David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
New York City Moments (Native Son #16)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

If you don’t live in New York City, it’s not a place you can contemplate while you’re there. Visiting New York is a mighty embrace, you just feel it. And it’s like a fight. You figure out what the hell happened after it’s over.

I recently returned from a five-day trip there, a wonderful stay. I lectured at a writers’ conference. Took in a rainy Mets-Padres game with great ten dollar seats. Enjoyed dinner with a playwright who’s earned both a Tony and an Oscar nomination. I attended a play at the Lincoln Center. I ate a 16 ounce prime rib at the University Club among paneled walls, sconce lighting, portraits of Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, book shelves so tall they required sliding stepladders, and giant faded globes that needed both hands to spin. I felt like a turn-of-the-century explorer returning to some big city honor. I chatted with pretentious folk at a literati reading, garrulous Queens firemen at the ballpark, nice grandparents on the subway.

Even underground, New York’s hectic pace continues. Up on the street, the great city’s tempo is truly so fast, populace so vast, that you have the sense of being a cork on a river. A beautiful woman courses by, a gray-haired businessman, a tattooed weightlifter, an old couple quarreling, a homeless man in the shade of scaffolding, all is quickly left behind. Blue-tooth chatter, schizophrenic mumblings, giggles, jackhammers and sirens are just flotsam on a tide of sound.

This doesn’t change underground, this flowing surge, when a sunburned, unshaven white man in droopy shorts steps onto my subway car begging. There were many of us and one of him but somehow he accosted each rider. He took long strides up and down the car, bent at the waist like a tattered samurai, hands clapped to his sides. He shouted Give me money so I can eat. I’m ashamed. Give me money to eat. No one gave him anything, money or food. None looked at him parading so pitifully, almost comically, with his chest and face turned to the dirty floor. Oddly, his humiliation did not slow time. The tracks clacked beneath, the car jostled, we all hung on and sped forth.

I averted my eyes each time he passed. Did I have a dollar to give him? Absolutely. Might others have followed if I did? Sure. Why didn’t I? A dollar.

In the moment, I didn’t know. That’s New York. Things come so fast – you round a corner and there’s Derek Jeter getting out of a cab, there’s Ground Zero, pastry in a window, a famous bar/park/store/statue – that you surge along to the next New York moment because the rhythm of the city dictates it. There’s always another compelling something headed your way. Don’t settle in.

This poor man did not wane when no one offered up. He paced and plead until one by one we all left for our stops. I went on my way and did not think of him until now.

At my desk in Richmond, quiet good Richmond, away from the nonstop human merry-go-round of New York, he intrudes again for charity.

So I ask, with the mantles of home, humidity, flowers, the river, sky and lawns slowing me to my accustomed speed. Why didn’t I give the man a dollar?

I imagine him on a sidewalk corner beside my car here in Richmond. Give me a dollar so I can eat. I am ashamed. I do indeed give him the buck.

I envision him again in the New York subway car. I ignore him.


So the answer is New York?

That makes sense. He jarred me, but no more than the next remarkable sight in that city. Sorry to say, his misery was washed away as soon as I stepped off the train. He wasn’t my responsibility, not my family. No one has a family of eight million.

In Richmond, there are far fewer, only a quarter million. Each of us represents a larger fraction of the whole. What binds us – the fact that we’re all neighbors in this right-sized city – doesn’t seem to get so lost in what separates us. The uncountable sensations of New York do not isolate us.

New York, like an embrace, like a fight, makes me think about me. In Richmond I have more time, space, calm and peace to think about you.

I love my hometown. I’m kinder here.

Posted in Boomer Articles, Boomer Mag    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, richmond, new york, hometown, home, rva


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