Even though I wasn’t born to the tristate area around New York City, I had lived there long enough to not be considered a prolonged tourist (which is essentially anyone who lives in the vicinity shorter than a few years). I had earned my stripes, and I had the memories to prove it. I could recall when Times Square had been a thieves’ paradise and when the heroin den of Hoboken was just beginning to molt its skin. I had seen the best and worst of this place during those passing decades, and I had resided for all of it on the western side of the Hudson River. Traverse the river, and you’ll find the elitists who paint with a broad brush and who would label anyone from Jersey as “bridge and tunnel”…but the term is a misnomer for all of us who happen to inhabit the Hudson Waterfront (or Gold Coast, if you wish), a thin strip of New Jersey that runs parallel to Manhattan. (Despite what Connecticut may tell you, there is only one Gold Coast, and its borders are demarcated by the George Washington and Bayonne bridges.) Even though its towering skyline casts its shadow across our landscape just as any of its sibling boroughs, this narrow peninsula and its shores are the black sheep of this geographic family, forgotten and unobserved by our islander counterparts. No matter, though; there’s some satisfaction to be had with being a secret, for anonymity can be a protective blanket from ruinous exploitation.
As I inhabited this place over the decades, it seemed that this place now inhabited me in turn, passing on its desire for fostering the clandestine. I was always eager to find a new path to the same destination, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to intentionally take a turn too early, in order to explore new possibilities. Especially within Manhattan, it was the best way to find those “lilies of the alley” that yearned to find solace in shade, far from the garish, flashing cameras of tourist crowds that could swallow one whole. After leaving work one day and making my way uptown, such a biomass found me as I walked along 48th Street, and their collective presence engulfed me as I waited on a corner to cross the street. Apparently they have yet to learn that both sidewalks and streets are not places to simply stand still, I thought as the crosswalk sign fervently beckoned the stationary horde to move.
With a few quick pushes, I escaped from their stationary clutches and darted quickly across the street, running down the next block. Jogging past small kitsch shops and fast food joints, I escaped my captors by darting into an innocuous entrance, absconding myself through its rotating door. No flashing lights, no street performers dressed as Smurfette…they’ll never consider following me into here. As my eyes adjusted to its dim lighting, I smiled in satisfaction. With its Art Deco interior, I looked upon a classical arcade that remained ignorant of the changing city outside its doors. Outside of the Diamond District (which retained its atmosphere of an Arabic bazaar with its various kiosks hidden among nestled passageways – it’s tough to know if was constructed in such a way or whether the vendors simply brought it with them from the Middle East), such arcades were now on the decline and sliding into the abyss of obscurity. Small stores lined its walls that surely had existed for decades (or perhaps centuries); it was a parading menagerie of tall windows, adorned with golden letters that proudly proclaimed the business conducted within. As I slowly strolled past the windows and observed the elderly patrons inside, it was obvious from their animated faces that these septuagenarians and octogenarians had a profound connection with this place. Passing a cobbler’s keep, I descried a party of white-haired friends who were laughing and trading jokes with the silver-headed attendants shining their shoes. A few steps further, I passed a jewelry vendor and overheard a friendly yet lively debate between an older Hassidic Jew and a middle-aged man, adorned with a gold cross necklace and other gold jewelry that complemented his olive complexion and dark hair.
“I tell you, this Obama idiot, he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” proclaimed the middle-aged man. “Supporting these rebels…and for what? I know Assad, and he’s a decent Christian. Don’t believe what these stupid American papers are saying.”
“Oh, like you broke bread with him and you know him…”
“At least I’ve been to Syria and the Middle East! Unlike some people who just sit in their Williamsburg apartment all day and complain about the hipsters outside!”
I walked further on, absorbing each modicum of dialogue that my ears could catch momentarily. Not everyone who reaches the winter of their lives has anything of merit to impart, but there are some who have worthy lessons and legends to offer to posterity. If you’re lucky, the latter also happen to be great raconteurs who never knew how to monetize such a skill…and if you’re truly blessed, they’ll convey a tale that can change your life. In those rare moments, they give you a wink, and for the span of an heartbeat, they transform before you and become the vivacious youth they once were. Such places like this one had the power to attract such fantastic storytellers and congregate them in one place…or did it help to create them instead? I suppose that’s just another mystery for the ages.
Walking past the small stall for reading tarot cards, I finally reached a barber shop at the very end of the arcade. Unlike its more trendy competitors of late in SoHo that offered billiards and served cocktails by moustached, suspendered bartenders, there was nothing elaborate about this establishment. Other than a modest usage of chrome, the barber shop felt and looked like a relic from an episode of Mad Men. A magazine shelf in the corner was covered with various issues from subscriptions, ranging from sports to decades-old issues of Playboy. The smell of leathery aftershave permeated the space, and from their aged use, the cracked seats had probably supported generations of the same family. Leaning next to the chair nearest to the front door, a lean bald man with a pencil moustache was looking down pensively; he looked up as I crossed the threshold and stepped onto his hirsute domain.
As I stood there quietly for a few moments, he gave me a warm smile as he crossed his arms in front of his ivory barber’s coat. “You’re not lost, are you?”
“I don’t think so. I came here looking for a cut. Maybe some advice.”
“Who said that I could help you?”
I nodded. “Yeah…you’re probably right. I mean, what the hell would a Greek know about doing anything right?”
The barber retained his smile while he shook his head. “You fuckin’ smartass…always the same with you. Now hop in the chair. You’re late.”
Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.