Here, a century-old schoolhouse stands, with cutouts of small paper tulips adorning its windows. There, items on a clothesline resemble notes on a musical staff. They hum a few bars as they snap in the stiff spring wind. And ever southward the big bus lumbers, as it carries us closer to the city’s soaring towers.
One wide corner more and we are on the isle of Manhattan: high up in Harlem.
“Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard” a street reads, and the earnest commerce spreads all around us from the Wizard of Eyes Optical Shop to a take-out shop called Young Fish.
A man in a wheelchair sits by a crosswalk as if waiting for the light-change – until a closer look shows him to be sleeping, head bowed, his hand resting on his head as a mother’s hand might rest on the head of her little one.
Before an old brownstone, a young dad stoops beneath his popped-up car hood, probing inside it, as beside him, a slender little girl in pink looks thoughtfully on.
Here are You and Me Fashions and The Bethel Church of Our Lord God Jesus Christ. Here now is the We the People Document Service Center.
And here is a mosque. And there is a temple.
Every time I come to this city, I am amazed by the easy exchanges among its citizens.
At home, I live on a corner lot in a town with yards both front and back. My neighbors are great and friendly people but we keep a certain distance.
Here, the opposite is true, and I can’t help but smile at people as I pass them.
Most smile back, though often after that little hiccup of hesitation when you can see that they’re thinking, “Do I know her?”
But they do know me, in a way. In New York we all know one another.
We are all eating at this pushcart, with its pretzels and hot dogs. We are all watching this street vendor as he puts on his lively show.
More important, we are sleeping side by side, and I think it is this fact that moves me the most when I come here: the implied human trust that lets us lie down in such proximity.
The bed in my hotel room is not 15 feet from the bed of the woman next door. I tune out the ventilator’s humming din and I can tell: she has a little cough.
When it is time to leave this wonderful place my big mooing bus just reverses direction and wades on upstream: Past Fineman’s, the department store and Engine 35, the firehouse. Past P.S. 57, the elementary school and Casa di Dios, the house of worship.
Past playgrounds and past basketball games. Past housing projects with their benched and sunning elders.
In my town, one family has its property rigged up so that a loud recorded voice warns you away the second your foot hits the driveway.
That’s no way to live, if you ask me. What makes a city work is the same thing that makes a country work: the willingness to look out for one another and not just ourselves; the willingness to extend our good wishes and our greetings both, and the willingness to freely use and share our public spaces.