It turned out to be nothing

The 12-year-old boy at the table next to ours grabbed his throat with his left hand and started coughing. His coughs turned to choking, his cheeks filling with now-threatening under-chewed food, his eyes protruding like those rubber dolls you squeeze for stress.

He looked past his father, who sat across from him, and off to an unknown horizon as his mother did what later I realized was a symptom of the problem: she slapped him repeatedly on the back. I reviewed instantly and autonomically my knowledge of Heimlich’s—where on the sternum to hold my fist, how hard to press/pull…. I would launch this food to the glass dessert case 15 feet away if necessary.

The boy somehow swallowed his food, and the mother let into him. Nagging him with a mouthful, the mother spoke in the direction of the father—“Now you’ve done it…”—while the boy took another bite and he, too, responded to her in the middle of a mouthful of food. She turned her attention to her husband and, as she spoke, her cheeks puffed outward with unchewed food and her words escaped only as through cake batter. Her consonants, especially T’s and D’s, sounded like Th’s and Dz’s. Her eating style had spawned new phonemes.

Moments passed and the husband, who I could see least, since he was parallel to me and not across, started choking and holding his napkin to his mouth to reduce the sound, which was now part of a Table Symphony that dominated the small café.

“Oh, he always does that,” the boy reminded his mother. “And it turns out to be nothing.”

The father ate through the choking, and no one died while Karen and I were there through two quiche lorraines, a cappuccino cheesecake and a chocolate mousse layer cake (no coffee, just tap water, please).

This was a family who choked a lot in public. All three. All the time. All talking with their mouths full. All the time.

You’d think they’d learn.

Had there ever been a fourth?

photo: lion kim ball


The Nurse

The old-lady in the wheelchair had hair that looked like white cotton candy, or like soft steel wool, which was blown backwards by the autumn wind, away from her dark-haired nurse, who cradled a phone in her right hand, her right shoulder cocked toward it, and whose cigarette was gently wedged between the first two fingers of her left hand.

Her body autonomically arranged her hand in this pose only when she smoked, her taut fingers forming scissors, never cutting, always nurturing, its precious ward. This hand remained relatively motionless as she spoke. It didn’t venture to expand on, accentuate or prove her words, which were inaudible to those sitting more than twenty feet away. In fact, the hand seemed to move to her mouth during drags almost as a balm during her conversation, a private succor unseen to her confidante. The hand moved to her unadorned lips, and the younger woman puckered and drew in, like a maiden accepting her lover. She dismissed the smoke, which brushed past the older lady’s candy hair, for a moment matching it in tone and texture.

The nurse sat on a granite bench outside the subway entrance at Verdi Square just north of 72nd Street and Broadway.

The white-haired lady gazed to the right of the subway entrance. She saw a man digging through a green trash can, its opening the diameter of a cantaloupe melon, until he found a half-consumed plastic bottle of blue Gatorade. He twisted the orange top and without a thought tilted it back, a thin blue stream flowing from the corner of his mouth over salt-and-pepper whiskers and onto his overcoat. Though the air temperature was not below the mid-60s, the man wore heaping gray rags that looked like layer upon layer of battle-beaten army blankets and thinning Hefty garbage bags. His tightly coiled black hair was in tufts, dusty with city grime, and had pieces of lint and paper confetti stuck haphazardly it.

He saw the older lady watching him, and he started to walk toward her and the nurse, who was still on the phone.

photo: SuperFantastic


I have seen things today.

Like the man pictured below on 37th and Broadway at about 2:30 p.m., when I walked across the street to Starbucks. He was shouting, “Hi! Here I am! Hi!”

On 82nd and West End Avenue, later this afternoon and strewn at the side of a pre-war building on the northwest corner, there was a collection of six or seven children’s items on the sidewalk: two pairs of pajama bottoms (one was camouflage), one plastic abacus, a shirt, a pair of sneakers with the shoelaces still tied. The building Superintendent, a short man with thinning hair, came from under the forest-green awning to join another man. They both looked up, and I saw the Super mouth the words, “Fifth floor.” He had a grease stain on the front of his blue work-shirt.

Catty-corner to that, there was an espresso-skin man with a brilliant bouquet of balloons—pink and white and some silver. The sun, retreating over the Hudson, shone against them, and the man’s face disappeared behind them as he looked south on West End to see if he could cross.

photo: Howard Freeman

To the girl in the white coat





The green magic marker note included no closing benediction—“Thanks,” “Yours truly,” “Regards.” It was taped on the vestibule wall above the five mailbox slots, one for each apartment and a fifth for our landlord, who lives in Westchester County.

I knew exactly whom it referred to. There were only four “girls” in our building. Only two of them were single and would have been talking outside on their cell phones, and only one would have been outside in the first place, since she smokes and lives with her mother and has a loud voice. (Smoking and pets are not allowed in our building because we have vented/forced air, and you can hear and smell your neighbor. We did enjoy the company of a pet slug once, but it was a second grade project that died after a few months in a 64-ounce Pepsi bottle.) The girl has an American mother and French father, apparently was raised in Guadeloupe and not too long ago sailed around the world for nine months.

