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When I Caught New York Sleeping: How an Overcast Morning Became Impossibly Cinematic

New York…the city that never sleeps…but sometimes it blacks out.

— Fragment heard in the East Village

It had only been three months, just a single season since I’d moved to New York from Knoxville, Tennessee. If anything was certain, I was simply one of the millions on a relatively small island, a city that was forced to grow up, rather than sprawl out, not unlike myself in my early twenties. From my blowup mattress in the South Bronx — a stone’s throw away from Yankee Stadium — to Union Square in Manhattan took around forty-five minutes on the 6 Train, over an hour late nights. But this was Christmas morning and I was eager to find new ways of not celebrating the holiday. I was bartending at a ‘posh’ spot in the Meatpacking District, but didn’t have to work until five. Since I had no family and no close friends in the city, I suppose I was seeking distraction on a day I used to cherish when I was a child, intending to fill that day with ‘New York’ things, the things I was pretending to seek when most of them were coming at me, far too quickly. When I emerged from the Union Square station around 8 a.m., I braced myself for humankind, the kind of humans that I was still getting used to, since I was still apologizing just about every time I happened to bump into someone on a crowded platform, or in the street. The thought of some kind of parade or hundreds of carolers added a touch of horror to my expectations, a touch of savory to the sweetness of what was waiting. Every season was still a first for me so only my actual emergence would reveal the scope of it. I lit my standard ‘off the subway at last’ cigarette and…nothing. Nobody. Not a soul.

After fifteen years of living in NYC, there have been countless moments that film would struggle to capture, the kind of seedy stuff that would make a sociopath blush. Often times, I was merely a witness, sometimes in the middle of it, even the cause. But my emergence into an empty Union Square on an overcast Christmas morning was one of the strangest moments, strange for the naive soul I was then and stranger in what would soon follow. I walked for three blocks before I saw a pair of cops walking their beat, otherwise, still not a civilian soul in sight. Every storefront was locked, even the ubiquitous Starbucks. When I reached Sixth Ave., the smell of baked bread and garlic beckoned me on, until I found a Jewish Bagel Shop with throngs of people inside. Out of the cold and overcast streets, I found warmth in the cluster of people shouting out their bagel orders, but not so warm not to remember not to apologize whenever I inevitably bumped into someone. I heard an elderly woman call out with a magnificent voice, perhaps a lead soprano in her youth: “Everything with cream cheese…and don’t you fucking dare toast it this time! …Thanks!” Ever since that morning, I’ve been privy to an everything bagel with cream cheese — toasting or not toasting depends on the bagel’s quality — a New York habit, rather than a new Christmas one.

The movie theater in Union Square opened at 10 a.m. and I found myself in a packed theater — apparently, natives knew when to emerge from the depths — with a jumbo bucket of popcorn covered in fake butter and the newly released Will Smith movie, I Am Legend. I didn’t have a television at home and iPhones were still relatively non-existent, so I had no idea what is was about. The first scene of the movie, a movie I was watching in what had been a deserted Union Square only an hour or so before, was a scene of that exact subway entrance, without a soul in sight. It was even overcast on film. I would have dropped my popcorn had it not been between my knees. In that moment, the uncanny experience I’d just had was glaring back at me from the big screen, as if I’d jumped ahead in time and somebody had tapped into my memories and made a movie about it. If you ever want to see what Christmas morning looks like in Union Square — disclaimer, this was 2007 and I’ve never made that mistake again — watch the first thirty seconds of this movie. But like so many surreal moments, that scene was only surreal to me, perhaps generally haunting to the rest, on a cinematic level and soon forgotten.

Hayden Moore

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