Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.
Yesterday Barbara and I took the subway into the City and spent the afternoon wandering around Soho, Tribeca and the Village. I’m still at the stage where I have virtually no idea where anything is in the City, or what the different parts have to offer, so this was little more than a dismounted recce.
Soho and Tribeca, and to a slightly lesser degree, the Village, are the stomping grounds of various stars, millionaires and other illuminaries. Brad Pitt shows up occasionally, along with his wife-of-the-moment. Heath Ledger lived here, until he confused his various prescriptions, with reasonably predictable results. And yes, Natalie Portman lives somewhere around here, so naturally the true mission behind the day’s romp was to accidentally bump into her and have a serious conversation as to why she should never make anything nearly as abysmal as ‘Closer’ ever again. More on that later.
The unexpected truth of the area is this, though. Everyone is a nobody here, and at the same time, everyone is potentially ‘someone’. Once you have adopted the unwritten uniform of the City, which is basically anything dark and therefore non-tourist, you submerge into the grimy backdrop of the place. Perhaps this explains the attraction to Hollywood’s elite. Simply throw on a drab hoody, perhaps some cheap sunglasses, and <bing> you’re just Joe New Yorker. Instant anonymity.
The only thing that might set you apart from the average NY-ite is the way you carry yourself, and apparently, if you are tall. New York seems to be populated largely by vertically challenged troglodytes, and apparently anyone over 5’9″ is unusual enough to suggest a touch of immortality. I kept getting wierd looks from the occasional passerby–y’know, that questioning glance of “Are you someone noteworthy?”, which lasts for the whole 20 seconds until you pass them by, or they decide that you are merely a 40 year old soldier masquerading for the afternoon as someone interesting. The only difference in my demeanour, that I could tell, was proper posture and a somewhat aloof confidence, born of living overseas for the past ten years, one of which was in a war zone.
Not that you would react if you did notice someone possibly famous. The most impressive person I saw all day was the 7 foot tall black guy I passed on W. Houston Street. He was wearing an all-white tuxedo, replete with white top hat and white feather boa. Rupaul, perhaps?
Now, that was impressive. I had to blink in order not to do a double take, and by the time my eyes reopened, he was gone. I wondered for a second if I was finally having an acid flashback, or if I had imagined the whole vision. I’m still not sure. In any case, I am reasonably sure that I managed to ignore it as completely as any other jaded denizen of the Village.
Barbara amused herself by counting out loud the number of Starbucks we came across. I would not be surprised to learn that Dick Cheney was the Vice President of the ubiquitous coffee shop, since they are literally everywhere, and quietly seem to be pursuing a strategy of strangling the city in a mix of green awnings and over-sweetened beverages. Not terribly different from our tactics in Iraq, come to think of it. In any case, there is no escape from them. Across from City Hall, I marked two of them, one of each side of the same intersection. At what point do you concede the possibility of market saturation?
One must be careful, though, in actually patronizing these establishments while walking around the City. Apparently there is no such thing as public restrooms, and indeed, the only accessible bathrooms, for less than the price of an average mortgage payment, is, you guessed it, inside another Starbucks. Which means that you have to purchase another Vanilla Latte for the privilege of tinkling in their W.C. Talk about a vicious circle….
So, there I am, wandering around the West Village in my ill-fitting Harley Davidson boots, secretly on the look-out for Natalie Portman. And I found her.
Well, not exactly. I found her shoes.
Her fall collection of vegan shoes is at Te Casan, down on West Broadway. Yes, you read it correctly, vegan shoes. What the picture above doesn’t show is the 20 foot high profile of Natalie in the store window. Barbara wouldn’t let me take a picture of it. Actually she was too busy pulling me away from licking the fabulous pair of tofu stilletos just inside the doorway. Delicious! Much better than the brocolli pumps I tried first, but then, what do I know about coutoure? I would like to think that the soybean flats had actually been chastised by her angelic hands, but I suspect that they were produced by an army of starving, pre-teen Malaysians, the same as any other over-priced shoe in this country. Although apparently all profits go to the Nature Conservancy, so you can assuage your white guilt, born of sporting a 2500 dollar pair of wheatgrass sneakers, from the knowledge that your hard earned bread is going to support something vaguely high-minded.
All I know is that I was hungry an hour later.