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Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

When you’re a New Yorker, you get used to subway disruptions. There’s always track work, or signal work, or a police investigation, or station renovations that lead to the express running local, or the local running express, or lines being rerouted. It can be frustrating, but we accept these disruptions as a way of life in a city with one of the largest, and one of the oldest, subway systems in the world, especially since they usually don’t occur during rush hour.

On this day, there were a level of disruptions unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Walking into the Rockefeller Center subway station, one of the busiest in the city, I was greeted by a constant stream of announcements over the public address system that were never ending. Not only were the World Trade Center, & the surrounding area, a financial hub, but it was also a subway hub; several lines ran in or near the area. And, the Twin Towers attacked & reduced to rubble, mass chaos ensued on the subway, just like it did elsewhere.

I was in my third month working for the New York City bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. I was their sports reporter, which meant I mostly did research & arranged for interviews & accommodations for my direct supervisor, a sportswriter for the paper who, unlike me, was fluent in Japanese. I also got to cover a handful of events myself. Of course, it didn’t matter what subject you reported on today; everyone in media were focused on the World Trade Center. That morning, arriving minutes after the first plane hit, & minutes before the second plane hit, I did everything from converting the heights of the world’s tallest buildings from feet to meters to making phone calls to airports & hospitals (I was greeted by a busy signal every single time). Both my mom & dad called to check on me; I told them I was okay, & I didn’t know when I’d be leaving work.

I think it was early in the afternoon when I was told to take a call from David who, like me, was an American reporter for the paper not too far removed from college. We had different direct supervisors, but similar responsibilities. David lived near the World Trade Center &, on his way to work, realized something was happening. Being the smart reporter he is, David decided to remain on the scene rather than go to the office, calling in with live updates, taking pictures with his 35-millimeter camera & interviewing people on the scene. He had a roll of film he wanted to get to the office; but with the authorities closing off most of Lower Manhattan, he didn’t want to make his way north & risk losing his spot embedded in one of the most significant stories in history. Which is why I was told to take his call. There was a teenage boy David was going to use as his film messenger. I was to go as far south as I could, call David with my location, & this impromptu messenger would bring the film to me. Hopefully. David said he was going to give him $40.

After navigating the subway dysfunction, I got off at West 4th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, one of my favorite neighborhoods. My mom started taking me to The Village as a child. I had plenty of meals at the Pizzeria Uno across the street from the subway entrance. I did a lot of homework at the library a few blocks north which, at one time, had a bookstore across the street, where my mom once took me so she could meet author Terry McMillan, who had just come out with a book called Waiting to Exhale. When I emerged aboveground, I was expecting to see the usual bustle of pedestrians shuffling along the sidewalks & cars speeding along Avenue of the Americas. However, I was greeted by silence. Only emergency vehicles were allowed south of 14th Street, so there were no cars on the street, which was filled with people. Few were walking briskly to their destination; instead, almost everyone was looking south, where two plumes of smoke were plainly visible on this clear & sunny day. It was as quiet as I’ve ever heard The Village. There were looks of shock, & occasional sounds of sniffling. It was my first look at the destruction on something other than a television screen, so I stood there too, mesmerized not just by the smoke, but also by the unusual silence. This isn’t a bad dream, I thought. This is really happening.

I made my way through the crowd & resumed my voyage south, which I realized was fruitless; there were barricades everywhere &, unless you could prove you were a resident of the blocked off area, no one was allowed through. David had given me few details about his location, but I knew he was west, so I headed in that direction until I got to the appropriately named West Street, the last street before the Hudson River. I noticed a shuttered strip club at one corner, so I stood there, since I figured it would be an easily identifiable landmark. I called David. The kid bringing me the film was named Peter, or Michael, or something else just as common, David told me. He described the kid’s appearance, & what he was wearing. David said he was on his way. Hopefully.

I stood there for about an hour before someone matching the description David passed along spotted me. He handed me the film. I shook his hand, & thanked him. I asked him if he needed anything, not sure what I could help him with. He was fine, he said. On my walk back to the subway station, I called David, & told him that his messenger had showed. I never did see the pictures, which was fine by me.

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Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.

The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.

*          *          *

The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.

What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.

*          *          *

I was in the restroom when I heard it.

Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.

*          *          *

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.

I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.

*          *          *

A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.

*          *          *

I really wanted Caribbean food.

Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.

Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.

*          *          *

I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.

One more inning.

*          *          *

I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).

The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.

*          *          *

Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.

*          *          *

I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.

I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.

“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.

“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”

“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”

I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!

The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.

*          *          *

When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.

One out remaining.

*          *          *

I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.

Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.

After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.

*          *          *

One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.

I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.

Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.

“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”

A perfect ending to a perfect day.

