights are timed for vehicle traffic. It is very difficult to walk more than a couple blocks without being stopped by a red light. This is as true between avenues, a distance of two blocks, as it is between streets. As a result, people bunch up at intersections, with some folks edging into the street to get ahead of the crowd. Some courageous souls look for a break in the traffic and then sprint to the other side. A few just walk in front of oncoming traffic, as if they are protected by some invisible wall. It's a miracle more people aren't injured.

There seems to have been an increase in the dog population as well. Owners walk their dogs with great pride. Unfortunately, a few fail to clean up after their dogs. It seems that about once or twice a week I am cleaning up dog droppings out in front of my brownstone. I once caught someone seconds after the act. Without missing a beat I asked for his address and apartment number so my dog could return the favor. He walked off and I was left holding the "doggie bag." So periodically keep a keen eye focused on the pavement in order to avoid the occasional land mine.

Now I really feel sorry for smokers. Rain, snow or shine they clog the sidewalks outside office buildings puffing on their cigarettes. The problem is that clouds of smoke form around doorways, and smoke can be sucked into the lobby. I hate breathing second hand smoke because I lost a mother and several friends to lung cancer. On the other hand, I know the smokers are really addicted. But I wonder how much otherwise productive work time is interrupted by smoking breaks outdoors? How much time, on an annual basis, literally goes up in smoke?

I also feel sorry for the panhandlers I encounter from time to time. There is one, in particular, who periodically shows up on nearby Madison Avenue and somehow knows my first name. At first it was pretty unsettling to hear a homeless person shout my name out from across the street. But it turns out he has been so successful sponging money from many of my neighbors that we now joke he has a place in the Hamptons.

All and all, in spite of the minor inconveniences, the blaring fire sirens, the jackhammers and the detour signs, I can't think of a place I would rather live. New York is a vigorous and vibrant city that always has me walking tall.

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