The corner of 31st and 8th Avenue has got to be one of the most inauspicious-looking places in all of Manhattan. The main post office is to the left, and there’s nothing wrong with it; in fact it’s quite stately, if with an aura of very faded glory. But then you’ve got Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, with somehow bleak and cheerless establishments surrounding them—a dull-looking pizza place here, a dubious-seeming barbeque place there. The only people who really go to those places are people coming from sporting events at the Garden, non-New Yorkers, people who don’t know there are a thousand better places to be in the city.
There’s a steady group of idlers outside Penn Station, looking worse for the wear, talking trash with all the intensity of a Socratic discussion. There’s the guy selling street meat, alcoholics convening closer to 30th Street, homeless people parked on the wide post office stairs. Even the sidewalks look dirty. At night it still looks like Robert De Niro’s NYC from the Taxi Driver days. And then there’s the Irish Times
The Irish Times is on 31st to the east of the corner, about a quarter of the way down the block, across the street from Madison Square Garden. It’s as anonymous- and bland-looking as they come. It doesn’t even stand out for its sleaze, no, it just doesn’t stand out. It’s an Irish pub, just like the one half-a-block away, and the other one a bit further down. Presently it’s even got scaffolding in front of it, just to obscure it even more.
Hence, I guess, the phenomenon of the Irish Times guy. It’s not unusual for businesses in NYC, almost always restaurants, to hire someone to hold a sign from their place and stand out on the sidewalk. It’s cheap, expendable advertising. When I first came to the city I couldn’t figure out why there’d be a guy standing there with a sign. And it is almost always a guy. But then I worked out that it must be against ordinances to leave your sign on the sidewalk unless you have someone standing there with it.
The job always struck me as a particularly cruel joke, in so far as one would try to find meaning in their work. And believe me, I’ve had plenty of jobs where I stood there all day asking why. But none that struck me as quite as steeped in the potential for existential crisis as this one. These sign guys always haunted me in my earlier days of being a New Yorker.
So my ten-year-old son and I live about a block-and-a-half from the inauspicious 31st and 8th and we love every aspect of it. Living here, not just visiting, we know all the ins and outs and the daily rhythms of our immediate neighborhood, know them like the backs of our hands. We discuss the characters, and who does what when. We practically notice if there’s an extra piece of trash on the street. And we know we’re part of that pattern as well as we come and go, we help make up this part of the city life.
And so does the Irish Times guy. They’ve got him planted on the northeast corner of 31st and 8th, calling people over to the Irish Times. And call he does. He doesn’t just slack and stand there, no, he calls out and waves, “Irish Times, Irish Times, come join us today at the Irish Times.” And he smiles as he waves and he looks happy, genuinely happy. He stands on a wooden box, I guess just to get some extra height, and he’s got his sign tied to one of the short barrier posts that line the sidewalk. That way I suppose he can dedicate himself to waving, and he doesn’t have to worry about his arm going numb from holding the sign.
My son and I greet him every time we go by, and my son waves as enthusiastically at him at he waves at the public. And we talk about the Irish Times guy. We talk about how he really seems happy, how he must feel his job is important, and how dedicated he is. And we see him talking to various people on the corner and speculate how he must have a lot of friends—he’s always there, and he is indeed so friendly.
He appears to be Hispanic, and he calls out in a fairly strong accent: “Irish Times, Irish Times, come join us today at the Irish Times.” His accent makes the whole thing sound more musical somehow. And sometimes if there’s a particular sporting event he’ll throw in info about that as well, innovatively tying it in meaning to the Irish Times. I’m used to acknowledging him with my son as we go into Penn Station by the southeast doors, walking through there to get to the 1 or the 2 train, or else just the other side of the block.
But sometimes when I’m rushing home from work on the post-office side of 8th Avenue after getting off the train, I hear him call out. I’m not really thinking about him at those times and I hear him and turn to see him waving, calling out to the world about the Irish Times: “Come today, come today, come join us at the Irish Times.” And on those days when my mind is so full of what happened at my job, when my thoughts are reeling ahead about what I still have to do that night, and I’m rushing to get to my son, I’m kind of haunted by the Irish Times guy.
I’m haunted by the fact that he’s there and I forgot about him, his existence; I’m haunted by the fact that he’s still calling out; by his enthusiasm as he calls out to the world and no one might be listening; by the fact that I’ve been so caught up in my job all day that I forgot about how much I love my neighborhood and my life and my relationship with my son as we continue to dwell in our studio apartment in the city. The Irish Times guy reminds me of all that as I almost pass him by without turning to see if he’s there. Until I hear him call out: “Come today, come today, come join us at the Irish Times.”
The other day I was rushing home from work with my head down and I heard him and turned. He was calling out and waving when I looked his way. I waved back a little, and then a little more. He was across the street diagonally by now, and there were people walking about the unblessed intersection, so I wasn’t completely sure if he were waving at me or just waving. He was calling out “Come today, come today, come join us at the Irish Times” in his musical way and smiling. How could he not be waving at me?
I waved back a little more enthusiastically and walked on and turned back and waved again. I thought of my son because that’s the way he does it, turning back like that. I even felt a little foolish waving at the Irish Times guy but then I thought, the hell with it. I hurried down the street to get home to my son and I felt oddly better, even lighter, as if my life somehow had broader meaning. And more as if I was part of the world.
Maybe it’s because I was recognized, welcomed back to my neighborhood. Or maybe it’s because the Irish Times guy doesn’t know anything about me, but possibly sees me as that same kind of friendly person as he is. Maybe I’ve similarly made people’s day without even knowing it before—I would love to think that were true. And I’d also like to think that if I were standing out on one of the least bounteous corners in all of NYC that I could call out to the world in such an unflagging and determinate way. Hell, I’d like to blaze through life like that.