Yorkville, 7 a.m.
My eyes flutter open as the sunrise spills onto my pillow through my bedroom window. Only a few blocks of brick and mortar separate me from the orange glow that illuminates the East River. The incessant beeping resonating from my alarm clock reiterates that the first morning of the new week has arrived. It is really just for show; my energy ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the day. Maybe that’s left over from North Carolina childhood spent along the undeveloped shoreline of Lake Norman.
Emerging from my cocoon of silky blue sheets and feather blankets, my body knows the drill. My bare feet subconsciously slide their way into white ankle socks and then into tattered running shoes. My hands carry the glass of lukewarm water from my nightstand to my lips. With laces snug and hair wisps swept away from my face, I make my escape down two narrow flights of stairs and onto the chilly sidewalk. The sun chases me five avenues westward until I reach the smiling 90th Street East Side entrance to Central Park.
Crossing deserted traffic lanes into the shared biker and pedestrian path, I become one with the sea of dedicated joggers pulsing northward along the eastern edge of the park. The Monday sun glistens through the oak and maple leaves dancing in the morning breeze, sprinkling the black spandex-covered legs and neon athletic jackets with light. I run. The rhythms reverberating on my eardrums steady my heart rate and synchronize my steps as I follow the 6-mile, counterclockwise trail around the perimeter of green. Up the steepest hill atop the park, along the western edge of the water reservoir, past the northern border of Midtown before the morning hustle begins, I run.
Within an hour’s time, I am, once again, outside of the park’s tranquility and nearing my apartment doorstep. Cheerful voices of children overshadow the urban melody of the morning commute as the young ones crowd into their elementary school classrooms one block away. From my bedroom window, I watch the stragglers jump, skip and scream on the playground as teachers attempt to shoo them inside the schoolhouse doors. Within minutes, school is in session.
At 9:30 a.m., I stroll 114 steps over to my morning coffee and bagel shop on Second Avenue. The line of customers weaves through the storefront and overflows onto the adjacent sidewalk, but no one appears impatient. All of us regulars know that the wait will not last any longer than 10 minutes, regardless of how long the line grows. A stoic Rottweiler sits at the entrance, his leash tied loosely to the metal scaffolding as his owner awaits her morning caffeine fix. Across the 8-foot sidewalk, a Chihuahua yaps tirelessly at him; he gazes past the pup that resembles a standard-sized street rat, unfazed by the high-pitched sounds of his superiority complex.
New mothers in athletic attire push their double-wide baby strollers in line behind suited businessmen who are followed by a collection of dog walkers, subway construction men and elderly couples. Approaching the counter, I shout my typical order to the server: a cinnamon-raisin bagel with light cream cheese, and a small coffee with skim milk and Splenda. He begins to gather my breakfast before I finish speaking, undoubtedly remembering the order I call out to him five days a week. I silently nickname him the bagel boy—I am too afraid to ask for his real name. While I know him and he knows me after my two months of customer loyalty, I cannot forget that I am in New York and not the Southern boondocks where an exchange of first names among strangers is considered a sign of friendliness rather than peculiarity.
Bagel and coffee cup in hand, I hike to the 86th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station to catch my express 4-train to class downtown. Shuffling down the steps of the southern street entryway, I glance up from my shoes to notice the newspaper distributor greeting the waves of commuters from his stairway platform. Clad in a baggy, heather gray sweatshirt, relaxed fit jeans, and black and red Adidas kicks, he offers free copies of AM New York to every traveler passing by his stand. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! You all are lookin’ beautiful this morning, ready to start the new day! Have a good one, everybody,” he repeats as we slide past him and onto our respective train cars. I do not know his name either, and I know I am not allowed to ask; however, he appears so frequently during my week that he is no longer a stranger. I do not mind when the newspaper guy speaks to me. In fact, I rather enjoy it. He is my anonymous, but appreciated, morning greeter.
Astor Place, 10:30 a.m.
After 25 minutes underground, I emerge from the Astor Place 6-train station into an alternate world. A makeshift jazz band provides the soundtrack for the plaza vibrating with one of the most eclectic mixes of people I have yet to discover in the city. Fashionable females strut. Construction workers whistle. Food truck vendors sweat. International students gossip in foreign tongues.
To those who belong, this scene is nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone tends to their individual missions, horse blinders aimed forward and oblivious to the oddities surrounding them – that is until I walk by. A young woman trying to keep it low-key and conservative in Banana Republic jeans, a light blue crewneck sweater and black ballet flats appears the most out of place among a crowd of East Village locals. In walking the four blocks to 20 Cooper Square, home to New York University’s journalism institute, I double my step pace and hold my breath, attempting to escape the stares that judge my plain existence in their weird world. Stepping through the hunter green revolving door across from the 5th Street sign, I exhale and close my eyes for a moment. Looking into the lobby as if the last four minutes were a dream, I notice the security guard waiting impatiently for me to present my student ID. I fiddle through my oversized tote bag with a slight pant, ready to transcend from street level to the 6th floor.
Bleecker Street, 3 p.m.
Avoiding the repeat of my morning commute, I continue down Cooper Square as it becomes the Bowery and turn right onto Bleecker Street. Its desertedness surprises me; the artistic reputation of this southerly East Village street vanishes between the Bowery and Broadway. Incomplete construction projects, abandoned art galleries and quiet boutiques line the two-block walk to the 6-train subway station. Heading underground, worlds are transformed yet again. The station’s recent renovation leaves the corridors a whitish-gray, eerily clean and far more modern than its decrepit streets above. I wander warily down the new hallway connected to the Broadway/Lafayette Street B, D, F, and M-train hub, reluctant to go to work.
