Night and Day

October 6, 2009
By Molly Pelavin SILVER, New York City, New York
Molly Pelavin SILVER, New York City, New York
9 articles 4 photos 1 comment

If you see the Empire State Building at night, it looks like a flashy light-up toy that you might buy at the circus. It wears a different tricolor vest to match every holiday. But during the day, the skyscraper is as plain and gray as any other structure in the city. It’s still a majestic, iconic vision, but resembles more of a dull office drone than a glitzy dancer. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that they were two different buildings. New York City as a whole is a bipolar being, transforming its appearance and its attitude from day to night as swiftly as the switch of a light.

At noon, when the sun reaches its zenith and the tourists are swarming, Canal Street is a zoo. Colored scarves wave in the breeze, extending their soft tassels to brush the top of your head and tease you to empty your wallet and take them home. Hoop earrings, charm bracelets and chain necklaces sparkle with sunlight on their glittering gold skin, blinking to catch your eye as you walk by. Red and yellow awnings, orange “I ™ NY” t-shirts and silver watches become a rainbow kaleidoscope of merchandise with a boundless energy to sell itself. As you hurry to catch the light, mutters of “Handbag, Miss? Louis Vuitton!” make their way to your ears. When you glance around for the voice’s owner, a young Chinese woman flashes you a small catalogue of purses as surreptitiously as if she were selling drugs.

The tawdry souvenirs are as clamorous as the men and women pimping them to each and every passerby. Long, friendly conversations can be overheard in various Chinese, African, and Indian dialects, but sentences in English are curt routines that are repeated for one purpose: to sell. Families from Long Island and Ohio and the rest of suburban America mosey down the crowded street as if they’ve got all the time in the world to kill, stopping to hike up their velour sweatpants, put on their visors, and turn around to call out “Honey! The kids wanna go back to the hotel!” Tween girls prudently consider which fake Prada clutch looks the most genuine, while their little brothers beg for Kanye West glasses to make their faces look like windows with neon green blinds. The aroma of lamb gyros and chicken kebabs wafts through the air from the aluminum Halal food carts, as the street chefs chop onions and fry shredded meat expertly. Every day, you consider stopping to taste what smells so succulent, but it’s hard for a New Yorker on the move to slow down.

When you finally reach 6th Avenue, the dancehall music from the boomboxes fades into the sound of honking trucks and taxis. The density of people has diminished immensely. All that’s left is the same Indian man with a Benjamin Franklin hairdo and devilish eyes who tries to sell you a glass-blown pipe, a burglar alarm or a blow-drier every day. As you leave the hectic markets of Canal Street, images of the Statue of Liberty in a snowglobe and black briefcases full of wristwatches dance in your head. No one will remember that you walked through there and didn’t buy anything. They will simply push their products onto every pedestrian they make eye contact with until it’s time to close up shop.

At midnight, the lights are all artificial rectangles and orbs that draw your eyes away from the empty blackness of the sky. But they are far and few between, besides the red tail lights of passing cars and the lonely hanging traffic lights. A yellow square of light up in a brick building indicates either a party or an insomniac at work. Dunkin Donuts is the only venue still alive, although a close look through the window reveals that only a couple of dry, misshapen donuts remain. The empty streets in shades of slate and steel are ghostly remains of daytime, when they were once a circus of color and noise. The air is cold without all of the body heat, and it seems stale without the smokey smell of sizzling halal food.

As you stroll down the block, pleased that you don’t have to push through a clutter of people, only the occasional whiff of urine that couldn’t contain itself until it reached a porcelain home fills your nostrils briefly. It’s mostly quiet, with the exception of traffic, which somehow sounds more sinister at night. A glance down a dark side street instills fear of the unknown, whereas during the day it inspires you with a glimpse of the artsy cobblestoned streets of SoHo.

The most intriguing sight to rest your eyes on is the graffiti on the horizontally ribbed silver screen doors that protect the locked up shops. It matches the tone of the night, with dark blue lining and little color or embellishment. It is mostly tags and bubble letters, with the occasional abstract design — nothing too extravagant. But it is the mark of the creatures of the night, who live a completely different life from the hustlers and bustlers of the daytime. These artists are harder to spot than Waldo at the circus. Their spray paint stains are the only evidence they leave behind.

Apart from the skeleton of the buildings and the sidewalks, Canal Street by day would appear a completely separate place from Canal Street at night. The sun brings out shining faces and jewelry and cheap cologne lined up in little boxes, snappy calls of “Five dollar!” and “Gucci!”, and so many feet that there is no room for pigeons on the ground. But when it sets, all the salespeople must return to their homes in deep Chinatown, Queens, Brooklyn, and the rest of the city. They pack up the unsold items in garbage bags and vans and tiny storefronts. What remains on the street are only shadows, like a pencil mark not fully erased. Canal Street at night is empty, but heavy with the day’s exhaustion and disappointment, and the nagging feeling that when the sun rises, the struggle to sell things that nobody really needs will inevitably begin again.

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