Everyone from E.B. White to Carrie Bradshaw has had their crack at capturing the quintessential New York moment. If you stay longer than a few days, you’ll have one. People collect them. Like balls of lint.
I had one just yesterday.
After a brief but broiling summer, autumn has begun its chilly descent on the city Inch by begrudging inch, young professionals are covering up. There are pomegranates in my grocery store. And even though there are still girls tanning in the parks, you can see they have goosebumps.
I took a walk in Astoria Park, which abuts the tidal waters of the Hudson. I strolled hither and thither and was enjoying some laps on the park’s rubber track when I heard it. The unmistakable sounds of a small boombox filling a big space. Tinny. Brassy. Loud.
I paused from my grim circling of the track – always feeling like a vulture honing in on my healthier self – and saw three teenagers spreading a tarp. They were wearing identical blue cotton pants and matching shirts – none. One was bald, one had a ringlet rattail, and one had a mohawk. Larry, Curly and Mo writ modern.
They turned up the music and began breakdancing. (There are many distinctions between kinds of breakdancing – popping, locking, b-boys. Unfortunately, they’re all beyond me. Those of you over 25 wouldn’t care anyway.)
I sat on the grass, the first member of their audience. They swiveled on their shoulderblades, twirled on their heads (and toes), kicked their heels up. They practiced freezes (where a dancer suddenly stops moving and holds a difficult position for a few seconds before “spinning out” of it). Mostly they perfected their tough-guy faces.
Before long, a kid came over. He was 9, a small black boy named Macauley, and enthralled the way only children lying on their stomachs can be. Soon, there was a pause while the dncers caught their breath and one rubbed his knee after knocking it on the ground. (I said to Macauley, “Even breakdancers need a break.”)
While the older guys drank Gatorade, Macauley sidled up to the tarp. He looked at the teenage men, all of whom ignored him. Then he put his toe on the mat. He twirled around once. Twice. Then he began his own freestyle dance. He did flips, kip ups, freezes. He popped his lock and then broke back into the damn building. Before long, the older guys were propping him up and clapping for him and generally being perfect candidates for a commercial on mentoring.
I felt it was a beautiful New York moment. It was so urban. Three teenagers playing street music in a park. Suddenly, a little kid wants to participate. And instead of snubbing him or ignoring him, they include him. I felt I might be witnessing the beginning of Macauley’s future. The yellow fall light and breeze from the water made everything feel cinematic. I left the park smiling.
I recounted the tale to a friend later, explaining it in detail and how special it felt and trying to do justice to the humanity of it all.
“A New York moment, huh?” he said. “And they didn’t ask you for money?”