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The last baseball game I attended before the strike was at Yankee Stadium. Me and my co-workers for the summer were given complimentary tickets, along with several other youth and teen groups, in the left-centerfield bleachers. I defiantly wore my Mets hat to the game, which pitted the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing the hat of New York’s National League team proved to be the right move, since former Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee was in attendance, signing autographs in the bleachers; his appearance was part of the program that allowed us to get into The House That Ruth Built gratis. I still have that hat, which Agee signed on the green underside of the bill.

Back then, I lived for baseball. Well, I still live for baseball – make my living in baseball, even – but, in those days, I was obsessed. Every winter, I’d suffer through pangs of withdrawal because there wasn’t any baseball on television; I’d scour Sports Illustrated for any blurb or mention of the National Pastime. I eagerly anticipated the Mets’ first spring training game, which was always televised on WWOR TV. I loved WWOR’s spring training open – which featured a wooden crate filled with oranges that would be hammered shut and, after a time lapse, reopened to reveal that the oranges had turned into baseballs – not only because it was pure genius, but also because it signaled that another baseball season was around the corner.

But now, there was a possibility that the baseball off-season would be longer than ever. The team owners and the players’ union were at an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and a strike was imminent. None of the so-called experts seemed to think the strike would be brief, although no one had any idea how long it would last. A few weeks? A few months? Into the postseason? Into the following season? Anything seemed to be possible except, of course, a quick resolution.

The strike deadline set by the players was four days away and in the back of my mind as I watched former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez staked to an early 4-0 lead, only to leave in the sixth with the score tied. I was sitting behind the Orioles bullpen and just missed getting the baseball reliever Jim Poole tossed into the crowd when he entered the game in the 10th. Mark Eichhorn, who had been warming up alongside Poole, teased and tantalized the fans who asked him for a ball; it seemed like poetic justice when Eichhorn gave up Randy Velarde’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th to lose the game for Baltimore.

Three days later, when I turned on my green-and-white radio on August 11th, 1994 to listen to the Mets play in Philadelphia (the game was televised on SportsChannel, and Mom had yet to sign us up for cable television), I was hoping the game lasted forever. It didn’t, but it came close; Ricky Jordan’s walk-off RBI single in the 15th won it for the Phillies. And I turned off my radio and wondered when I’d get to hear Major League Baseball again.

I finished the month at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, where I spent a week and a half canoeing, hiking and pitching tents in the wilderness. We were only allowed to shower every few days and there was no access to television or radio. Occasionally, our travels through the Berkshires and Adirondacks would take us by a newsstand or a newspaper vending machine, which would lead me to check the front page of the paper to see if the strike had been resolved. And, in every instance, there was a front-page headline about the strike. And, in every instance, that front-page headline indicated that the players were still on the picket line. Chris, a Chicago White Sox fan who served as my camp group’s counselor that summer before resuming his studies at a small, liberal-arts college in Minnesota in the fall, picked up on my routine. “Anything?” he would ask, after he saw me peek at newsprint. I’d shake my head. Nothing needed to be said.

The routines and rhythms of my sophomore year of high school helped pass the time, but the strike was never far from my mind. Those of us who are baseball crazed tend to gravitate to other seam heads, and it was all we talked about. I mean, it was all we could talk about, since the strike eliminated typical fall conversations about the postseason – which wound up being cancelled – and free agency. None of us really understood all of the issues at play; we were just hopeless baseball romantics hoping and praying that our beau would return post haste.

I had Biology class with Jonah Parsoff, who loved baseball almost as much as I did. Almost. Jonah also claimed to know more baseball trivia than me, which simply wasn’t possible. So, I offered Jonah a challenge: I would give him five baseball trivia questions every day and I guaranteed he would never get all five of them correct. So, for about two months, I spent the first few minutes of Biology writing trivia questions on a piece of loose-leaf paper, which I would covertly pass to Jonah in the front of the class (I always sat in the back of all of my classes, much to my mother’s chagrin. “You wear glasses” she would ask, “why are you sitting in the back?”). Jonah would attempt to answer my questions and slip the paper back to me. I don’t think he ever got more than three right; I know he never went five for five. I took delight in Jonah throwing his head back in frustration once I gave him the correct answers – a gesture that would prompt Mr. Young, our Biology teacher, to ask “Jonah, is something wrong?” mid-lecture. And, thus, my place atop the baseball-trivia throne was secure.

