There's a certain feeling you get when you first arrive on the island of Manhattan. Or that I get, anyway. It's a feeling that can range from nervous anticipation to outright dread.
I haven't been to New York City very often, just five times counting the three-night trip my family took recently. And I've only taken the train or driven, so I don't know what it's like to be deposited by a private helicopter or steam up in a cruise ship.
Arriving by train or subway, though, is like popping out of John Hurt's chest in "Alien." Boom, there you are, smack dab in the middle of things: honking horns, packed sidewalks, vendors selling hot nuts, extras from "Blade Runner."
Driving in gives you more time to prepare yourself, not that this is necessarily a good thing, since it means there's more time to worry about your eventual arrival. It feels like a scene from a war movie in which the paratroopers make nervous small talk as their plane drones toward the drop zone. ("You scared, Sarge?" "Of course I'm scared, kid. Anyone says he ain't is lyin' to ya.")
As we sped through New Jersey on a dark Thursday night, I thought of all the things that could go horribly wrong once we exited the Holland Tunnel: a carjacker could jump out, or a man with a squeegee; a gang of toughs could strip our minivan to its frame at a stoplight, like a piranha defleshing a cow; a fissure could open up in the asphalt; a SoHo hipster could laugh at the FONZ sticker on our rear windshield.
We try our best not to look like tourists when we travel. In New York, that meant I dressed in black and My Lovely Wife wore a funky hat. It was harder to persuade our children to shed their suburban mall wear.
Did our 12-year-old really have to wear that Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, prompting the panhandler we snubbed on First Avenue West to shout to us, "Now it's time to say goodbye to all the compan-eeee. . ."? (Is everyone in New York a frustrated musical comedy star?)
But, ah, Gotham. I never did get around to ordering an egg cream at 3 a.m. (too worried about bird flu) but I was able, as I suspected I would be, to purchase a black velvet blazer.
It was while wearing this jacket that I was set upon by a fellow who had apparently been thrown out of a restaurant we'd just eaten at and who, outside, started harassing me, going so far as to grab my arm and say, "Yeah, that's right, Mr. Velvet Jacket-Wearing Man."
The thing is, he was wearing a velvet jacket, a blue one, sort of Edwardian in style, with two rows of big buttons up the front. I can only hope this is not the start of velvet-jacket-on-velvet-jacket violence.
My Lovely Wife's cousin Koko, in whose East Village apartment we stayed, calls these sorts of episodes "benign New York encounters."
I guess it could have happened in Washington, but probably not. There are certain things that seem possible only in New York.
On a previous trip, to attend the Toy Fair, I was sitting in a coffee shop, watching the passing show, when I saw a midget walk by outside. She was the most stylishly dressed midget I'd ever seen, in skirt and leather boots, with a trendy orange trench coat and an expensive-looking little backpack. Everything looked just so.
I mentioned this woman to a native New Yorker, and he said that with a population of 8 million people, there are probably enough fashion-conscious midgets in New York to support at least one well-stocked midget boutique.
Later, while wandering aimlessly around the city, I found myself on a block that contained store after store that sold nothing but tassels, of the sort that dangle at the bottom of curtains. "Wholesale only," said signs in most of the windows. I had stumbled upon the Tassel District.
In the end, though, it's too much for me. The noise, the lights, the tassels, the 3 a.m. egg creams, the crazy men in velvet jackets, the combined exhalations of 8 million people. There always comes a point when New York City, magnificent as it is, becomes oppressive.
That's when I'm quite happy to escape it.
In a recent column, I compared Giant consumer adviser Odonna Mathews to the Roman goddess of the hearth, whom I called Ceres.
A reader in St. Michaels, Md., set me straight. And she should know, because her name is Ceres Bainbridge.
"Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain, the seasons and a mother's love for her child," Ceres (the mortal, not the goddess) said. We're most likely to encounter her name in the word "cereal."
Ceres Bainbridge said she was named after her father's aunt. She's technically Margaret Ceres Bainbridge because the Roman Catholic church wouldn't baptize her with a pagan name.
She said she's used to hearing her name mangled. "If it's close, I answer," she said. And in all her lifetime, she's met only one other Ceres.
"We were equally stunned to finally experience what every other Bob and Susan have experienced, meeting someone with your name!"
For the record, the Roman goddess of the hearth is Vesta.
Susan Giblin and her husband, Brian, are intrigued by the incongruous business in Dillsburg, Pa., whose sign reads: "Western Wear and Chiropractic."
"Haven't stopped in yet," Susan said, "but I guess I could use a little of both, so one of these days, we'll have to check it out."
My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.