New York is too big to be contained. Too diverse to be defined. But if you sit back and watch it all. If you let it wash over you at once instead of chopping tiny slivers for inspection, then you can learn something from its contradictions. All those incongruous but totally accepted details flowing from eight million people.
Go to Central Park and find the impossibly thin models and actors emerging from trailers, all powdered and combed while vagrants talk to Frisbees only yards away. Ride the subways, listening to guys with dreadlocks beat out the theme from The Godfather on a steel drum. Or sit back and watch the people in your bar drink differently than you'd expect. New York demands you be open to surprise.
I used to work in an office above an Irish pub. I'd saddle up to the bar some nights, tired from thinking and bleary-eyed from a day of fluorescent lights. I remember the night a bunch of thick-necked college boys came in with bursts of bragging laughter swirling around their baseball hats and jerseys. The train must have carried them in from the suburbs for their big New York City night. I poked at the ice in my whiskey, already mourning the death of the evening, but Liam was behind the bar, and he greeted them with the same world-weary smile and nod of the head he gave all customers. Then he opened the floor fridge, anticipating their requests for bottles of some bland domestic beer. He was mistaken.
"Hey, can we get five vodka and cranberries?" the largest and loudest asked.
I smirked, guessing this was a drink they'd picked up from their sister sorority at the last mixer. Liam couldn't hide his surprise.
"Vodka and . . . cranberry?" he asked.
"Yeah, it's awesome. Vodka and then some cranberry."
He wasn't patronizing, just trying to explain. And if there were any doubt, he cleared it up with the sincere curiosity that followed.
"Have you ever tried it?"
I was pretty sure there wasn't much call for that drink in Liam's hometown of Cork, but he was a professional, and found a diplomatic way to say no without offending his customers.
"I hear it's good," he said, and set out five glasses.
The boys took the drinks he poured to a booth, and Liam gave the bar a quick wipe with that tiny white towel he'd flip over his shoulder when he was done.
"I hear it's good," I said.
"Well, Jaysus, I won't be drinking that, will I?" he whispered.
"No sir," I said. "You always struck me as more of a wine cooler man. Chocolate Choo Choo maybe. Something with an umbrella."
Liam knew that was the kind of weak joke that died quickest if left alone, so he did. But he stayed right where he was with his crossed arms leaning on the bar because it was a slow night.
"Y'know," he said. "You'd think those boys would be the first ones to beat on a guy for drinking a girly drink, but look at them. They couldn't be happier."
"They're young," I said. "They don't even know it's a girly drink."
The boys left shortly after. This bar was just a pregame stop for them. Maybe they went off and did all the stupid things I assumed they'd do when they first walked in, but I hope not. I hope they went out into the night, putting forth more surprises because New York is big enough to accept all of them. Every contradiction has a home. Like a man in one of the busiest, populated places on earth, sitting alone, drinking whiskey on ice, tasting smoke and fire. Like that same man, who wanted only to be left alone after a hard day's work, sharing whiskeys and stories with the woman who entered only minutes later. But that's another story.