NEW YORK: Double locks that don't work but are psychologically soothing, whitewalled apartments with beige furniture and parquet floors, chrome and glass Erector sets poking the sky's eyes out, cabbies with political opinions and admonitions on ancestry, taut gray faces, legs racing in place, a ceaseless cacophony of horn blasts and howls, pastrami and pesce, bagels and blini, pasta, kielbasa, corned beef and cabbage and uncollected garbage mingling till your nose may explode, eroded pavement, private dreams. Ah, New York. Still my town, until this morning.
WASHINGTON: The dog is white, with floppy ears, one of which is brown. She is small and furry and cuddly, a fugitive from a Norman Rockwell cover, the kind that impels normally intelligent adults to croon and coo. Cute, but dumb. She does not appear to hear cars or trucks. Certainly she does not see them. She hops, skips, flops and plops in the middle of the street on those few occasions when she manages to break loose. Like when you open the door to retrieve your newspaper. If you do that before you have had your coffee and therefore your engine isn't oiled, you may neglect to place your foot across the opening. Out she goes. An while one small part of you rejoices, as any living being would -- free at last! -- the rest of y;ou is a bundle of nerve ends gone wild, images of fur and blood and gore transcending your frontier mentality.
Twenty minutes go by. The weatherman says it isn't the coldest day of the year -- it got beat in 1912. But without a coat, chasing cajoling and attempting to corner a fur ball on a high, you don't believe it.
A young woman walks by. You recognize her vaguely from the neighborhood because you're a New Yorker and you recognize everyone vaguely. She stops to help. You want to kiss her boots, but the dog is biting them and retreating like greased lightning. Then minutes go by. She is patient, soothing. She stops traffic.
A man walks by wearing glasses and earmuffs, his attache case bulging. He sizes up the situation and we attempt to form a triangle. "I had a dog who got hit once," he explains. This one is too fast. We maneuver endlessly, and finally cordon her off. We wait, cautious. The floppy ears flop. The eyes lose their luster. One last hop; a growl that emerges like a sigh. She turns to you, after all, for the grab. You scoop her up, wanting to kill her now that she's safe. You shout thank you's down the street as your saviors go on to work, smiling.
Who was that masked man, your New York humor asks. Oh, just a Washingtonian.
The car is green, a 1974 sedan that, in its wisdom, BMW decided not to continue manufacturing. Thus the appellation "classic" has been applied to it: class, as in how the car looks; ick, as in how the car performs. It has been towed away twice in the past month, and various foreign car clinicians in clean white coveralls have offered assurances regarding its classic condition. Besides, you've had your morning mishap. Surely the gods . . . ?
It is snowing. The car starts. You maneuver into the street, grunting in the throes of powerless steering, and make it as far as 30th and M, whereupon, in the middle lane, the car dies. Your heart beats appreciably faster, your hands shake and your stomach tightens as you await the inevitable screaming horns and shrieking drivers. Silence. You emerge from the car as out of a dream and walk to a nearby deli. It is not a place you frequent; the owner doesn't know you, and he is busy with the morning coffee lineup.
Not too busy, though, to offer you his private phone, the yellow pages and the names of neighborhood service stations that may tow your car. You strike gold -- a truck will be around in 15 minutes. As you are leaving, a tall young man, coffee in hand, touches your shoulder. "I'd be glad to help you move it to the curb," he says. "I've got a BMW too." You offer him a seocnd one if he happens to have 50 cents. He turns you down wistfully, and with you at the wheel he manages to push your car to the corner.
There, the owner of a lamp store emerges to suggest, as snow begins to cover his light sweater, that you grab a taxi while he keeps an eye on your car. Your mouth is open. You know that because there is snow in it.
Within minutes, a taxi with a young woman in it pulls up. She is going in another direction, but she insists, and the driver insists, that you hop in. "No one should have to stand out there in the cold," they explain.
You sit silently in the taxi, thawing out, replaying the morning in your mind's eye. "Where are you from?" they ask. Your eyes are wide as you hear your effortless answer:
"I'm from New York, but Washington is home."