SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 25, 2010

Mary & Wendy Come to New York

 

My sister Mary is five years older than me. She lives in Wisconsin not too far from my folks, and as far back as I can remember, she’s dreamed of visiting New York. One thing or another always seemed to get in the way, though, and she was never able to make the trip. In fact, no one from my family has ever come to visit me here. The very idea—the concept—“New York” seems to put them off. Ironically, they had no problem with coming to see me in Philly, which at the time was a much uglier, nastier town than New York could ever hope to be.

            Well, finally my cousin Wendy from L.A. got online, bought a pair of plane tickets, then called my sister and told her they were going.

            Mary’d had a hell of a year (and that’s far too kind a way to phrase it). Last summer her husband died suddenly, and she’d been working two jobs to cover the bills. But she had some vacation time coming and her daughters were old enough to take care of themselves, so what the hell?

            They were going to be spending a week here around the Fourth of July. They had hotel reservations in Midtown, and a laundry list of things they wanted to do. Meanwhile, Morgan and I began brainstorming about possible places we could take them that weren’t the Empire State Building, Madame Tussauds, or Coyote Ugly. Some weird places that weren’t in all the tourist guides.

            Well, we thought and we thought.

            “There’s, um, maybe the subway museum?”

            It didn’t take long to realize we weren’t coming up with much of anything. There were two probable reasons for this. One was that we didn’t really do much anymore. We had our few select, quiet home bars and that was really all we needed. The second and much larger problem was the simple fact that all of New York’s weird, secret places have been swept away, converted into cell phone stores or NYU dorms. St. Marks Place isn’t exactly the center of Bohemian activity it once was (unless swinging large shopping bags is the latest Bohemian art form). Walk down the Bowery and you might as well be on Fifth Avenue (almost). The Freakatorium’s gone. The free shows in Prospect Park were pretty drab this season, and I had yet to receive my Coney calendar. There might have been something tucked away in Williamsburg or Red Hook, but I doubted it—and besides, I won’t go to Williamsburg or Red Hook.

            Looking at the projected temperatures in New York during their visit, I began thinking that a fun little citywide blackout might make for an entertaining story once they got home. But I kept that one to myself. The rabid raccoons and murderous trees in Central Park were already enough to worry about.

            The afternoon they showed up, I headed to Midtown for the first time in years to bring them back downtown a ways to get lunch. Between their hotel and the restaurant, it was my job to teach them how to use the subway.

            As a technical instructor, I’m iffy at best. I showed them how to buy a MetroCard, how to swipe a MetroCard, told them not to look anyone in the eye, and left it at that.

            “Just let them get into their own trouble,” my dad had told me before Mary and Wendy arrived. I guess that’s pretty much what I did, if only inadvertently—even helping them get into their own trouble by not telling them little things like “don’t swipe your card more than once or you won’t be able to use it again for fifteen minutes.” (By the end of the trip I believe my sister had four or five MetroCards in her possession.)

For the most part I let them be. Wendy had worked out an insane itinerary, so I figured I’d just let them go to it. In a week’s time they’d probably be able to get around to maybe half the things they had planned.

It was funny, though—even after all the terrible, awful things my older sister did to me when we were young, when she showed up in New York I suddenly felt a paternal impulse take over, calling her a couple of times a day from the safety of Brooklyn just to make sure they were still, you know, alive. Turns out they were a bit more than that.

“Today we went to Times Square, and SoHo, and Chinatown, and then Ground Zero, and then up to Central Park.”

            “You what?

“Then we got on one of those red double decker buses, and the tour guide kept going on about what a wonderful, beautiful, hip place Brooklyn is. I had no idea.”

            “Well, yeah,” I told her. “But it only got that way after I moved here. Did he mention that?”

            “No.”

            “He should have.”

The next day they went back to SoHo and the West Village, then they got tickets for some Broadway show, then went to the Top of the Rock, then they took a pedicab around Central Park. Then they went to the Broadway show.

            The next day it was Lower Manhattan and the South Street Seaport. Then they got on a damn boat that moored at the base of the Statue of Liberty to watch the fireworks.

            “You did what?”

And in between all these things, they hit a couple of bakeries and ice cream parlors and restaurants and bars that were featured in movies and television shows.

            The next day the temperature hit 105 degrees, so in a brilliant move on my part, I took Morgan, Mary and Wendy down to Coney.

            I think it was right around the time we all got off the Cyclone that I began to recognize something. It wasn’t just that they had a hell of a lot more energy than I’ve ever had (or desired) in my life. Every time I’d talked to my sister over the previous days, there was a giddiness and an excitement in her voice that I hadn’t heard in a long time—certainly not in the past year.

            Maybe it’s a banal observation. In fact I’m certain it is. But you live in New York, you live anywhere for a long time, you grow sedate and blinkered. There’s all this shit going on (some of it admittedly awful), but you don’t even notice it anymore until someone calls your attention to it. Mary and Wendy were seeing New York for the first time, and even though it was a far different city, it was having the same effect on them that it had on me when I first moved here. At the time I was seeing a Times Square full of grindhouses, porn shops, junkies and whores, and a Coney Island that was half abandoned, dead and creepy, but it was the same giddiness. It was good to see it again, especially in Mary. We laughed a lot, told a lot of old stories, and were the oldest knuckleheads in line waiting to ride the Cyclone.

            The next day she called me at about 5:30, and that giddiness in her voice had been ratcheted up a few notches.

            “I just saw the Queen!”

            “What?

            “And she waved at me!”

            “Oh, she did not.”

            “And then I was interviewed for television!”

            Oh, this was just getting ridiculous now. I closed my eyes. “You know,” I told her. “Somehow I had the feeling you’d end up on TV before you left.”

 

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