L: 14th Street/8th Avenue, Manhattan

Posted on May 8th, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

L 14th St

Friday, March 18, 2011

This trip feels oddly important. It’s the first time we’ve finished both ends of a subway line, but more than that, instead of exploring new ground it’s a return to my old neighborhood—I lived on 14th Street and 9th Avenue from 1996 to 2006. I know the station and the neighborhood very well, but I try to see them with fresh eyes. Anyway, it’s been a minute since 2006, and things change fast in a New York minute.

The L train pulls to a halt to the familiar conductor’s announcement, but we’re not in the station yet. We stop in the tunnel, perhaps waiting for another train to pull out and make room. Damaso stands to photograph the “Last Stop” sign, and a heroin-chic six-foot tall Asian woman in skinny jeans, tattoos, headphones, and a torn white t-shirt asks him why he’s taking her photo. He says he isn’t; he’s shooting the sign over her. She gazes languidly through over-sized sunglasses (it’s actually not that bright on the train), clearly convinced that he’s lying.

“You can’t use my photograph without my permission,” she says. I bite my tongue.

“What is this for?” she continues.

“It’s for a blog,” answers Damaso.

“What is it about?

“Food.”

“Why do you need my picture in a food blog?”

“We don’t need your picture. I was shooting the sign above you.”

“Where can I find it?” She presses on. “What are you doing it for?”

Damaso says that it’s not up yet. I remember that the neighborhood was always full of models, who of course make their living from having their photos taken and from those photos being used for commercial publication. Damaso and I both are in professions that people often expect to volunteer. She may actually be confused by his project not matching her expectations as well as suspicious that it actually does. Once the train pulls into the station we walk away without incident.

Making friends on the train

Last stop

Station exit

The station is the same. I’m no longer surprised by Tom Otterness’ playful bronze figures, although they still charm. On autopilot I choose the southwest exit, which is closest to my old apartment. I’m selfishly disappointed not to see the drunk homeless man who used to propose to me each morning, but if he had been there I would have been selfishly disappointed when he failed to recognize me, as he surely would have. Heck, I’m not sure he recognized me even when we spoke to each other regularly. Every day he would ask me to marry him, and every day I would ask where my ring was, but the next day when he proposed, he still wouldn’t have that ring.

The terminal lets out on Eighth Avenue, but it doesn’t feel like an end of the line because the island itself only extends for two more blocks; Tenth Avenue is definitely the end. I make a faint effort to play by the rules, but the only real restaurant I see is a grill, and we’re both sick of cheeseburgers. We walk west, and if there were any new restaurants on the block, I would have gone, but when there aren’t, I suggest going to the Hog Pit for barbecue.

As we walk, I tell Damaso about the last time a stranger told me I needed permission to take his photo. I was walking past a construction site on Bowery around Bond Street, and I passed what looked like a Port-o-San amid the construction rubble. As I walked by, I noticed a man sitting inside on what looked like a bench without a toilet. The man wore a stained t-shirt and tan slacks that were too big for him but cinched in with a ragged belt. He was a white guy of about 60 with a grizzled and dirty face, crew-cut white hair, and several missing teeth. And he was working on a laptop.

I passed him but then stopped in my tracks. He couldn’t have seen me even if he had looked up from the computer because the white plastic walls surrounded him on three sides. I pulled out my phone, got ready to take a picture, and actually walked backwards the few steps till I could see him, at which point I snapped the photo.

Port-o-Office

He looked up. He didn’t look happy. I decided to disarm him, so at the exact moment that he asked, “Are you taking my picture?” I asked, “May I take your picture?”

He repeated his question.

I repeated mine.

He said, “You can’t take my picture without my permission. It’s against the law.”

I responded, “I’m asking you whether I can take your picture.”

He refused to give me permission and launched into a tirade about how you can’t take someone’s picture without his permission. What are all these people afraid of? In any case, I already had his picture; I just wanted another one because I didn’t make it all the way to the door before he looked up and I snapped prematurely.

When he wouldn’t give me permission to take a photograph, I walked away, but I didn’t get far. I felt a familiar roiling in my head that happens when I can’t let something go. Did the grizzled, toothless, Port-o-San dweller know something I didn’t? How could it be illegal to take someone’s photo? I’ve seen front-page pictures of thousands of people, for example at a demonstration on the capitol lawn, and it doesn’t seem likely that, say, The New York Times would either not know a law like that, not follow it if there was one, or get signed waivers from every demonstrator.

A friend of mine recently told me about his nephew telling him, “You know, Uncle Tim, the problem with your generation is that you spend too much time fighting about facts.” The kid was right. I had the technology clenched in my fist, and instead of wondering or arguing with a homeless Port-o-San-dwelling laptop-user, I could find out what the law actually said about taking someone’s photograph. I stopped on the sidewalk about two blocks past the construction site, did a quick Internet search, and determined that the only restrictions in American law apply to the use of the photographs not the taking of them; anyone can take a picture of anyone else any time they want to. In fact, I stumbled on a bunch of laws protecting photographers from assault by photo subjects who don’t want their picture taken!

