Then my wife decided it would be fun if we met a completely different set of friends in NYC Sunday night for dinner and then caught a ride back to their place in Jersey and hung out with them all day on Monday. This complicated things, and now our simple plan involved a three hour drive, bumming a ride to the train station, a 45 minute train ride to another train station, and a transfer to a metro train that eventually got us to Penn station after stopping every 15 feet along the way. I know that sounds ridiculously simple to most of you, but I'm just a hick from upstate NY, and I don't understand your complicated mass transit ways. I'm about a four hour drive from the Manhattan, and that's about as close as I like to get.
Overall, it went well. We made it to Franklin Lakes in record time, parked our car in my buddy Pete's parent's driveway and his mom drove us to the train station. My wife sat in the front and I sat in the back and that was a mistake. That's because my wife likes to talk. And Pete's mom likes to talk. And unfortunately they're both Italian -- which means they can only talk by looking directly at each other and gesturing wildly with both hands to properly punctuate each point they are making. After the first few miles I just ducked my head down and closed my eyes and decided that if it was my time, it was my time. If I ended up hanging upside down by my seatbelt inside of a crushed SUV listening to Barry Manilow songs while my lifeblood ran into the storm drain, then so be it. Finally, with a little more grey in my hair and a little more pee in my undies, we arrived safely at the train station.
We jumped out of the car, grabbed our bags, thanked Pete's mom and watched her drive away. It was then that we noticed the complete and utter lack of activity. After tugging on a few doors that were quite obviously locked, we realized the train station was closed. No ticket window, no bathroom, no advice.
This resulted in my wife and I asking each other a lot of questions that neither of us had answers to. Do we just buy tickets on the train? Which train do we get on? Is there a schedule? Is that a bus map or a train map? Are we supposed to be on the other side of the tracks with those other people? Why the hell did I wear my coat? Where can I pee? I'm sweating my balls off. OK, that last bit wasn't a question and to clarify, it was me, not her, but I did feel pretty ridiculous since it had been close to 40 degrees when I left my house and right then it was probably 80 in the shade and I was wearing a coat. Finally, right before I resorted to walking up to some stranger and admitting my complete ignorance, I saw the ticket machine. Like most kiosks these days, it was a touch screen, and over the course of its life, it had been soundly touched - maybe even bad-touched. The fingerprints on the screen were so thick I could have scraped them off with a putty knife. I poked and prodded the disgusting screen, fed it my credit card and out popped two one-way tickets to THE CITY. My THE CITY. (You have to say that in a big, booming voice like The Tick for it to properly convey my elation at finally finding the giant blue ticket machine that had been hiding in plain sight.)
I made a mental note reminding myself not to touch my eye with that fouled finger, then I climbed back onto the platform to wait with my wife. She was sitting a bench away from a younger woman wearing leggings as pants and holding a phablet to one side of her head, one earbud dangling and the other still jacked in. By the way, please send her your prayers because her dad was in the hospital after having his gall bladder out, and for some reason he gained over eight pounds inside of a week and so they had to bring him back in and that's when they found out that his stomach cavity was filled with blood and it had been pooling in there for some time. They aren't sure, but they thought maybe the sutures were leaking and since he's a hemophiliac, it just kept bleeding. He's not in the greatest shape to begin with because of the diabetes, but they're hoping that after this he will be good to go. She wasn't feeling too good about the trip because she had cramps due to it being her time of the month, and she really had to pee but the station was closed. She said she was waiting for the train to The City so I figured we were on the right track. Pun intended. The things you learn sitting ten feet from complete strangers who are on the phone and don't realize how loud they're talking.
Eventually, a train came and the mechanical voice on the PA said something about Hoboken, which we figured was probably in the right direction at least. Plus, our girl stood up, so we knew we were golden. We hopped on, and 45 minutes later we were in someplace called Sacaucus Junction. I know that sounds like a dusty, one horse town out of a bad western where you should be able to belly up to the bar in the local saloon and order a shot of rot gut in a dirty glass, but it's nothing like that. We ended up running through the station because our train was late getting in and we had about three minutes to catch the connecting train, but we made it. Barely. The train whooshed in, the doors opened, we jumped on and literally took one step inside and could go no farther. It was standing room only, and calling it that is being generous. I was leaning against a wall of dangerous looking red and green buttons, and my wife was half hanging out the door when it hissed shut an inch behind her and the train started moving. I grabbed a pole, making sure I did so with my touchscreen-poking hand, and we picked up speed.
