I take the subway south to Christopher Street from Grand Central Station.
Across from me on the train is a lean, tall, attractive woman in her 40s, maybe 50s. Not an ounce of body fat. Her male companion is equally attractive, equally lean. She’s wearing white skinny jeans tucked into low red suede boots. His hair is salt and pepper, very well cut.
There are always clues — his messenger bag has an unfamiliar label. They are unusually quiet, speaking so low I can barely hear them, in what sounds like Dutch.
I get out of the subway and cross Seventh Avenue to my hairdresser, whose three-chair salon feels like home. I found him more than a decade ago through my husband, (now bald), who came to him when he had hair and Alex was over on Carmine Street. Now he’s on Grove, in the West Village, my favorite Manhattan neighborhood of all, with its low 19th and 18th century buildings, narrow and cobblestoned streets, sheltering trees, its cozy cafes and well-loved indie bookstores tucked into battered little spaces with pressed tin ceilings and worn wooden floors — a place whose intimacy is best experienced on foot, walking slowly, noticing things.
My hairdresser is a classic New Yorker, a gruff guy in his late 40s, maybe early 50s. No bullshit. Someone calls him and starts asking the prices of every possible service. “Are you starting your own salon and looking for pricing?” he asks.
And yet I’ve seen him bend over and offer a gentle, shy kiss to his clients, outer-borough women in their 70s and beyond, one of whom came in a wheelchair with her attendant. Everyone comes to Hairhoppers: trendy young bankers, lawyers, museum curators, a few Uptown blonds. We remember all his assistants, and ask after them, even years after they’ve left, like Brie, who moved to San Diego and got married, and Eddie, who now works uptown, and John.
This day, I’m sharing the space with a state attorney and a retired English teacher. We’re soon deep into passionate conversation about the economy, hard to avoid as we’re all barely feet from one another. There’s no brittle status anxiety here, but one of those rare and special places where strangers immediately feel comfortable, often trading phone numbers after a lively exchange. The teacher and I are talking so much I keep turning my head and Alex gives up cutting. He’s pissed. Chastened, I stare straight into the mirror, and talk to her reflection.
I cross Seventh and head to one of my favorite restaurants, Morandi, to eat outside, even though it’s gray and drizzly. A man with two sons sits nearby, someone famous in a baseball cap, but I can’t remember who.
A blond man in a T-shirt is pacing the sidewalk, on his cellphone, deeply disturbed. “But can he sing? I have to find an arranger, and book a studio and I don’t even know if he can sing. He can’t?”
A man in a black suit, carrying a garment bag, joins his companion behind me. Lawyers, one of whom seems to want to change jobs. “If Romney wins, my heart just won’t be in this work anymore.” They discuss the machinations of the Senate. Can’t tell if they mean state or federal. I love eavesdropping, and look as though I’m reading a book, which I also am.
Two Town Cars pull up, waiting, rain-beaded. A handsome stocky man exits the restaurant with his son, maybe 11, his blond wife with her $1,200 Stella McCartney handbag, and another woman. They jump into the Town Cars and drive away. I wonder how the world appears to a young boy for whom so luxurious a life — a $50 lunch, an idling limousine and driver — is routine, expected.
I stop into Greenwich Letterpress to sigh over the beauty of their work, and pick up a price list for their business cards. The samples offer many familiar names, of writers, designers, photographers. I finally feel a bit like a New Yorker, knowing who they are. They’ll charge $340 for 250 cards. Hmmm, is every contact I meet worth $1.36?
I suspect it would take me more than a year to distribute that many cards. In today’s melting-ice-floe economy, who knows which professional identity I’ll be using by then?
Running late for my 3:20 train, I cab it to Grand Central and am so late I have to buy my ticket on the train — paying double the price, punished for my tardiness. In the space of six hours, I’ve spent more than $250, grateful I can afford it right now.
Manhattan often feels like an expensive lover who, exquisitely and charmingly and with great certainty of purpose, shakes your pockets empty.
I dive into “Canada”, Richard Ford’s new novel, as the Hudson River flashes by on my left, the fall colors muted in the mist.