The first time I went to New York City I was on business exhibiting my art at Art Expo International. It was late February and very cold. Everyone wore black. Black coats, scarfs, pants, shoes, gloves, and hats. If someone wanted to really throw in a splash of color, then they’d jazz it up with a medium gray sweater or dark gray ear muffs.
And then there was me with my fire engine red, down-filled winter coat. Amongst all those people hustling about the sidewalks of Manhattan, bumping into one another, I stood out like a bleeding sore thumb. I might have been better off just wearing a giant bullseye. Street peddlers spotted me with ease, yelling from ridiculous distances, “Hey, you! Yeah you, Red! What’s up Red!? Gotta dollar!? Come on Red, help me out.” Red ignored them. Red pulled his red down-filled hoodie over his head as if that was a clever tactic to not be seen. But all it did was increase the full length of my redness. All those people dressed in attitude-black—they made no attempt to move out of my way. I turned my shoulders left and right, like I was avoiding incoming enemy missiles. I was the courteous guy from out of state, but also the clueless one who chose to wear red. I said, “Sorry,” when I shoulder-bumped someone, but all they did was keep moving. By the end of the first day, I’d had it with New Yorkers.
My mother had tagged along for the three day drive from Texas to New York. All of my paintings and business supplies were fully packed in my van. Art Expo was held in the Jacob Javits Center—a gargantuan exhibit hall about the size of New York itself. Within a minute of exiting the Lincoln Tunnel, I quickly found myself navigating the notoriously crazy traffic snags and snarls of the city. Luckily, the Javits Center was just a few blocks away and I soon found myself parked and loading my art onto a dolly that I had brought. There were multiple signs along the unloading area that read, “UNATTENDED VEHICLES WILL BE TOWED!”
“Mom,” I said, “Do not leave the van.”
“Ok,” she said.
I dollied a load of art work into the exhibit hall and went to the Exhibitor’s Check-In table. I then went to my booth space (which seemed like walking the length of fifteen football fields), unloaded the dolly, and then headed back to the van, where I quickly discovered that my mother was gone. Nowhere to be seen. A uniformed worker was standing by my van.
“This your car?” he said as I approached.
“Well, I was ‘bout to have it towed. You got lucky. Read the signs next time.” His accent was southern, but his tone was northern. A transplanted New Yorker, but a New Yorker regardless.
“I’m sorry sir. My mother was here with the van, but she’s disappeared.”
As he went on to tell me how he had already had five cars towed that day, my vanishing mother reappeared, coming out of the Javits Center. “Mom,” I said, “where did you go? You can’t be walking off like that. This guy has unattended vehicles towed.”
“I’m sorry, but I had to use the ladies room.”
My mom said she had to go. Being cooped up in the car for three hours while driving, then waiting on me to return from my booth was pushing the limits of a full bladder. The uniformed worker didn’t want to hear it. “Ma’am, you got lucky. I suggest next time you take care of your business before coming to unload your business. You lucky your van ain’t towed.” You could tell my mother wanted to bite him. She had that look of “Just who are you!?” Needless to say, she was not impressed with her first New Yorker encounter. And it didn’t get any better when later that day I walked the streets in that bullseye, fire engine red winter coat. The both of us were off to a sour start in the Big Apple.
And then along came a bus.
It was a large metro bus plastered with ads for Broadway plays, Calvin Klein, and HBO. It was also a dirty bus that had seen plenty of hours rolling through the gray sloppy slush of street snow. The bus was one of several that made the continuous loop of transporting Art Expo exhibitors and attendees to their hotels, from 34th street (where the Javits was) up to 52nd and back. It was the third day of the five day show when my mother said she was going to spend part of the afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum.
“Mom,” I said, “the Guggenheim is up around 90th Street. The show bus only goes so far as 52nd.”
She said she had it all figured out and was going to take a taxi from that point on. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to tackle this little jaunt, being that this was New York City and she was about as familiar with it as she was the Arctic Circle. Without hesitation, she smiled and said, “I’ll be fine.” And off she went.
Right here is the part where I get to spoil this story’s ending. This is where I get to brag about how New Yorkers really aren’t so bad after all. It’s how I came to look a little further beyond that perceived cold shell of the uniformed man who said we’d better stick with our van or it will be towed. I get to say, without a doubt, that the cliché “I Love New York” will never grow old. And for all those people who shouldered my red winter coat (including those street hecklers who yelled to see if Red could spare them a buck or two), to you guys I applaud your character. You are the pulse of the city. You are what makes New York what it is. You are hungry and loaded with charisma. You are cold. You are late and in a rush. You are real. And my understanding of all of this was sparked by one man: the damn best bus driver ever to drive on the face of this earth.
And then along came a bus…
By the time my mother’s bus reached our hotel on 52nd Street, she was the only passenger left. As the bus approached the hotel she had an eerie sense that something wasn’t quite right. The bus wasn’t slowing down.
“Excuse me, sir,” my mother had said to the driver, “but you just passed my hotel.”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.”
She looked out the window and noticed the street signs: 53rd Street…54th…55th…. “Sir, would you please stop this bus. You’re going off of your route. I need to catch a taxi to go to…”
“Ma’am, I know where you’re going. I heard you talking to the last passenger. So, here’s what I want you to do: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sights. My lunch break just started a few minutes ago and, ma’am, I am taking you to the Guggenheim.”
“Are you serious? The Guggenheim is nearly 40 blocks away.”
“Yes it is ma’am. Now just sit back and relax.”
My mother would later tell me that he had a smile the width of the bus. She said she never saw it coming. She never could have predicted that this seemingly ordinary bus driver was what she would call “a diamond in the rough”. She had encountered a lot of kind people in her life, but this guy threw a curve ball of greatness that came from out of nowhere. She offered to pay him, but he reluctantly refused it, asking only in return that she enjoy the museum. So, as she departed the bus, she kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye, never to see him again, but certainly never to forget him either. When she did finally catch a taxi to return to the Javits Center, she made it a point to say “Hi” to the uniformed worker who manned the front of the building and had told her she got lucky that my van didn’t get towed. She told him she thought his accent sounded like he was from Tennessee. He said she was on the money, and it wasn’t but a minute later they were talking of familiar names of small towns in the Smokey Mountains where she spent much of her childhood summers. They became instant friends.
And it wasn’t but a few minutes after she talked to him, that she made her way into the exhibit hall and walked towards my booth. I can still see her now—full of anticipation to tell me how much she loved New York City. It was stamped on her face. A smile the width of a New York City bus.
Copyright Ros Hill 2015