The day starts early in the Flower District, which lies in and around West 28th Street in the Manhattan neighborhood known as Chelsea. By dawn, an urban rainforest grows on sidewalks stacked with flora: houseplants, small trees, cut roses, potted orchids, flower-box fillers and all manner of shrubbery, every bit of it for sale. It has ever been thus — or, at least, since the 1890s, when all the flower shops left 34th Street for what was then a more pastoral setting.
The orchid man shakes his head when I pull out my debit card. He had offered me the opportunity to pay in cash, to create a little wiggle room, a discount or maybe a second plant at half price. He seems disappointed in me as he adds $3 to the total for taxes and fees.
Here, I am the hoople.
Otherwise I am invisible in Manhattan, one of a type that hails from the greater New York metro area. Some look like my older sister: swarthy, with dark hair and eyes, of vague Mediterranean provenance. Or ginger and freckled like my younger sister. And there are literally millions of tallish, thin white guys with graying hair on these streets, in good glasses and black coats and interesting shoes. Out here, I disappear.
And that’s sort of why I’m here.
It’s been a year since the ’rona dropped, since I moved my whole business and personal life to my dining room table, since my world shrunk to the house, the grocery store, occasional trips to the office and even more rare stops to fill the gas tank. My 50th birthday passed, like all of them last year, entirely without fanfare or benefit. I know that compared to so many others, my problems barely register as problems. And I knew how to scratch the itch.
Even now, after many of the residents and weekday commuters have absconded, New York City is reliably filthy, still smelling of diesel and urine and subway ozone. The weather stinks in April, gray and cold with occasional bouts of watery sunlight that seldom trickle down through the concrete and glass canyons. The sense memory is overwhelming — the onset of spring in New York feels like nothing else.
I am everyone and no one in the Flower District, down in the West Village, through Midtown and even up in Harlem, where there’s a bustling Whole Foods Market off Malcolm X Boulevard, just a couple blocks from Langston Hughes’ burial site.
In the city, in a facemask and black coat with interesting shoes, I see myself everywhere I look.