I stood there, arrested on the Bowery under one of its many sidewalk construction bridges and tried to talk myself out of what even I knew was a stupid and possibly fatal mistake, but I’m not as persuasive as I am, and I’m also apparently stupid and stubborn. I turned around and marched back to confront Old Toothless.

He was, understandably, surprised to see me.

“Hey, you know what?” I began amiably, “I just did a search on the Internet, and it turns out there is no law prohibiting someone from taking your picture without your permission. There are a few restrictions on where you can publish the photos, but you can take any photos you want.”

There was a long pause. I felt adrenalin coursing through my annoying and self-righteous veins.

Then, to my vast relief, the dude shrugged.

“Huh,” he responded. “Guess you learn something new every day. Thanks for telling me.”

I was astounded. I got very lucky. I may not know how I’m going to die, but I’d always thought my last words would be, “this looks tasty. Is it edible?” Now I think maybe they might be “You may think that, but actually…”

Anyway, back to 14th Street, back to the present.

Where the Hog Pit used to serve pulled pork sandwiches and fried pickles is a new restaurant that serves only… burgers. Forget it. We decide to get take-out at Chelsea Market and eat outside on the High Line. Sure, it’s cheating not to stumble upon our locations, but it’s the first beautiful day of spring, and nothing else would represent the neighborhood better.

Chelsea Market is swarming with teenagers who are dressed in some odd combination of Japanese cosplay and American goth—wigs with large bows, skull-n-crossbones printed skirts over large petticoats, tiny Hello Kitty backpacks, argyle knee socks, and high-heeled Mary Janes. They don’t look Japanese, and I fantasize that these are their Purim costumes, but I don’t ask. The last time I was at Chelsea Market was at Halloween, when I was hired to walk on stilts. The cosplay kids have committed more to their roles than most of the trick-or-treaters had to theirs.

We order take-out noodles at Chelsea Thai. As we’re waiting for our food, Damaso walks around shooting the scene, and I gaze into the kitchen. Four men in aprons and caps face four woks, and I imagine it as an assembly line, with one man frying, say, onions and then flipping them into the next man’s wok where he would add mushrooms or whatever ingredient came next. I realize they’re each cooking separate dishes, but while I’m still imagining the assembly line, the man closest to me looks up and smiles through the window. I smile back, and as he returns his focus to his wok, the next man, probably sensing the movement, looks up and smiles at me. When he looks down the third man looks up and smiles. I am childishly delighted at the serial smiles and imagine them as part of the assembly line, but the pleasure isn’t entirely childish or innocent anyway. Sharing the private smile with each man feels naughty, especially while Damaso isn’t looking. I start making faces trying to get the fourth guy to look up so I can complete the set, but he’s too far away. The second guy looks up at my antics, and although he smiles again, I imagine I’ve outstayed my welcome. I step away from the window to browse the palm sugar packets and Sri Racha sauce bottles for sale in the tiny store along one wall.

Chelsea Thai customer

Chelsea Thai menu wall

Chelsea Thai wall

Chelsea Thai

Chelsea Thai kitchen

Chelsea Thai Wok army

We take our food to the High Line’s strange little amphitheater of wooden benches that face a window onto Tenth Avenue and settle down for a picnic. The amphitheater breaks the wind a little, but we still wind up chasing napkins a few times. I drench my wide, flat noodles with basil sauce (pork) in hot sauce, but it’s still fairly bland. Damaso enjoys his chicken pad Thai. Of course everything always tastes better outside, and anything would taste good today. This is the first time one of these outings has felt more relaxed and romantic than businesslike, and I’m sorry Damaso’s leaving the country in two weeks. I even let him take some photos of me.

Chelsea Thai basil pork noodles & pad Thai

High Line visitor

Viveca on High Line

Viveca on High Line

Viveca on High Line

We might have stayed there all afternoon, except we were getting too thirsty, so we threw away our garbage and set off to find drinks. I remembered pushcart vendors, but the only one we saw was selling glass jewelry, and I was already happily wearing the $2 blue and red plastic ring I bought in Chinatown last week. We didn’t find anything to drink. Even the water fountains were still turned off for the winter. After a few blocks we stopped to sit on a bench and watch people walk by. A gaggle of pre-teens held court on the bench facing ours, recognizing and merging with other kids in threes and fours, Most of the girls wore lightweight short skirts with bare legs, but one had miscalculated and had a long black skirt, opaque black stockings, and a jacket tied around her waist. I was half-and-half; I’d worn a dress with no stockings but still had on boots and a jacket. The fresh air felt great hitting my bare legs for the first time in months, and my feet yearned to trade in the boots for flip flops.

Eventually Damaso had to leave to meet a photography student, and I wanted to go back to Chelsea Market for a People’s Pop. We descended, walked back through the Meatpacking District, and said our goodbyes on the street. Despite the sign, People’s Pops didn’t have a store in the market anymore. In no hurry to head home, I walked though a few sample sales with uninspired clothing by designers I hadn’t heard of. At one, I talked a woman out of buying a shapeless blouse that looked like a hospital Johnny. I may not know fashion, but I know she didn’t need to look like an escaped patient. Eventually I left the market and went back to the deli in my old building where I bought a pomegranate-cherry FrozFruit for the subway ride home. It’s sticky and delicious, and I finish it before I even make it back to the subway, just half a block away.

Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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