Hopping on the uptown-bound F-train, I find an empty blue bench and prepare for my six-stop ride to Rockefeller Center. A man rushes into my quiet car just seconds before the doors glide to a close. He stands about 5-feet-7-inches tall, a pale man clad in all black, who drops his ragged backpack onto the bench across from me. As the train begins to move, he pulls fingerless black leather gloves from the bag’s front pocket and carefully secures them to his sweaty palms. Stuffing his mess of long brown hair into a black beret, he abandons his bag on the bench as he stands in the center of the traveling car, ready.
Careful not to stare through my oversized sunglass frames, I watch the man grab hold of the two handlebars lining the roof of the subway car and lift his skinny frame into the air. He manages to complete five pull-ups before the car comes to a stop at the 14th Street station, his worn out sneakers flailing in the air but careful not to kick any surrounding passengers. A set of stationary lunges follows, then abdominal leg raises, then more pull-ups. The train speeds, slows, jerks to a halt. New passengers at 23rd Street look on with disgust as they maneuver around the man’s swinging feet. His sweat glands respond promptly to his elevated heart rate, disturbing the car’s passengers with his body odor.
As the train approaches 42nd Street, the fitness enthusiast abruptly drops from the handrails to the ground, grabs his abandoned backpack from the bench, and jumps out of the car onto the platform. Through the window of the closing door, I watch him remove his gloves, stuff them back into his bag, and walk up the stairs nonchalantly. Struck by the 10-minute subway workout display, I let an audible giggle escape among the strangers. A passenger standing across from me looks up; he clearly knows what I am giggling about, but he did not find it nearly as funny.
Rockefeller Center, 4 p.m.
Stepping off the F-train in the Rockefeller Center concourse, still laughing at the hipster workout I just witnessed, I can feel the air change. The air’s circulation quickens like the breath of a Midtown employee heading to the trading floor. No one strolls; everyone walks with purpose, even before the rush hour officially begins. Gangs of financiers in charcoal gray suits take their afternoon Starbucks break in the concourse, still talking shop as they sip their grande café lattes with an extra shot of espresso.
I weave my way to the entrance of New York Sports Club, greeting my smiling coworkers and mentally preparing for my sessions with my personal training clients. My excitement fades within 15 minutes of walking into the office as I stand face-to-face with the new regional fitness director eager to crunch productivity numbers. Towering over me by a full 12 inches, his bulging back and shoulder muscles stressing the seams of his light blue dress shirt, Roger aggressively asks with his booming voice how I plan on moving up in the company while earning my master’s degree.
All goes silent as I focus my eyes on the blinking device dangling around his right ear. He surely forgot my name the moment after it escaped from my mouth. His brain focused solely on my statistics. Two, the number of months I have worked in his location. Ten, the number of clients I currently help. Eighteen, the maximum number of hours I am willing to offer him each week as I balance the job with school. Sixty-five, the number of sessions he expects me to train each month. Three, the number of months I have to complete this task before he fires me. A fellow trainer and I decide that the name “Roger” just did not fit; “Bluetooth” replaced it with ease.
Leaving “Bluetooth” and his numbers behind, I step out onto the fitness floor to greet members fleeing their sedentary office jobs before the evening rush begins. John, one of the regulars, stops to say hello before hitting the weight rack. The municipal bonds expert quickly asks about my progress with school; he remembers I’m working on my master’s degree, though not what I’m studying. “There isn’t much money in that, is there?” he inquires as I tell him my goal of writing for magazines. Like John and “Bluetooth,” the majority of my clientele prefer digits to letters. Working in investment banks, half of them for Morgan Stanley upstairs in the McGraw Hill Building, the members simply smile and nod when we speak of my career aspirations, and I follow suit when they share work horror stories and anecdotes. They all seem to be on the same page, the same capital-focused page that is missing from my book.
Yorkville, 8:30 p.m.
After a brisk walk to the 49th Street R-train station and 59th Street transfer to the express 5-train, I can breathe easy again. Back on the streets of my neighborhood, my pace instinctively slows as I make my way home. The sun disappeared hours ago, along with the tourists retreating to their hotels and street vendors locking up their food trucks until tomorrow’s dawn.
I detour into the Fairway Market on 86th Street for a few groceries to get me through the week. With just a handful of evening shoppers remaining in the store, I make it to the register within 10 minutes. I subconsciously swipe my credit card as the young black woman rings up my produce and fills my purple reusable shopping bag. She looks up and smiles at me. “Thank you for swiping your card ahead of time. You make the process so much more efficient, you have no idea.” Shocked by her open appreciation of my simple movement, I thank her for helping me in the first place. My errand rush slows as we exchange niceties about how the world would be a better place if people could help one another simultaneously as we just did in this small grocery checkout moment.
I shake my head with a smile as I leave the market, strolling the remaining four blocks to my apartment on the streets that I now recognize as my home. Within minutes of unlocking my door and unpacking my grocery bag, I crawl into bed with sleep in my eyes. With my curtains pulled back, anticipating the Tuesday morning sunrise on its way, I drift off into the darkness of Monday night. Seven hours and counting until I get to do it all over again.
Originally written for my “Storied New York” seminar