While I spent most of my time in Biology goofing off, I took Global Studies seriously; I always took great interest in history, which was partially responsible for my love of baseball trivia. However, I was convinced that my teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was assigning us papers at an insane rate that was unprecedented in the annals of high school history. However, I had little issue with one assignment from Mrs. Goodman that allowed us to write a 5-page paper on a current event selected from a pre-approved list when I saw that the list included the baseball strike. I immediately set to work on my masterpiece, in which detailed the follies of both the owners and the players’ union. My heartfelt missive earned me an A, and some unexpected praise from Mrs. Goodman; she told me I was an excellent writer and I should consider working for my high school’s monthly newspaper. I never thought of myself as an above-average writer and seeing my byline in print never occurred to me. But wouldn’t it be cool to write about sports? I thought to myself. And, after approaching one of the sports editors, I became a full-fledged sports journalist, penning important pieces on weighty topics – like the upcoming cross-country season – much to the delight of readers everywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.

My Pulitzer still hadn’t arrived in early March, when Dad and I plopped in front of the television to watch the Mets’ first spring training game, against the Yankees. Except it wasn’t the Mets, at least not the Mets with which we were familiar. The broadcast on WWOR opened with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver explaining that they weren’t going to pretend that the upcoming game featuring replacement players was to the Major League Baseball standards fans were accustomed. Thank goodness, because it would’ve been hard to pretend. Nevertheless, Dad and I were glued to the set because we had no idea what to expect from these people donning Mets and Yankees uniforms. An over-the-hill Doug Sisk, the frequent target of Mets fans’ derision when he was a reliever in the 1980s, started the game and was as uninspiring as I’d remembered.

I don’t recall the score, but I do recall the Yankees led by a narrow margin when the bottom of the ninth dawned and they summoned a pitcher named Mike Pitz to get the last three outs. After we finished making fun of his last name, we watched Pitz load the bases with two outs, bringing up Lou Thornton. The day before, we saw a local sportscast where Thornton proclaimed he didn’t get a fair shake when he was with the non-replacement Mets a few years prior and he became a replacement player to prove he belonged in the Majors.

“Well Lou,” Dad opined as Thornton dug in. “This is your chance.”

Thornton worked the count full before swinging and missing at a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone. Game over.

I don’t have vivid memories of where I was or what I was doing when the strike ended, probably because the ending seemed so anticlimactic. And it didn’t really end, per sé; future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, which prevented them from implementing new labor rules and from using replacement players. Thus, the owners lost a significant amount of their leverage and were essentially forced to work something out with the players. Shortly thereafter, a truncated spring training preceded a truncated regular season and the love of my life was back. Unlike many fans, I didn’t hold any animosity toward the players or the owners; even though I didn’t understand all of the issues that led to a strike, I figured both sides were probably each at fault to a certain extent. Regardless, I just wanted to see baseball. The strike was the first test of my passion for baseball and, strangely, it increased my love for the game. If I could still obsess over baseball even after dealing with the postseason being canceled for the first time in 90 years and after months of uncertainty, then nothing would mute my love for the National Pastime. And nothing has.

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One of the great things about growing up in New York City is its vibrant pro sports landscape. Each of the four major professional leagues has at least two teams in the New York metropolitan area, creating natural rivalries. Eight of the nine New York area sports teams have devoted fan bases.

The one exception has been the New Jersey Nets. I don’t know of a single fan of the NBA team that plied their trade in the Garden State. The Nets were an afterthought; a mediocre team playing in a mediocre arena that was difficult to get to if you didn’t have a car, in front of very few fans. The Knicks dominated the hearts and minds of the region when they were winning and, sometimes, even when they weren’t. Since we didn’t have cable for much of my childhood, I’d watch the handful of Nets games that were televised on WWOR, but only because I wanted to see the Nets’ opponents. I used to make fun of Spencer Ross, the Nets’ play-by-play broadcaster in the early 1990s, because he seemed to be forcing a nickname on every Nets player to try and improve their likability: Kenny Anderson, a talented point guard who had trouble with health and with consistency, was always known as either “Special K” or “Kenny the Kid”; power forward Derrick Coleman, who could be one of the best players in the NBA when he wanted to be, was known strictly as “DC”. Legendary Knicks announcer Marv Albert never had to resort to such shenanigans, I thought to myself.

The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. When the then-New York Nets agreed to join the NBA for the 1976-1977 season, they were coming off an ABA championship. They also had Julius Erving, one of the most exciting players in basketball history. The Knicks were still competitive, but the core of their great teams of the early 1970s was aging. The Nets had a legitimate chance to make serious inroads into the hearts and minds of New York area basketball fans. However, Nets owner Roy Boe had to pay $3.2 million to join the NBA and make the first of ten $480,000 payments to the New York Knicks to get them to waive their territorial rights. Needing a quick infusion of cash, Boe sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers (but only after offering Erving to the Knicks in exchange for them waving the territorial rights payments. The Knicks refused). So, instead of entering the NBA with one of the greatest basketball players of all time and an opportunity to steal some of the Knicks’ thunder, the Nets had to settle for mediocrity and obscurity. They moved from Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum to New Jersey the next season and, despite some halfway decent teams in the early 1980s, were largely ignored. Erving, by the way, would lead the 76ers to an NBA title.

