There’s something charming about being in New York during Fleet Week. It often happens sometime around Memorial Day, when kids are out of school and everyone’s looking for something to do – so there are a lot of people lining up to visit the ships. But at the same time, it’s also when the crewmen are on shore leave, and so suddenly the city is filled with a lot of wide-eyed young men in dress whites, gazing awestruck at everything.
Years ago, I worked in an office on Times Square, and was on my lunchbreak, waiting at a streetcorner to cross 7th Avenue to get to my usual deli. A knot of five guys in dress whites was on the same corner also waiting, and suddenly I heard one of them totally lose it. “Guys. Guys!” he gasped. “Guys, we’re in New York! WE’RE in NEW YORK!” He started patting each of his companions on the chest, tagging them as he spoke – “I’m in New York, you’re in New York, you’re in New York – we are in NEW YORK!” I smiled to myself at his enthusiasm as he went on. “I can’t believe it, we’re in New York! And there’s so many people around – look at all of this,” he said, craning his neck, “all these people, I can’t believe how many people there are, how people just don’t go crazy with all this stuff going on around them – ” he stopped, seeing me. “Excuse me, miss? Do you live here?” he asked.
“….Yes?” I said, startled.
“How do you put up with this, with all of everything going on around you all the time?”
I could have been nice. I could have come up with some kind of lyric out of On The Town. But instead I told the truth – I looked at him and said, “I ignore about 95% of everything that happens around me.”
He blinked. “Really.”
“Yes.” The light changed at that exact moment, and I just nodded and said “enjoy your day,” and went on my way, leaving a young man with his mind blown and a moment that I’m pretty sure he was going to be writing home to tell his mom in Topeka.
And yet that wasn’t the best Fleet Week story I’ve got.
A few years later, I was living in the Lower East Side and working up by Columbia University; I usually had to change subways at the 14th Street station, walking the long twisty tunnel leading from the 2 train to the L, and from there to the 6. I was about to head into the tunnel when another group of crewmen in dress whites stopped me. “Excuse me, miss? We’re a bit lost – which subway do we take to get to McSorley’s Ale House?”
“It’s kind of confusing….” I began, trying to think how to explain. “Well, you know what, I’m going that general direction, how about you just follow me?”
“Hey, great!” they said, and we set off, me leading a gang of guys in dress whites. They were full of giddy, we’re-on-a-break energy, teasing each other as we walked – but trying to tone things down out of deference to me. But their good spirits perked me up, so I started joking with them, and some of them got a bit flirty by the time we got from the tunnel onto the 6 at last. “So which stop is it?” they asked, “and how do you get from the stop to McSorleys?”
“You know what,” I said, “it’s actually a nice night, and I don’t live too far away – I’ll get out with you and walk you there.” And so I lead my little band out the exit at Astor Place and on to McSorley’s. “Here we are!”
“Thank you so much, miss!” they said. Then one said, “you know what, would you like to join us?”
I grinned. “What the hell.” We got a seat in the back, where I had only the one round with them before they had to get back to their station. But one of them had taken a bit of a shine to me, and offered to walk me part of the way home – even enlisting one of his companions to come with us as a chaperone, so I wouldn’t think he was going to try any funny business. He gave me his email address, telling me I was “a fun gal” and saying he wished I’d write. I never got around to it, though, but it was sweet.
And that is how seven sailors bought me a drink.