Al Martinez: Lounging on Broadway

The sight of New Yorkers sunning themselves on lawn chairs in the middle of Broadway almost made me swallow my cigar. I could not believe that hundreds of pedestrians, swarming among each other like killer bees, were lounging in the middle of a street famous not for recreation but for survival among the cars, buses and seas of yellow taxis playing Broadway Roulette with walkers trying to get across.

But there are no motor vehicles for now on two sections of Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square that have been blocked off as a kind of pedestrian mall to allow regular walking and bicycling people to enjoy themselves without losing a leg to a limo. And they were doing it by the hundreds, maybe the thousands, right there before my startled eyes: New Yorkers happy and relaxed. It just wasn’t right.

I am accustomed to seeing tension and fear on their faces, not loopy smiles of contentment while laid back in the sunshine or even the rain. They are not Los Angeles sun bunnies, for God’s sake, lying in the sand with their bikinied behinds reflecting the pale light; they are not surfers skimming along the tops of a gleaming waterfront. They’re not supposed to be either content or playful. They are expected to be on the make, on the run, late for everything, doing deals, pounding the pavement, full of angst and regret and fiery ambition.

What’s going on here?

I hadn’t heard about the Broadway pedestrian mall before I got there, because in L.A. we are not allowed very much news about the Big Apple. If it didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen. To most of the people on the western edge, Manhattan is a foreign country full of dangers we never have to face in Funland, U.S.A., where the beach meets the sea and doing nothing has become an art form. It’s almost too damned peaceful…as long as you don’t end up in the crossfire of a gang shootout.

Imagine my surprise on a recent visit to New York City running head on into one of the best known streets in the world cut off from motorized traffic. It was like turning the Champs Elysees into a petting zoo or, heaven forbid, filling the Hollywood Freeway with ping pong tables.

Our hotel was on West 44th, and as my wife and I strolled toward Broadway, I sensed something different. I was no longer being jostled, and a few of those I perceived to be non-tourists were actually smiling. New Yorkers don’t usually smile. A tight grin is what you get under normal circumstances as they knock you off the sidewalk.

“Maybe they’re pumping cannabis into the air,” my wife Cinelli suggested. “You see any vents anywhere or smell anything sort of
sweet and compelling?”

“There is nothing sweet and compelling in Manhattan,” I said, “except for the toasting raisin bagels.”

Then we hit Broadway, turned north and ran into the pedestrian mall. I fixated first on a fat man sprawled on a blanket stretched over seats in a bleacher like he was at the beach in Malibu or dead. I realized instantly that it couldn’t be, because there are no fat people in Malibu and there is no ocean on Broadway. Lifting my view, I was amazed to see the thousands of pedestrians on lawn chairs and at café tables in the middle of the street, chatting and acting almost like normal people.

It wasn’t until later that we learned the street had been blocked off to keep traffic-generated smog down and to allow pedestrians a little leisure. Also, they somehow concluded, this will help traffic congestion. However, it is really pissing off the drivers of taxis, buses and other vehicles, which normally shoot down the Great White Way in a hurry to get someplace, anyplace, just get us there.

But I like it. Mingling in the mall, as it were, I felt a sense of community among the loungers, as though they had achieved some kind of cultural miracle by convincing the city to do this. They could throw back their arms and tilt their faces to whatever sunlight made it into the concrete canyons. They could shop at the stores lining Broadway, tip their hats to passersby and even have conversations with each other. No one gave anyone the finger all the time my wife and I wandered through the mall crowds. Not once did I hear “up yours!”

I am going to suggest to our mayor in L.A., the perpetually grinning Antonio Villaraigosa, to block off something, if I can get past his vague and glowing smile into his brain and register the idea. I think he’s been to New York, but I’m not sure, so I’ll send him photographs of what the Broadway mall looks like. He understands pictures. Crayon drawings are better, but photographs are helpful.

I’ll let you know when the synaptic connection is made. His eyes will blink twice.

Visit Al’s blog for more on Everything Else.