When it comes to sports, baseball was my first love and the NBA was my second. I grew up rooting for those talented Knicks teams of the early 1990s that would always give Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls a run for their money before coming up short. Mom was also a huge Knicks fan and we tried to go to their games at Madison Square Garden whenever we could. But, the Knicks always sold out and we were lucky to catch one or two games a year from the upper reaches of The World’s Most Famous Arena.

Before the start of the 1995-1996 NBA season, Mom decided to get us a seven-game New Jersey Nets ticket plan because all of those plans included at least one Knicks-Nets game. So, off we went from the Bronx, across the George Washington Bridge and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, to see the New York area’s neglected franchise. The Nets played at the nondescript Brendan Byrne Arena, which was named after the governor of New Jersey who got the facility built. During that season, the name changed to the Continental Airlines Arena; of course the Nets would play in the only arena or stadium in the area named after a corporate sponsor. I saw some great basketball teams and players that season. I saw the Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games that year, thrash the Nets, but not before Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman got ejected, taking off his jersey as he angrily stalked off the court. I also saw the Detroit Pistons who were on the upswing with young stars Grant Hill and Allan Houston, a very good Indiana Pacers team featuring future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, and the 76ers who weren’t very good but had exciting rookie Jerry Stackhouse. I also saw the Knicks, of course, who had the nerve to lose the game I attended.

Unfortunately, I also had to watch the Nets, who served in the Washington Generals role most of the nights we were there. Their most consistent player was Armen Gilliam, a journeyman forward known as “The Hammer”, complete with a hammer pounding a nail on the arena matrix board whenever Gilliam scored. The talented Anderson stayed healthy that season, but the Nets knew they weren’t going to be able to sign him long-term, so they traded him to the Charlotte Hornets in January. That season, the Nets gave out replica jerseys featuring the name and number of rookie forward Ed O’Bannon, their first-round draft pick, despite the fact he wasn’t playing like a future franchise cornerstone; O’Bannon was out of the NBA two years later. During one game, Nets general manager Willis Reed was shown on the video board and showered with boos. The Nets would finish the 1995-1996 season with a 30-52 record and fire head coach Butch Beard, who hasn’t coached in the NBA since.

Things did get better for the Nets on the court after that, culminating in back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. However, the fans never did show up and the Nets continued to fight a losing battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of area sports fans.

But, that’s all changing because the New Jersey Nets are now the Brooklyn Nets.

I’m excited about the Nets laying root in Brooklyn. Many New Yorkers have already embraced the Nets’ new, black and white logo, the Nets have made several moves to improve their on-court product and their games at the brand-new Barclays Center will be a hot ticket all winter. No longer will the Nets’ location on the wrong side of the Hudson River prevent them from drawing fans and keeping and acquiring quality players.

As a Knicks fan, I suppose I shouldn’t be excited about the Nets’ improved prospects. However, I’m looking forward to the Knicks having a true geographic rival. I’m hopeful the Nets will force the Knicks to improve their on- and off-court product since the Knicks will no longer be able to rely on the fact that they have little competition regionally. I think the Knicks will always be the more popular of the two franchises, but the Nets will be able to make a dent as the years progress.

In the near future, I hope I can make it to the Barclays Center for a Knicks-Nets game. It will be neat to watch the Nets play in a bright, colorful arena that’s filled to capacity and easily accessible by public transportation. There will probably still be more Knicks fans than Nets fans there, but at least the Nets will have a decent number of fans rooting them on. It will be a completely different experience from the Nets games I attended in the mid 1990s.

And, this time, the Knicks better win.

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I heard the gripes not long after Major League Baseball announced that Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium would host the 2012 All-Star Game and all of its related festivities. No one’s going to want to come to Kansas City. Like so many other ballparks, Kauffman Stadium isn’t located downtown and getting from Point A to Point B is going to be a logistical nightmare. The influx of tourists is going to make it impossible to get around. Kansas City is going to get embarrassed and the obnoxious folks from the Eastern and Pacific time zones are going to make fun of our town.

New York Yankees star second baseman Robinson Cano added insult to injury when he didn’t pick Billy Butler – the only Kansas City Royals player selected for the All-Star Game – for the Home Run Derby after indicating that he would. All week, Cano was booed mercilessly by the Kansas City faithful, especially during the Home Run Derby, when he failed to get even one ball over the fence. The outcry over Kansas City’s treatment of Cano came from both local and national media. How dare our fans behave so poorly on a national stage, some of the locals said. How dare Kansas Citians act so disrespectfully toward Cano, some of the out-of-towners said. Kansas Citians took both responses to their actions personally. The worst fears of many Kansas Citians were confirmed.

