At 45th St. three cop cars surrounded a red sports car. Behind it was a scrappier sedan. The owner of the sports car opened his wallet and passed several bills to the owner of the sedan. The cops watched.
At 49th one of a group of five shadowy men called out, “that’s good calisthenics you.”
At 57th a man whose face was hidden under a cape’s hood stumbled across the street looking like a deranged prophet.
At Columbus Circle a bum slept against a Lens Crafters store with an old quilt covering him that said, “Hole in the Wall,” along the bottom. I left Broadway and headed up Central Park West. The streets were quieter and the light was less overwhelming. Specific glows stood out. The whimsical tree branch-wrapped lights of Tavern on the Green. Street lights, red green, red green. Two beacon-like lights atop the twin towers of an extravagant old apartment building near The Dakota shining into space like buoys marking a channel in the sky. Large dinosaur topiaries lit up with Christmas lights on the steps of the Museum of Natural History.
Near 64th St. another jogger passed. He had on headphones, a backpack and blue warm-up pants and I wanted him to acknowledge our common errand, but he didn’t look up, and continued south into the night.
At 81st I turned west, headed back to Broadway. Opposite the museum’s planetarium three men in their twenties were returning from a night out, walking quickly and silently.
“Nice night for shorts,” remarked a dreaded man with a briefcase at 81st and Amsterdam.
On Broadway glowing menorahs decorated the wide center island and birds began chirping. A tree outside Harry’s Shoe Store near 82nd was covered with bright red lights and an elegant-looking older woman with a black coat walked a mini schnauzer-looking dog wearing a red sweater.
At 90th a man outside a newspaper kiosk arranged bundles of New York Times and Daily News, and a cop car with its sirens silently flashing sped across Broadway and pulled onto the curb in front of the City Diner.
At 94th a man in a leather coat clutching a brown paper bag inspected the gutter at the side of the street, chanting something in an unknown tongue.
At 104th Broadway veers slightly west, and runs due north for three blocks. A cold wind rushed down the avenue, icing my bare legs and slowing my pace. Two kids with black hooded sweat-shirts on trick bikes zigzagged down the sidewalk, one with a lollipop in his mouth.
At 5:40 a.m. I stopped to stretch on a bench outside the Journalism School at Columbia University. The quad was deserted until two girls walked by dragging suitcases. One also carried a rectangular musical instrument case. I yelled across the quad, asking her what instrument was inside, but she didn’t respond.
In Harlem garbage littered the streets and groups of people stood on corners. Beyond the trestle bridge that carries the 1 train briefly above ground I could see the Hudson River and the lights of Jersey glittering on the other side.
At 135th a whirring sound like a chainsaw seemed to be coming from an abandoned building on the west side of the street. A family with three kids, one on her mother’s shoulders snug under a pink hood, waited for the light to change. A woman beside them held a large plate with tinfoil wrapped across the top. Just north at Hamilton a bus stopped and nine people got off. One shouted, “faster, harder…” as I ran by.
Five men argued outside a store at 142nd and at 143rd a hooded man waited next to a phone booth with his hands in his pockets. At 144th two men in the middle of the sidewalk were selling plastic cups of steaming coffee from a blue cooler.
155th smelled of deep-fried chicken and french fries, and memories of street food in South American cities flooded back.
Between 159th and 160th I passed Africa Store, between 163rd and 164th, Willy Food Corp., at 171st, Washington Heights Grocery Discount, and at 175th, 24/7 Candy Discount Store.
At 178th there is a large industrial-looking bus terminal and I turned west for the bridge. It was 6:40 a.m., the sun would rise at 7:19. Lightening shades of dark blue crept across the sky. The bridge glowed in the beginning dawn. To enter the bridge’s pedestrian path you snake up a ramp at the end of 178th. In the east low wispy clouds stuck on the horizon turned pink, orange and yellow. On the bridge the wind howled and it was frigid. Groups of bikers in bright blue spandex raced towards New Jersey and 18-wheelers noisily barreled into the city.
Jogging across the George Washington Bridge as the sun rises surely won’t mean as much for someone who has never circled it on their map as the beginning and end point of all road trips. For me it has been a gateway to the rest of the country and a beacon when returning home. I-95 starts you south through industrial Jersey and the farmlands beyond. I-80 sling shots you west across the Delaware Water Gap, the Midwest, the Great Plains and a million mountains and deserts until San Francisco and the next shore. The N.Y. State Thruway leads north to quieter country and eventually another country altogether. And then there is New York City, south across the 'wine-dark' wind-swept waters of the Hudson, the shapes of familiar buildings nubs on the horizon, the silence of the distant cityscape jarred by thundering wheels and rushing wind, the biggest circle on any map, where 8 million people will soon wake to a sun that is about to rise, that is right now bluing the black of night and yellowing yesterday’s clouds, and when they wake the city’s strange night will be over, and a whole new scene begun.