The note that was left for her is the way many in New York communicate. Through anonymous rants taped on doors or placed under windshield wipers, like one I saw the other day near West End Avenue on the south side of the street: “Your car alarm kept me awake all night! Fuck you, motherfucker! Go back to New Jersey!” Scud missives launched from a kitchen table and landing on the eyeballs of the unsuspecting with a kill radius of one—more if there are passengers in the SUV headed back through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or they are messages from one party to another about moving in too loudly, or having sex too loudly, or whatever-it-might-be-“too-loudly,” as if a city of eight million could tone it down a bit at any given point in time.

Last night I came back from a birthday party for a classmate of Teak, who joined twenty other first-graders for indoor soccer and then the requisite pizza and ice cream cake. It had snowed almost two feet the other day, so while he played the mountain goat along the drifts and piles of shoveled snow against the parked cars on West 84th, I shuffled along next to him, waiting for him to sink through the drifts to his mid-thigh, both of us laughing when he did. He would shriek and his dimples became shadows in the canary glow of streetlamps. After three blocks and almost twenty minutes, we had crossed West End and were headed toward Riverside Drive, which is about forty feet beyond our brownstone. Groups of Jewish men and women and children—black coats, yarmulkes and crushed velvet headbands set against the brilliant snow—walked east, toward us. They were in pairs or in threes, all coming from a small synagogue two doors down from us. One woman in her 30s held the arm of a man about the same age. He limped, his left leg wooden as if his trousers concealed a brace. Her voice carried as they walked past, “…it’s not easy, is it?” An old couple was trailed by a second lady and a boy of about nine. The boy ran after the young woman and man with a limp. The old man’s voice was raspy but not loud enough for his wife. “Whaaat?!” she squawked in a familiar way as though an aged sister to a brother. He repeated the question in the same informational tone, yet with a little more volume.

Earlier and three blocks away, the main office for an assisted-living center and visiting nurse service on Broadway between 85th and 86th, flanked by a Jamba Juice, dry cleaners and wireless phone store on one side, and a pizza parlor, and Tasti D-lite store on the other, became its late afternoon hive of activity. A man with pale skin and week-old white whiskers sits on a Siamese standpipe and stares at the yellow cabs streaking downtown. The wet whoosh of melted snow under the cabs’ tires echoes off the façade. A behemoth of a dark-skinned man hobbles while holding a mahogany cane that he pokes at the sidewalk like he’s snuffing out ants. His prolific chin undulates beneath his mouth as he shouts to a friend three feet away, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know: he all good! He all good! Yeah—I know’d that he did that!” They smile and then laugh.

Soon after moving in to our apartment in late 2007, almost every weekday morning my sons and I would see a woman with auburn hair walking her two auburn longhaired dachshunds. The three boys squealed at the sight, and this frightened the dogs. She’d give me a Scud stare. Through the months and now more than two years, all five of us have seen each other at least three times each school week.

The boys still titter. The dogs bob along at the ends of their leashes with ears flopping side to side and up and down like twin grass skirts. The woman and I exchange smiles and continue our opposite diurnal paths down West 84th Street.

sketch: J bradford


A white man ran after a black man about 20 feet behind him on 84th and Broadway in mid-afternoon one day last fall.

I stopped with others and watched; moments earlier I had got off the subway at 86th and done my customary walk down Broadway to turn west at 84th toward home. The two men ran at full speed east across Broadway, ran under the AMC theater marquis and toward 83rd. The black man shot back over Broadway, heading west, the white man still running just as fast, now nearly catching up. I looked to see if the black man was holding anything. Unclear. Maybe 70 to 80 people stood motionless along Broadway on both sides and watched. Cars stopped and a few drivers got out and draped their arms over their doors, also watching. A few people held their hands over their mouths and turned to each other, whispering.

Now, the black man—tall, thin, in his mid-30s—ran up Broadway on the west side, in the street, toward the corner where I and a few others were standing. He had come almost full circle from where I first saw him. I thought this odd, that he would be headed back this way. He ran next to the median, in between the cars in the left lane and the 3-foot high concrete barrier.

A small animal ran ahead of him in the street. The black man caught up to it and, reaching down with both hands, scooped it up in his arms. He held high over his head a small brown and black dog, perhaps a silky terrier. The white man came up behind the black man, and the black man handed the dog to him. A white woman came running out from the east side of Broadway to the two men and was given the dog.

People on both sides of Broadway gasped, and then we all clapped.

photo: Baba Zuwa

The Singer

111408telzeyI heard faint singing, even though I had earbuds in from my iPhone on the downtown B train, headed for Herald Square.


I looked down, and there was a Chinese lady, about 70 years old I’d guess, reading sheet music inside plastic slip covers and a dull pink plastic floppy binder.  The lyrics were in Mandarin or Cantonese characters, and I wouldn’t have known it was music were she not singing while her eyes groomed the page.  Her voice was gentle, between a child’s plea in the middle of the night and a bird’s call.  In her salt-and-pepper hair was a sequined pink hair-band.  She had three bags: a red plastic bag with empty Tupperware containers, a white canvas tote bag with the words “Advanced Imagery” printed on it, and a green one closed at the top.  Her rust fleece jacket, zipped to the sternum, revealed a maroon and cream scarf wrapped neatly around her neck.


A Hispanic woman in her 20s was sitting next to this Singer, occasionally looking at the sheet music as well.  Unsmiling.  I wondered how long they’d been riding next to each other, and how long they still had to go.



photo:  telzey