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I’d never thought about Kansas City as a potential landing spot, nor did I know what to expect or have any preconceived notions of the region before I moved here. But, after 3 ½ years, Kansas City has grown on me; I love it in the Heartland and wouldn’t mind calling Kansas City my home for the foreseeable future. It’s a great place to raise a family. There’s lots to do here and activities are plentiful regardless of your interests, relationship status or age group. Jobs here may not be as abundant as they once were, but they aren’t ridiculously scarce either. There’s excellent cuisine, including out-of-this-world barbecue. The summers can be oppressive, but the winters aren’t horrendous. The cost of living is manageable. Most locals I talk to agree with me that Kansas City is a fantastic place that has a lot going for it. But, they still aren’t satisfied.

The term “flyover state bias” was foreign to me until I moved here; Kansas City gets overlooked because it isn’t on a coast, locals say. People from St. Louis look down on Kansas City because St. Louis is bigger and has a better baseball team, I’m told. Our sports teams will never get the attention they deserve because they can’t spend money like the teams in bigger markets and because everyone thinks Kansas City is some backwater, I’ve heard. The only sports fans in the region who don’t seem to have a negative outlook are University of Kansas basketball fans; but the Jayhawks always win and their program was started by Dr. James Naismith, the guy who invented basketball for crying out loud, and you really can’t beat that.

Before moving to Kansas City, I’d never lived anywhere where a sense of inferiority was both prevalent and justified. The folks of Yakima, Washington thought their part of the country was inferior, but they were right; Yakima’s in the middle of nowhere with high unemployment and crippling poverty. Kalamazoo, Michigan was a smaller city that had plenty going on and people there seemed to have a good understanding of what they were and what they weren’t; they knew where they fit in the pecking order. Binghamton, New York had several shuttered factories and quite a few broken dreams, but it was also home to a large public university and near several bigger cities, so most people there didn’t seem to feel trapped or doomed.

My sensibilities about where I live developed from growing up in New York City. New York has a lot to talk about: there’s plenty to do, its attractions are world class and it’s extraordinarily diverse. New York also has its downsides: plenty of crime, a high cost of living, filth and overcrowding. I, like most New York natives, think New York is the greatest city in the world. Of course, there are plenty of people who think New York is overrated and/or a pit of despair. However, New Yorkers don’t really care what others think of their city. If you like New York, great. If you don’t, that’s your problem. When someone argues with a New Yorker that another city is better, the New Yorker is convinced he or she will win the argument. That swagger is a big part of what makes New Yorkers who they are and it’s also why many others find New Yorkers to be insufferable. But, again, New Yorkers don’t care what you think of them or their city.

I wish Kansas Citians had some swagger; not to the level of New Yorkers mind you, but some swagger is a lot better than no swagger. I wish they talked down to those St. Louisans who boast about their great baseball team, their steel arch and their Gateway to the West moniker and tell them their barbecue sucks, White Castle is overrated and the fountains in Kansas City make it look prettier. I wish they thumbed their noses at the East and West Coasters who deride Kansas City as a cowtown that mirrors the backwoods locales in Deliverance, but on a larger scale, and asked them if they’ve even visited; I’ve yet to learn of someone from the coasts who’s visited who hasn’t been amazed by Kansas City’s beauty, modernity, entertainment options and hospitality. I wish Kansas Citians didn’t have that sky-is-falling mentality and assume Kansas City was always going to get the short end of the stick simply because it’s Kansas City; that tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and there are plenty of examples of Kansas City not getting the short shrift that tend to get ignored by the natives.

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The week of the All-Star Game festivities was a glorious one. The Weather Gods cooperated, and we got a one-week break from 90- and 100-degree weather, with temperatures falling into the 70s and 80s, which is uncommon in July. I heard nary a complaint from visitors about how spread out Kansas City is and, by all reports, the city did a great job of compensating, with plenty of shuttle buses to transport folks between Kauffman Stadium and downtown. Everyone I talked to raved about the food, particularly the barbecue, and the plethora of quality restaurants and bars. The two All-Star Game managers, Ron Washington and Tony LaRussa, went out of their way to praise Kansas City for the job they did. A few people who’ve covered multiple All-Star Games told me their All-Star experience in Kansas City rated in their top five. Many folks stood up for Kansas City fans, saying their booing of Cano showed how much they support their own and that their standing ovation for retiring Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones – who was playing in Kansas City for the first time in his long and illustrious career – a classy and savvy gesture. Over and over, I heard from out-of-towners that they were wowed by Kansas City.

