Three Tidbits from the Big City

As usual, by the time it’s gotten to be the blogging time of night, I’ve run out of the brainpower to blog deep and thoughtful things. I’m going to have to find a way to schedule time to write about the more complicated things in life at least once a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s three things that caught my attention in New York City over the weekend.

First, busses in the North East are awesome. But New York City is either Large, or Crowded, or both. I was fortunate to be able to go visit Boston from here for not more than $15. The trip took about 4 hours, which is a long time, but really not so much longer than it would take to go by plane once you include the time to arrive early, check in, and get through security. But it’s about 10 times cheaper. Oh and there’s more room. Oh and there’s WiFi and electrical outlets. Oh and you can look at the scenery.

However, Of the four hours it took to get between Penn Station in NYC and South Station in Boston, more than 45 minutes of it was spent just getting out of the city. Yikes. So as I said, it’s either a much bigger city than I’d conceived of, or the traffic is a lot worse than I would have guessed. Probably a little of both.

Second, I encountered a seemingly homeless man who wouldn’t take any money from me. While hanging around the port authority station in New York I found myself leaning against a trash can when a man came up and started digging through the trash. He extracted a few discarded french fries and a plastic cup with a little ketchup and started munching away. Having just gotten a few dollars in change from purchasing my ticket, I looked him over, and deciding that he seemed both harmless and sane, offered the money to him, saying only “You look like you could use a meal.” To my surprise, he shrugged amicably, said “oh no, no,” waved me off, and shuffled over to the next trash can, where he proceeded to continue foraging for food.

I understand that some people’s pride will not allow them to accept charity from strangers. But I was pretty surprised that someone would have no reservations about digging food out of a trash can right next to you and yet still not be willing to take a handout. Could there have been some other reason I’m not thinking of? The nonchalance with which he declined my offer was quite striking. He said it almost as if it were silly of me to have offered; as though he were an eccentric millionaire who just enjoys dumpster-diving for a kind of a thrill. And who knows, perhaps he was. Either way, it was a curious reversal from the accosting I’m used to getting from people in big cities who are down on their luck. Ironically, I almost never have any cash in my wallet to offer, and sure enough, the one time I do, it’s unwanted.

Third, people can always find a way to care about how their hair looks. I know this because, also while hanging around the bus station (I had gotten there quite early after hanging out with a friend) I popped in to a little haircut place for a trip. I’d been meaning to get it cut for some time, and was planning to try a place called “Calcutters” near the university. However, when I discovered I could get a good barbering next to all the businessmen filing through the station for half of what I would have paid in Stony Brook, I figured I shouldn’t pass up on the experience.

I had a nice chat with the man who was cutting my hair, but far more interesting was the conversation I overheard from the guy in the chair next to me. He looked to be about 65, and had just the faintest traces of hair. Nothing on top, nothing at all; rather, just a few wisps about a n inch in length that wrapped around the back, from one ear to the other.

In spite of this near lack of hair, the man plopped himself down in front of the barber, who he apparently attended frequently, because the barber (in a moderate Sicilian accent) said “Mister Johnson! It has only been maybe three weeks, I think, no?” to which the man replied ” I suppose so, I suppose so. But I’m leaving for london in the morning and it just doesn’t look right, you know?”

The barber nodded in agreement (the customer is always right, I guess?) but just for good measure, the man, grasped at a strand thoughtfully and repeated “it just doesn’t look right.” ¬†Unfortunately it was about that time that my own haircut was finishing up, so I didn’t get to stay to see what on earth the little Sicilian could possibly have done that would have counted as a haircut. But the whole thing seemed very much like it should have been the start of a Monty Python sketch.

So, those are the three stories that most caught my attention this weekend. And now it’s time for bed. Sleep well, people reading my blog. And keep looking out for a new playlist, a post about the meaning of bravery, and a new recipe in the next few days.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to Three Tidbits from the Big City

  1. Paul West says:

    Wow, that NY-Boston bus deal is almost as good as the ones we encountered in Ecuador! But do they have quiz masters with hard candy rewards? In route movies? Opportunities to buy chifles?

    Your story about the guy who passed up your offer of money reminded me of a chance I once had that I failed to act upon. We were having breakfast in a restaurant on a trip somewhere I no longer remember. From where I was sitting I spotted a dirty, ragged man rooting through the trash in front of our eatery. I am reluctant to hand money to beggars because I wonder whether they will use it for food or for cigarettes or alcohol. Here was a chance to offer a square meal to someone who probably was genuinely in need. I wondered what the restaurant management might say if I went out and invited this man to join us at our table. I wondered what Mom would think. I wondered too long, and then he was gone.

  2. Colin West says:

    :-) No, I’m afraid the only on-board entertainment I got was the poorly produced safety video that would automatically play every time the bus started after a full shut off (we stopped a couple times at rest stops). So the Ecuador busses still retain the title of best mass transit memories of all time.

    That’s a really interesting story; I can’t help but wish you’d done it, but of course, I absolutely understand the hesitation. I find that, unless I’m completely alone, I never know how to interact with such people. If I’m with people who might disapprove, or think it’s unsafe or unwise to approach them offering help, then of course I think twice about doing it under their noses. But even if I think they might approve, I worry about putting them on the spot, or looking like I’m just trying to play good samaritan to impress them. All of these, of course, are terribly selfish reasons not to do anything, but often as soon as you hesitate for a moment the opportunity is gone.

    I am pleased to say that, at least while I was in Boulder, there were quite a few times when I had the chance to help people out without worrying as much about the results, since they tended to congregate on the hill or under the overpass between campus and the restaurants North of baseline. Several times I encountered folks who looked like they were in need of money and a meal while coming back from a dinner with friends, and, portion sizes being what they are in America today, I always had a box of leftovers I could offer them, even if just a slice of pizza or two. They always seemed authentically appreciative, which always increased my trust that they were in genuine need and would have used any cash I gave them for the right reasons.

    At the same time, I’ve heard Dr. Douglass tell a story on several occasions about a time while he was at seminary when, seeing an apparently homeless man outside a McDonald’s where he’d just finished eating, he went back inside to buy the man some food. In an effort to be nutritionally sensible he got a large burger (figuring protein was probably scarce in his diet) and a large drink in case he was dehydrated from a full day in the sun. But apparently when he offered these items to the man he opened the bag, inspected the contents and just said incredulously, “What, no freaking fries?” (although I suspect the oath was probably only minced in Scott’s retelling.

    So who knows. I guess that’s why it’s dangerous to generalize.

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