SEVEN TRUE TALES OF MANHATTAN

(1) In 1962, a year out of College and already parted from two ad-copywriter jobs for obscure Manhattan publishers, I’d just completed my first week doing the same work for a larger, better-known book company. I’d instantly liked Ralph, the gracious handsome boss of the advertising department, and hoped to last in the job for a while, at least until I resolved whether to go to law school. Some weeks before I’d been hired, I’d decided to spend the upcoming weekend with my lady in my family’s summer home (sounds fancier than the place was) in the Adirondacks. From Manhattan, a five hour drive, with no traffic. I left the summer-sweltering City on Friday evening so the trip took over seven hours.

         Upstate, the weather was glorious, the water delightfully warm and sitting on our boathouse porch idyllic. But suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I loathed the prospect of returning so soon to Manhattan and work. My lady said she could stay longer. So Monday morning I called Ralph and told him I was ill with a cold, but I’d be in by Wednesday.

         And I was, before nine. A few minutes later, Ralph came to my cubicle. “How are you feeling?” he asked solicitously. I told him I felt much better. “You look better,” he replied. “You’ve got a tan.”

         (2) On an oppressively hot, humid August afternoon I returned to my apartment building in the Upper West Side, a building mostly occupied by elderly orthodox Jews in a neighborhood becoming mostly Puerto Rican. An old man leaned slumped over by the elevator.  He looked weary; his shirt was sweaty. I knew why. It was Saturday—Shabbos—and his beliefs prohibiting him from doing any work, including pushing the elevator button. He had to wait until a goy appeared. He could have been there for hours. I pushed the button, the elevator door opened, and we entered. I asked the man what floor he wanted, knowing he couldn’t push that button either. He told me, sighed, shook his head then looked at me and muttered, “Damn Stupid Religion!”

(3 A tale that has become an urban legend. I first told the tale in 1966, a few days after experiencing it in a restaurant near my apartment building. Over twenty years later, I read, to my amazement, the same basic tale, presented as if new, in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary column. Fascinating, I thought—my tale is now a Manhattan myth. Then in 2008 I read the same basic tale yet again, and again presented as freshly new, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here’s the true tale. My lady and I were eating in a booth in a modest Chinese restaurant on Broadway. From their sighs and mutterings of annoyance, the couple in the booth directly behind me were clearly not getting along, although I couldn’t make out any words. Then I heard the woman, sitting closest to me, declare loudly and emphatically, “It’s not just the egg roll Frank, it’s the whole last six months.”

         (4) After law school, I worked as a law clerk for a federal district court judge in Manhattan. He was wonderful to work for. A hard worker, he conducted many trials and loved teaching his clerks about court proceedings and how law functioned in reality. I learned much I’d never heard about in law school—from the art of cross-examination to drafting jury instructions. The legal instructions the judge gave a jury were vital, especially in criminal trials. Any miniscule mistake could be grounds for reversal by an appellate court. We were laboring to make our current criminal-trial instructions perfect, which always meant lengthy, when the judge said, ”Just once, I’d like to say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Did he do it or didn’t he?’”

(5) Hard December night in downtown Manhattan rush hour, snow swirling, fierce wind stabbing, already dark. Walking from my law-clerk job to the subway, I halted with a mass of nine-to-fivers at an intersection, waiting for the red light to change. A taxi halted, the driver rolled down his window and called out in heavily-accented English, “Hey, how do I get to the police station?” It was two blocks away. Nobody spoke, until a gruff voice barked out, “Run over a cop.”

(6) Beautiful summer day in the late 1960s, some time before Manhattanites took to being nice to strangers. I was ambling in Central Park musing and looking, when I suddenly realized I might be running late for an early dinner engagement, I never wear a watch, so I approached a well-dressed man and asked as politely as I could if he would tell me the time. “What do I look like,” he snarled, “a clock?”

(7) In August in the mid-1990s, I left the Port Authority bus terminal at 40th St on Manhattan’s west side, after visiting my parents in New Jersey. The summer night was balmy and I wanted a walk, after spending several hours with my mother and my eighty-year old father, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. My brother’s apartment, where I was staying, was some forty blocks uptown. I’d walked five blocks up 8th Ave., when a black man roughly my size (I’m 6’1”, 185 lbs.) came up and stopped directly in front of me. “Hey man, give me some money,” he demanded in a tone I didn’t care for. “No thanks,” I replied. “Hey,” he raised his voice, “Give me some money.” We stood a couple of feet apart. I sensed that he was not dangerous, though I couldn’t say why I sensed that. “I told you no,” I said “‘Look, I’m telling you, give me some money!” he insisted. I stared at him and raised my voice “I said NO!” “Listen,” he replied, “you may think you’re safe here—but look around you. There’s nobody nearby. There’s no cop here. You better give me some money!” A fury rose in me, the fury I used to feel when an opposing basketball player jabbed me with an elbow. ”Don’t you threaten me,” I snarled at him. “I’ll never give you a god-damned nickel.”

He leaned back a bit, sorta smiled and said, “OK …  Well, will you give me a hug?”

I looked in his eyes for a few instants, and knew he meant it. “Sure,” I said.

We hugged, a real hug.

Then each of us walked on, in opposite directions.

[2012]