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More than anything, I wish Kansas City acted like the woman who knows she’s not the most attractive chickadee out there, but knows she’s pretty darn good looking in her own right. The woman who intelligently plays up her assets without coming off as desperate and ignores the naysayers; I don’t care that some guys are turned off by my flat backside because many more will love my shapely legs. Her confidence and lack of insecurities make her seem prettier than she actually is. If Kansas Citians are confident about Kansas City’s perception and place in the world, others will be too.

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We hadn’t been in our seats for very long when Dad pointed out the changes Yankee Stadium underwent during its renovation in the mid 1970s. Over there was where the Yankees bullpen was, Dad said as he pointed to an out-of-place nook behind the rightfield fence. Right there is where me and my grandfather sat when he took me to Yankees games when I was your age, Dad explained as he pointed to a section of empty seats in dead centerfield that were blacked out and blocked off, serving as a batters’ eye. Dad also pointed out the changed outfield dimensions and the monuments beyond the leftfield fence, which Dad said used to be located in centerfield, where they were in play. I stared at the retired numbers painted on the wall out by the bullpens in leftfield; there were so many of them.

I was a budding baseball fan on that night in 1989, two days shy of my tenth birthday, but I was already acutely aware of the storied history of the New York Yankees. I wasn’t even a Yankees fan, choosing to root for the New York Mets like Dad, Mom, Grandpa and nearly everyone else in my family who mattered. Yet, I couldn’t help but be awed thinking about all of the great players who roamed Yankee Stadium’s lush green grass. However, I was too young to remember the last great era of Yankees baseball; I was a fetus when the Yankees won the last of their record 22 World Series, in 1978, and I was two years old when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, their last postseason appearance. The Yankees had been marked by discord, dysfunction and a revolving door of players and managers ever since George Steinbrenner became their majority owner in 1973, but they’d always won, their drama not adversely affecting their play on the field. But, that was starting to change.

Ever since their last World Series game, the Yankees had been competitive, but not good enough to get over the hump. Their teams were marked by high payrolls and very good offenses, but also by inconsistent play and mediocre pitching. And, the Yankees certainly didn’t play like a well-oiled machine on this overcast June night. They committed six errors, leading to 12 unearned runs for their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles. Four of the errors occurred in the first three innings. Two of the errors were committed by first baseman Don Mattingly, the franchise cornerstone and winner of multiple Gold Gloves for his fielding acumen. The Yankees were down 7-0 in the top of the third inning when manager Dallas Green pulled starting pitcher Andy Hawkins. However, two batters later, Steve Finley – a rookie I’d never heard of – hit a grand slam off reliever Chuck Cary. Rain was in that evening’s forecast and many of the fans in attendance began opening their umbrellas and chanting for rain to wash the game away during the Yankees’ disastrous top of the third. Much to their chagrin, the rain stayed away all evening as the Orioles cruised to a 16-3 victory.

By the end of the 1989 season, the Yankees had suffered their third losing campaign since Steinbrenner’s reign began. Not surprisingly, the year included a managerial change, with Green being replaced by Bucky Dent in mid August. Meanwhile the Mets – the redheaded stepchild of New York City baseball for much of their history – continued to capture the hearts and minds of New Yorkers with their young, brash ballclub and dominant pitching. The Mets finished second in the National League East in ’89, but they were a year removed from a division title and three years removed from a dominant season that ended in a World Series triumph. Clearly, the Mets’ star was rising while the Yankees’ star was falling.

The biggest problem the Yankees had in those days can be summed up in two words: starting pitching. The ’89 season fell in the middle of a stretch in which the Yankees had a different Opening Day starting pitcher for nine straight seasons. That year Tommy John – a 45-year-old who wasn’t expected to make the team – took the hill for the Yankees in the opener. John won on Opening Day, but was released less than two months later with a 2-7 record and a 5.80 ERA; he never pitched in the Majors again. In 1985, the Yankees opened the season with 46-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro on the hill. 1991’s Opening Day hurler was journeyman Tim Leary, who’d lost a league-leading 19 games the year before. In 1990, Dave LaPoint, who had a 5.62 ERA in ’89, got the ball in the opener; he was released the following spring training and saw action in only two more Major League games after the ’90 season. Hawkins wasn’t one of the many Yankees Opening Day starters of that era, but he was signed to a hefty contract as a free agent, only to disappoint. Even when he wasn’t disappointing, Hawkins was still losing; in 1990, he threw a no-hitter in Chicago against the White Sox, but the Yankees committed three errors in a four-run eighth and Hawkins and the Yankees lost 4-0. The next start, Hawkins tossed 11 shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins, but allowed two runs in the 12th and lost 2-0. It’s pretty hard to go 0-2 over a two-start stretch that includes 19 consecutive innings without an earned run, but Hawkins and the Yankees were able to make that happen (to add insult to injury, in 1991, Major League Baseball ruled that Hawkins’ performance in Chicago would no longer be officially recognized as a no-hitter because he only threw eight innings. That wasn’t Hawkins’ fault; since the White Sox led after 8 ½ innings, they didn’t have to bat in the bottom of the ninth).

