New York is the city that barely sleeps, and I have done likewise. I keep waking up at the hour of the Wolf (4 a.m., give or take.) Then I go for a walk.
This is when the shifts change. The bars have just closed and the last, die-hard, talk-the-bartender's-ear-off patients have been ejected out onto Stanton and Houston and Essex. They're almost all men, and they amble, like me. Some of them curse.
But as the skies get a little lighter, they're replaced by much more single-minded fellows. Often black or brown. They're going to work. Some of them say "Good morning, sir," as they pass. And I give it back to them, enthusiastically.
It's so nice to be able to chat and jive and flirt and just be friendly with people on the street. That is, it's nice to be able to speak English with strangers, just because I can. In Vienna, my German is not good enough to be Friendly Guy. Here, I've been gabbing with taxi drivers from Ghana ("I really want to see Ghana--my wife says it's great!") and all-night diner waitresses ("Can I ask you something: who were those kids who were just sitting here?") I get passing glimpses of people who have very different lives.
It's not just about speaking English--I'm racially motivated, too. I want to speak--even if it's just small talk--to people of color. New York City is amazing because everyone is mixed together on the street, but I think people still meet and greet and shoot the breeze with their own, according to race, class and all that other bullshit. Maybe I'm just talking about myself here, but I think it's easy for white people to slip into a mode of not really engaging with African Americans, Dominican Americans, Korean Americans. Like Ralph Ellison said, we don't see them.
And it's almost physically pleasurable to break out of that. Even if you exchange a few gentle words with someone in a different skin, they may respond with a hint of surprise. Then a smile. And that's a nice thing.