It was then that I noticed him.* The medieval warrior wearing the tunic, jerkin, gauntlets and cloak. You know, that guy you always see on the train, standing next to you holding a battle shield made out of tinfoil, old mountain dew cans and masking tape covered with spray paint. He looked about 20 or 25, give or take, and stood maybe five-foot five. He had nerd glasses, a hipster haircut, a wispy beard, and seemed to be working on developing a decidedly un-warrior-like set of moobs. But hey, at least his outfit made me feel better about my stupid coat. The connecting door between the cars was stuck open because of the crowd, and it was sort of nauseating to watch the other people across the gap move up and down and sideways like they were in the world's most indecisive elevator. The micro-warrior kept saying things like "It's a portal to another dimension! Arm yourselves! You know not what may appear!" but the only thing I saw over there were a lot of alien beings who looked very similar to us who seemed to be peering into our dimension and wondering if we had any more like him on our side. All I was trying to do was not puke because I figured the denizens of the alternate dimension would frown upon that sort of behavior and that would be the start of the invasion. That's all I need to do on my long weekend. Start an inter-dimensional war.
I could tell by the smell that we were getting close. Not me and the micro-warrior, since we were already pretty close -- I'm talking about me and The City. There was a damp, garbage-y smell that I remembered from previous trips and had tried hard to forget. But it sticks with you. It smells like someone took a bucket of dumpster juice and doused it in diesel fuel and then lit it. That's the smell. The one that you know gets ten times worse when it rains out.
Finally, the train hissed and lurched and trundled to a complete stop, and the doors opened. We again burst forth in a throng of disgusting humanity and descended upon Penn Station like famished locusts. Doug had said to meet him on the corner of 33rd street and 7th avenue, so we found the right set of stairs and ascended into the madness. We weren't sure which way the avenues went, so we just picked a direction and started walking, figuring we had a 50/50 shot of it being the right one. We lucked out, and had guessed correctly. On three separate occasions while we were walking, people asked me for directions. I don't know on what planet I might look like someone who might know where the fuck I was going, but there you go. I just shrugged and said, "I'm really sorry, but I don't even know where I am right now." So apparently there were people more lost than I was, and I take comfort in that.
Luckily it was a warm day because the wind was howling between the buildings and we would have frozen our asses off if it had been 20 degrees colder. I texted Doug and told him we were walking the streets trying to get where we needed to be. He called me back and said something like, "The Brooklyn bridge is closed and I just got out of the Battery Tunnel and I'm on the corner of 9th street and 2nd Ave, and I can probably take a right on 5th and then drive down blah blah blah-"
I didn't have the heart to tell him that he was basically talking to a dog, and I was just nodding and smiling like a mental patient and waiting for him to finish talking.
"Where are you?" he asked. I looked around.
"Standing on some random corner like a two-dollar whore," I said. "33rd and 7th, it looks like. Across from Macy's."
"OK, I'll be there in about 20 minutes. I'm a little over three miles away."
There is just something really wrong about that sentence. We backed up against the corner building and waited.
You see a lot of people when you're standing on a corner in NYC. The worst part is, they see you too. It wasn't too bad at first. Hot women seemed to be pretty abundant. On the other hand, I also got to see Black Wonder Woman. She had boobs like basketballs and an ass that looked like a garbage bag full of doorknobs, but she was rocking that Wonder Woman costume like she was late for the Justice League orgy at the Fortress of Solitude.