But, the Yankees didn’t miss only on veteran pitchers. In 1984, the Mets began the season with 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden in their rotation and the Yankees, not to be outdone, put 18-year-old Jose Rijo on their season-opening roster. Rijo wasn’t a phenom, bouncing between the Yankees and Triple-A in ’84 before being traded to the Oakland Athletics after the season; Rijo later became a solid starting pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds, whom he helped to a championship in 1990. In 1986, 23-year-old Doug Drabek spent most of the year in the Yankees’ rotation before being shipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he became one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning the National League’s Cy Young Award in 1990. Hard-throwing lefthander Al Leiter had great stuff, but struggled to throw strikes. Nevertheless, the Yankees refused to limit his pitch count. As a 23-year-old in ’89, Leiter threw 163 pitches in a start in which he walked nine, struck out 10 and allowed five runs; two starts later, Leiter walked seven and allowed four runs in a 130-pitch effort. Shortly thereafter, Leiter was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he had arthroscopic shoulder surgery before becoming a rotation mainstay and an integral part of championship teams with Toronto and the Florida Marlins.

The Yankees weren’t much better with position-player prospects. First baseman Kevin Maas – whose batting stance resembled someone sitting on the toilet – set a record by hitting 10 home runs in his first 79 Major League at-bats, but his performance went in the toilet after that. Outfielder Oscar Azocar liked to set fire to his bats, but he didn’t set the world on fire with his hitting. Hensley Meulens was nicknamed “Bam Bam” because of his prodigious power, but that moniker became a punch line as the outfielder struggled to make consistent contact. The Yankees had promising power hitters Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner in their system in the 1980s, but they traded both away. Both became All Star sluggers with other franchises.

I felt fortunate that I decided to latch onto the Mets rather than the Yankees. Sure, the Yankees had all that tradition, but they were a mess. Meanwhile, the Mets were winning with talented young pitching – Gooden was only 24 in 1989 and he’d already won a Cy Young Award – and scrappy position players scored runs in bunches in a lineup anchored by Darryl Strawberry, perhaps the National League’s best power hitter. The Mets finished second again in 1990, but at least they didn’t lose 95 games like the Yankees, who finished last for the first time since the Johnson Administration. But, Strawberry departed as a free agent after that season, Gooden struggled with injuries and drug abuse and the Mets started a freefall into mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Yankees seemed to have figured it out all of a sudden, making some savvy trades and free agent signings just as their farm system started to bear fruit. By the mid 1990s, the Mets were the rudderless ship and the Yankees were becoming dynastic again. To add insult to injury, both Gooden and Strawberry found themselves in Yankees pinstripes, where they redeemed their careers (Strawberry’s bouts with drug addiction became public after he left the Mets) and helped the Yankees win championships.

Nowadays, the Yankees aren’t quite as good as they were in the 1990s, but they’re still one of baseball’s best teams year after year. A generation of baseball fans has come of age knowing nothing but Yankees success. However, I remember an era when the Yankees seemed incapable of doing anything right and the Mets owned New York City. Where have you gone, Andy Hawkins? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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I loved the black, BMX bicycle that I’d learned to ride without the training wheels only a few months before, right around my seventh birthday. I was riding it in the park across the street from my apartment building when a boy a little older than me prompted me to stop.

“What school do you go to?” He asked.

“P.S. 26,” I answered. “What school do you go to?”

Before I knew it, he was pulling at my bike’s handlebars. I pulled back. He then slapped my glasses off my face, which distracted me enough to let go of the bike. Off the perpetrator sped on my wheels while I just stood there, crying hysterically. Someone handed my glasses to me. I didn’t stop crying until I got home and told Mom what happened. Mom and I spent the rest of the afternoon, and much of the evening, walking around our neighborhood, hoping to find the perpetrator and my bike. Our lengthy search was unsuccessful. A few weeks later, Grandpa bought me a new bike.

I wasn’t robbed again until I was 12, when a high school-aged boy took my speckled, wool flat cap off my head in front of my middle school. The school day had just ended and many of my classmates watched as the thug flipped me onto my back when I tried to resist. He threatened me with serious bodily harm if I continued to resist. I didn’t. After that incident, Mom refused to let me wear a hat to school for a few weeks.

