The benches in front of 1 Penn Plaza, along West 34th Street, are lively at lunchtime and look like they remain so long after lunch, as deliverymen pick up and drop off all day long and limo drivers waiting for their VIPs kibitz with one another and with passersby who want to know how famous the person about to become their next brush with fame is and whether he or she is worth pausing for on their way to their next New York City attraction.
There was no reason for me to be in front of the famous skyscraper to make this observation last Thursday afternoon. Five minutes before passing the limo drivers and their VIPs and the lunchtime crowd, I was finishing up being lost in Penn Station, the renowned train- and bus- and everything else station (flying saucers will someday land there because it is shaped like one). Ten minutes before that, frustrated that I could not find a sign directing me to exactly where I was going, many many blocks away, I reasoned that any door with sunlight coming through it and people’s shadows walking past must lead to the outside and a street, any street, and the possibility that, once there, I would be able to figure out where I am. In New York City, on the streets, I am (usually) okay, since it is one of the easiest cities to negotiate on foot. It’s a grid. (Mostly.)
That hunch led me up one staircase to plate glass doors that entered into Madison Square Garden. I headed back down that staircase.
Out on the street, I made my way back around MSG to the front of Penn Station and then onward, north along 8th Ave. to have coffee with a college classmate and then meet up with other friends to attend a taping of “The Colbert Report.”
The college classmate and I had not seen each other in almost 24 years, when I had thrown a post-graduation party he attended; thoughts and memories of this party were on my mind while I strolled up 8th. Cars were blocking the crosswalk, so instead of waiting to cross, I turned right and started over to 7th, where I would continue my northward stroll.
This is how small a moment any moment can truly be. Had the crossing been available, I would have continued on 8th. But sitting on a bench on 34th Street at that moment was another college classmate, in fact the co-host of that post-graduation party, someone I have not seen or spoken with in three years and who did not know I was in New York City. He has an office in 1 Penn Plaza and was on his lunch break, people-watching.
Had I walked past ten minutes earlier, I would have missed him, but I had just spent those ten minutes escaping from Penn Station.
“Is that … Kevin? Really?” I thought to myself. Can’t be. I was not going to say anything; I was going to walk past the person who I assumed was a merely a stranger with a familiar face, since how could it be that I would bump into a long-ago friend in this giant city; a hunch had just now almost gotten me lost in Madison Square Garden. I had better leave the hunching business to others, I thought.
“Mark?” That settled it; it was my old friend. With one friend waiting for me in a restaurant in midtown and about 20 more blocks to walk, I had about four minutes to bring my graduate school housemate up to date. He had the same four minutes to bring me up to date. What was I doing in the city. What was he doing on that bench. Our relationship statusi, our work situations, my physical condition. How long it had been since. How utterly baffling the fact of what we were experiencing right then was. Why I was not taking the subway instead of walking 20-plus blocks. We finally, after all these years, exchanged phone numbers.
“How long has it been?” That was my other friend’s first question as I walked in the restaurant, a few minutes later. I reminded him: 24 years. And an extra 10 minutes because I had run into someone. He, too, was on his lunch break, so we had limited time in which to reacquaint each other with each other. Relationships, work, life.
How much time does it really take to tell someone what you’ve done and seen? Maybe it only takes about four minutes to (re)establish who you are and the rest is elaboration with anecdotes.
Who am I? Someone who takes 10 minutes to get out of a wide-open train station but is happy at the social accident that was thus made possible.
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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 22 asks, “You’re about to enter a room full of strangers, where you will have exactly four minutes to tell a story that would convey who you really are. What’s your story?”