by JIM KNIPFEL
October 22, 2017
Time was I always used to say I never handed out advice, simply out of fear someone might actually follow it. But there were times when offering advice was unavoidable, and over the years I came to notice something. Whenever anyone asked me for a suggestion or directive (“Should I say something to my boss?” “Should I call a doctor?”) and I offered them my honest and carefully reasoned response, they always did just the opposite. It may well say something about what these people think of my sense of judgment in general. For a while I considered telling people the exact opposite of what I really thought just to see what would happen when they inadvertently followed my actual heartfelt suggestions, but then I just gave up on the whole thing.
So my sister Mary visited New York for the first time seven years ago. It was something she’d always dreamed of doing, but for one reason or another never had the chance before then. She came with my cousin Wendy, and over the course of a week in early July, she rode the Cyclone and ate at Nathan’s in Coney, watched the Fourth of July fireworks from a ferry moored at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, saw Queen Elizabeth II while visiting Ground Zero (which back then was still a big hole in the ground), haggled with a sidewalk vendor over the price of a bootleg Gucci purse, and was interviewed about this and that for a Vox Populi bit on a local newscast. She ended up doing far more in New York in just a few days than I’d done in about twenty years.
Mary returned to New York for the second time this past September. This time around she came with her friend Micki. Micki had been here once before as well, but hadn’t had a chance to get out and do all those standard New York touristy things like see the damn Queen at Ground Zero, so she wanted to catch up.
New York had changed considerably in those intervening years. Back in 2010 Michael Bloomberg was Mayor. Manhattan in particular was clean and sterile and safe. Artificially or not, crime stats were at historic lows. Walking around Manhattan you didn't see homeless people on every other block. The whole place was very corporate and tourist-friendly. They didn’t have a thing to worry about. Now under Mayor Bill De Blasio, things were a little grimier and seedier. Times Square was overrun with smelly, aggressive sociopaths dressed up like cartoon characters. The homeless population had exploded once again. Hit and run fatalities were commonplace all over town. Random attacks on strangers by psychos with box cutters were way up. The subway system was in chaos, and people were turning mean again. For some of us, it was a return to the good old days. For a couple of middle-aged women from Wisconsin though, I had my worries.
In the weeks before they flew out, then, Mary had a lot of questions, and I had a lot of advice.
“When we get to the airport,” she asked. “Should we take a cab or a shuttle to our hotel?”
“Well,” I wrote back. “I usually take cabs, because I know how to get where I’m going, and besides there are no shuttles to Bay Ridge. In your case I’d take a shuttle. It’s cheaper and much safer. A shuttle won’t take you to your hotel in Midtown via Connecticut, and chances are much better it will get you there without sideswiping an SUV before careening through the front window of a deli, killing three.”
(They took a cab.)
“Would we be better off using cash or credit cards when we’re there?”
“Well,” I wrote back. “I use cash for everything, mostly because I’m paranoid. These days pretty much everyone else uses cards for everything. Guess it makes sense, because if you lose it or get mugged, it’s easier to cancel and replace. If you’re out and want to stop in a corner store for water or something, though, you’ll need cash then as most bodegas don’t take cards. But that’s pretty much it. Cards are the way to go in general”
(They used cash.)
I further warned them to avoid the subway while they were here, because there’s no telling when you’re gonna break down for three hours in the middle of a tunnel, or the Brooklyn-bound train you’re on will be unexpectedly redirected to Queens on account of a sick passenger at Utica Avenue.
I also cautioned them that, should they foolishly decide to take the subway anyway, and a group of young black males steps aboard and shouts “It’s Showtime!” before snapping on a boom box while one of them begins break dancing, they should not film them with their smart phones, should not applaud or give them money, and should avoid eye contact as much as possible, as these little cretins have grown more confrontational and violent in recent years.
Well, the day after they arrived, we all planned to meet at Katz’s for lunch. Yes, it’s touristy, but at least Katz’s, which turns 130 next year, is a damn sight closer to Authentic New York than anything you’re going to find in Midtown these days. And the pastrami is still the best in the world. Besides, where in the hell else can you go to pay $87 for three sandwiches and three cans of soda?
That morning before heading out, I checked the MTA web site to learn, sure enough, the single train line that stretches down into this neighborhood was out completely in both directions. That was fucking typical. So I sent Mary a note letting her know I’d have to take a car service instead. And what did they do after everything I warned them? They got on a fucking train thinking it’d be a snap to take it from 57th Street to Second Avenue. And what did they get for once again flagrantly ignoring my advice? They found themselves headed to Queens instead.
After lunch, they wanted to see some of the shops in SoHo, so I walked them west on Houston to Broadway.
“It seems really stupid to have a car in New York,” Mary said along the way. “But look at ‘em all.”
“Yup,” I replied.
She also told me how disturbing it was to see all the homeless people, who hadn’t been quite so visible during her first visit. “I saw this couple setting up what I thought was going to be a sidewalk table. They were putting all these things out. But it turned out to be where they were living, and that was everything they owned.”
“Yup,” I replied.
Once we reached Broadway, I laid out as clearly as I could the area that was officially considered SoHo, explained where they were within the layout of the city, and how they could find their way back to the hotel simply by following Broadway north against the traffic. Then, as the trains were still out, I got in a cab to head back to Brooklyn, and let them be on their way.
At about nine-thirty that night, Mary called. “Guess where we ended up?” She asked.
“Oh, God. Where?”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
Turns out after seeing the shops they made their way back to Broadway and promptly turned south instead of north. Then they kept walking.
“Along the way I heard a few people mention the park,” she said. “And I thought they meant Central Park so figured we must be getting closer. Then I saw the statue of the bull on Wall Street.”
“I mean, you had your phones—didn’t you check the GPS or anything?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t believe it.”
Yeah, she was my sister alright. I listed all the neighborhoods they’d passed through along the way, many of them places they planned to visit while they were here anyway. “Hey. And when you were down in Battery Park you could’ve just jumped on a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and got that out of the way, too. You could have wrapped up your entire vacation in one day!”
The longer they were in town, the more potential, even inevitable, dangers kept coming to mind. But it seemed every time I mentioned one, they walked right into it. Maybe it was best I just keep my damn mouth shut. Why even try anymore, right?
The next day Mary dropped me a line from Ellis Island, asking if the bootleg handbag dealers were out every day, and where the best place to find them might be.
“Um? Well . . . yeah, they’re always around, and the Mecca for such things is Chinatown. There should be tables set up on the sidewalk on Canal Street (you crossed it yesterday), and most of the little shops down there will carry them, too.” But then I couldn’t help myself. “But if one of the vendors offers you a special deal, DO NOT FOLLOW THEM INTO A BACK ROOM!”
I learned the next morning she got away with her bootleg purses and her life, so that was good. Now I’m just waiting for her to ask me where they can find an underground cockfight.
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