The first person to notice us was a tiny Asian woman in robes handing out little gold cards with some strange, mysterious symbols on them. She was saying something (in Cantonese or Japanese or Andorian, I'm not really sure) and gesturing for me to take one of these golden cards from her. I took it from her with the thumb and index finger of my ruined hand, but then she opened some book that looked like it had numbers in it. I saw one that said 30 and another that said 60 and I wasn't sure if she was selling these things or if she just wanted my signature. I gave it back to her and said, "No thank you" in my most apologetic voice and she smiled and nodded and then walked away, pausing briefly to adjust her crotch while holding the stack of golden tickets in her mouth. I moved my ruined hand farther away from my body.
I turned around from that disgusting sight to find myself facing a tall black man who looked to be about 60. He had deep set eyes and he was standing directly in front of me, holding a small piece of cardboard that said "Homeless Vet" and nothing else. He didn't say anything to me at all -- no "Can you spare some change?" no "Can you help a brother out?" no nothing. He just kept staring at me from under the brim of his baseball hat like he was hungry and I was a 10-piece order of chicken Mcnuggets. Finally, I think due to my utter confusion as to what I was supposed to do or say, he gave up on me and moved on down the street. I never know what to do in those situations.
A few seconds later, an angry, (and perhaps slightly mentally unstable) black man of indeterminate age came barreling down the sidewalk swinging a hard-shell overnight bag by its metal handle and screaming nonsensical sentences. I know what to do in that situation, which is to try not to be noticed and try not to get hit in the head with a suitcase. I managed both of those things, but not before hearing some rant about the shadow aliens who were working at the KFC. Or maybe it was with the KFC. Or the DMV. I couldn't really make it out. Either way, they were bad, and he was going to kick their asses.
My phone rang again, and it was Doug, telling me that he was still ten minutes out because he couldn't make a left because of an open manhole cover or some shit, so it would be better if we walked back to the Penn Station entrance, and he would circle around again and come down 8th and grab us from there. So we hoofed it back, which was fine by me. I felt like I was less of a weirdo magnet while I was moving.
A few minutes later, as we watched some guy sugar his nuts -- no really, he had cashews and peanuts and almonds in his cart and he was melting sugar all over them and they smelled wonderful -- Doug pulled up in his Buick with the ISLEOFQ license plates (he was/is the guitarist in that band) and we jumped into the relative sanity of his car and got the hell out of dodge.
The difference between Brooklyn and that part of NYC is striking. We came out of the Battery Tunnel and it was like we had gone back in time. The area of Brooklyn where he lives is very retro. Tons of brownstones and cool little corner stores and restaurants. It has a really neat vibe. It reminded me of Philly or maybe Boston. I could almost live there for a while, I think, if you held a gun to my head or paid me a shitload of money. Maybe both. I mean, where else can you get authentic Asian breakfast crepes and buy a classic Schwinn bike off the street for cash money all within a couple of blocks?
Those of you who read my book know that when I was a kid, I coveted my neighbor's 1969 Schwinn Orange Krate bike, and I still think it's one of the coolest bikes ever made. They are very rare collector's items, and right now, they go for about 2-3 thousand dollars on e-Bay. So it was pretty amazing to just be walking down the street on my way to get coffee and be able to do this:
I asked the guy how much it was and he said "one or two thousand" which seemed like quite a spread. I think what he meant to say was, "How much do you have?" I was a little sad that he knew what it was worth, but it was all original, right down to the flat racing slick rear tire and a banana seat with zero road rash and a matching serial number. Maybe someday I'll win the lottery and own one and you all can come over and we can take turns riding it at top speed down the hallways of my yacht.
We had a great time in Brooklyn, and Doug and his lovely wife treated us like royalty. We drank champagne and martinis and laughed so much my sides hurt the next day. On Sunday we slept in a bit, and then walked to the Asian crepes place and got some coffee and, of course, Asian crepes, which, having never been to France, suited me just fine. We basically just hung out being bums until about 3pm, whereupon we piled into the Buick and headed back to The City. They couldn't join us for dinner, which made me sad in retrospect because I think we would have had quite a few laughs, mostly because of where we ended up going, which was unlike any restaurant I've ever eaten in before.
*I'm usually an observant person, so I am surprised I didn't see him right away -- maybe because it was one of those rare instances of someone actually being shorter than I am, or maybe it was because I still had no idea if I was on my way to The City or whether we'd end up at a freight depot in Newark.