True tale from New York – The man on the corner of 34th Street

A moment in time – Fifth Avenue, New York

// December 2021 //

‘’My early weeks in New York saw me walking as much as I could, as far as possible, at any chance I got. Lara Lain was on a mission to take it all in, to waste no time and to ‘live each day as if it was her last’ more than ever before.

Despite jet-lag draped over my shoulders like the clingy witch that she is – I managed to push on with zest. I forced myself into a morning routine that showed me parts of life I felt only I could see.

I was getting up around 6am and walking from my hotel, on East 29th (five blocks south of the Empire State Building) to Central Park. The long walk up Fifth Avenue – one of our world’s most famous streets – delighted my soul. The metres and minutes flew by.

I always stopped to grab a ginormous cappuccino at Starbucks, then I skipped gleefully across Bow Bridge in the Park before heading back down Fifth … I purposely walked up the right side. And back down the other. I felt navigating Fifth this way would give me two adventures in one. My sunrise-round trip was around 10,000 steps and every day was different.

Every second was filled with noises, people, horns, trucks slamming their breaks. The air was cold but the sky was clear. Those first weeks I’d say it didn’t rain at all. The mornings were as perfect as I could wish. Even New York is comparably ‘quiet’ at that time of day – I felt like I was moving through a secret world. A part of New York that even people who had lived there forever didn’t see. If I could ever say New York was ‘mine’ – it was then.

On my third day: I saw something that will be etched into my mind forever. Here I share it as a symbol of what life can really look like in New York city. For you to take a moment and consider the life of the human I describe

One thing I quickly allowed my heart to understand in New York was – I could not capture it all with technology. A scene might blow my mind but it didn’t mean I had a ‘right’ to whip my iphone out to log it. I had to move myself with respect. This was one of those moments.

New York is filled with something I had never seen before – I call them ‘steam grates’. These grates are simple drainage solutions on the roads, near the pavements. Indeed it is pretty standard procedure to have them lining streets around the world … They offer an escape route for rain, sleet and snow. The ends of people’s beer cans, their cigarettes or even their pee ends up down there too, amongst goodness knows what else.

To me – New York’s grates gave way to another world. The world beneath. The steam that spewed out of them constantly was hot, clammy. It had a gross stench about it that always made me wonder where it was coming from? I never walked through the steam and if the wind changed while I was waiting for a traffic light I would dodge it. I didn’t want my nose filled with the scent. Was it from people’s toilets snaking through the sewers? Was it heat from the amount of rats running riot underfoot? Toilets, rats – whatever the rancid whiff was I didn’t want it up my nose, on my face or lingering on my outfit.

I had no idea what was down there. All I knew was they stunk. But they were beautiful to me somehow too. When sunrise came up through the steam it felt like a movie set all over again. Rays breaking through, while the chaos of New York continued beyond always made me do a double-take. There was a world beneath, there was a world in the middle (on foot, where I was) and there was a world above – where the skyscrapers screamed into the blue. Every time I saw a steam grate it reminded me ‘’I am in New York!’’.

On that third day – as I strutted back down Fifth, in a rush to get on with my day and get to the office – I saw a man directly in front of me as I waited for the lights to turn green. The millisecond I saw him I wanted to take a photo. Out of respect I refrained. It was not appropriate.

For me, he is an image I will always hold with me of New York. He was definitely over 60 years old. I would guess between 68 – 75. He was a black gentleman, with short graying hair and deep furrows in his otherwise smooth dark skin. He wore a white vest with no sleeves and nothing else on top. Soiled navy trousers, the cotton kind – not jeans – covered his legs. On his feet he had grubby white socks pulled up. He had sliders on. Black ones – those you slide on and off your feet with little effort. The sliders said ‘New’ on his right foot and ‘York’ on his left … As I looked at him I saw ‘New York’ in more ways than just the words covering his toes.
This moment occurred near the corner of 34th street, where The Empire State building roars mightily out of the concrete jungle. My eyes were fixated on the man who was old enough to be a grandfather. Here he sat in the cold winter draft, around 7am on a weekday. He wasn’t just ‘sitting’. He was slumped. His knees gaped open, his back bent forward. His eyes were closed and his head hung low to his chest. He wasn’t asleep – he was just existing in that moment.

He was positioned directly over a grate.

The steamy-cesspool from below burst forcefully between his feet. He remained – motionless, while winter’s sunrays bounced through the heavy mist. If I had to capture New York in one shot – this was it. I knew I would never forget him.

‘’The man above the grate’’ – to me he signified a kind of resilience we might never know. Why was he perched so early in the morning? Why there? Why not left or right of the grate?

It was as if he was defying the beautiful, brutal city – ‘’Give me all you’ve got’’.



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