I had a co-worker who used to joke that you weren’t a true New Yorker until you’d been mugged, so I guess I passed that test well before I’d completed puberty. I grew up in a New York City that was becoming safer by the year, but crime was never far away. Even if you weren’t attacked by a mugger, you knew someone who was. It seemed like every adult I knew had witnessed a chain- or purse-snatching on the subway, had their car radio stolen or their apartment broken into – or some combination thereof. As a matter of fact, part of the reason Mom and I moved to the neighborhood where my bike was stolen was because our previous apartment had been burglarized three times in six years; the last time, the thieves entered through my bedroom by chiseling the window frame out of the wall, leaving a mess and leaving us without a stereo.

Because of crime’s omnipresence in a city of over eight million people, most who grow up in New York City learn how to make themselves less vulnerable to criminals. It starts with The Look. The Look isn’t the same for everyone, but it conveys the same message: leave me alone and don’t mess with me. The Look isn’t a steely gaze or an angry stare; it’s more of a stony, passionless look. The goal is to look as unapproachable as possible. New Yorkers recognize The Look right away; we also recognize those who are trying to fake it. The Look has to come naturally; a person faking The Look makes one even more vulnerable than not having The Look at all.

The Look isn’t enough if you don’t take simple precautions to protect yourself or your belongings. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity: a mugger sees someone or something in a compromising position and pounces. So, you want to leave a mugger as few opportunities as possible. That means wrapping the handles or straps of your bag around your forearm when you’re on the subway and never leaving your bags unattended, always being aware of anyone sitting or standing near your wallet and slipping chains, bracelets, watches and other jewelry underneath your shirt collar or shirt sleeve. It means locking house and car doors at all times, never leaving a car unattended with the engine running and never leaving money or anything of value in plain view in an unattended vehicle. It means always being aware of who’s near you, especially at night, when it’s important to be aware of hidden and/or darkened corners where trouble may lurk.

I’ve lived outside of New York City for a decade, but the simple crime prevention and self preservation lessons I learned growing up haven’t left me, much to the chagrin of some. Not too long ago, a haggard man wearing dirty and tattered clothing tried to get my attention as I was leaving Walgreens. I didn’t look in his direction as he called out to me. Once it became apparent to him that he wasn’t going to be acknowledged, the man started yelling profanities in my direction. I continued to ignore him as I slid into my car and shut the door. One of the first lessons many New Yorkers learn is not to pay any attention to anyone in public who approaches you and appears to want your money, whether it’s a panhandler or someone trying to sell you something. I assumed the gentleman was a panhandler – I’d seen him ask others for money right before I went into Walgreens – so I ignored him. I’ve had friends not from New York City argue with me that some of those trying to get my attention may truly be in need and, thus, are deserving of my time. I argue that I don’t have the time nor the energy to devote to determining who really is in need and who is simply looking to take advantage. Instead, I choose to donate money, food and clothing to the Salvation Army and other organizations that help those who are down on their luck. Panhandlers in New York City rarely show frustration when they’re ignored, because they’re used to it; panhandlers other places aren’t used to being ignored. However, I haven’t abandoned my New York City-style approach.

I employ similar tactics when I’m at a shopping mall and people are trying to get my attention to buy and/or try a new product or to take a survey; those folks aren’t my biggest fans either. But, true to my New York City roots, I don’t engage. I know the vast majority of those seeking my attention aren’t going to harm me and only want a few bucks, at most. But, like so many New Yorkers, I don’t like to have my time wasted, which is why many think we’re rude and brusque, which can be true. That rudeness and brusqueness, while unpleasant at times, is an essential survival tactic in New York City. And, it’s a product of experience; most New Yorkers have been assaulted while being separated from their personal property, like I was as a youth, or witnessed someone being assaulted. We assume the worst unless we get evidence to the contrary. And, even then, we’re still weary.

Today, I was at the airport, dropping off family members; I stood outside of my car as I waited for them to clear up a discrepancy with their tickets. A woman with prominent cheekbones and her hair in a ponytail wandered aimlessly in front of me; she appeared to be confused or looking for someone. After a few minutes, she made eye contact with me and asked if she could use my cell phone, which I’d pulled out and returned to my pocket a moment before. She explained that she left her phone at home and was waiting for someone to bring it back to her before she had to board her flight, but she wanted to let that person know there might not be enough time. I didn’t hesitate to pull out my iPhone and to open the numeric keypad before handing it to her. I watched her carefully as she dialed a local number and made her phone call. I squared my shoulders and slid slightly onto the balls of my feet, just in case I had to make a tackle or chase her down. My eyes went from side to side as I tried to ensure no one was in the immediate vicinity, lest she toss my phone to someone else. The woman ended the call before anyone answered and handed my phone back to me. The person with her phone pulled up behind my car. She thanked me as she walked away.

Who says New Yorkers can’t be nice?

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