I once met an elderly gentleman in New York City whose unflinching integrity is much to aspire to. When asked what is the most important thing he learned in his life, his response was “To be thoroughly honest.” These words always stuck me with admiration. Although this gentleman had every advantage being born into an affluent family, he worked hard and endlessly. To hear the importance of honesty coming from such a respectable and noble gentleman is no surprise. It is beautiful that this human being who is living such a long life as a wealthy banker, husband, father and son, also believed in treating others right and properly no matter their class. He would tell his kids, and I am paraphrasing here, if you give back every dollar that I supply you with as an allowance I will double it and put it in the bank. He is full of practical and honorable life lessons and he is an inspiration to many.
Ever since I was a kid New York City fascinated me. Whenever people described this city with the term “bright lights” I looked past the phrase, because those trite overused reflections never captured the heart of the city. The ability to walk around without owning a car or the ease of meeting strangers on any given day is another reason to love New York. The mix of cultures is one of the most exciting aspects of the city.
In fact to this day I purposely venture into areas of the city that are unknown to me yet seemingly safe. Walking around and discovering new places to shop and eat, witnessing artists at work or meeting new people and old friends is a favorite past time that will never get old. Keeping a journal of the people that I meet along with what I see and experience is a daily occurrence. Taking the subway often brings out the best in this type of documenting.
This leads me to the beginning of my story, one in which I came across many unique individuals. My story or stories are never solely about one person but also about the lessons to be learned from them or the experiences gained.
Chapter the first
It all began on a cool rainy afternoon. I loved rain and often looked forward to walking in it and wondered if anyone else out there really saw and appreciated this raw beauty that nature spills upon us. Who else out there freely explored and enjoyed the same feelings of thousands of raindrops hitting our face from the endless sky above? Of course this wasn’t just about rain. In general I had been pursuing people with beliefs, ideas and love of the same art and culture as mine. I guess that we are all naturally drawn to our own kind. However, I now wished to leave my comfort zone and explore different people with that same curiosity that I had when examining nature’s effect on people. People with unusual ideas who saw the world differently, had knowledge I only wish to have and in general far greater life experiences were now my focus. The rain was sometimes a part of meeting new people when mother-nature felt so inclined.
My prior exposure to youth hostels led me to believe that they also would be the perfect setting for a serious study of humanity. This hostel along with my daily contact with people on the street provided me with an endless supply of subjects. I had previously lived in hostels for several months both in New York City and California and had many good experiences along with meeting people from all over the world. I had since moved back to the city that I love from LA and was temporarily moving back to my favorite hostel to pursue this sociological and educational experiment. However between freelance jobs, this type of study would have to be conducted on a day-by-day basis. My favorite hostel in the five boroughs is located in Long Island City, Queens. The owner turned a bank into a modern, fancy and unbelievably clean place, where tourist, travelers or anyone with either an out of state ID, birth certificate or passport could enjoy. Long Island City and Astoria became a home to me again. Close to Manhattan the really affordable Q4 hostel was the right place to conduct my study. So, I booked my stay.
I purposely took a cab to the hostel the day of the move in even though I lived close enough to walk. I partially packed for my stay like I was leaving for somewhere exotic because it made me feel warmer. It was a bright sunny winter day in February and I felt great! Was I making a fresh start in life? Even my cab ride was not without some drama. The cab driver didn’t have change for a twenty, nor did his credit card machine in the back seat work to charge the ride. Thus he actually had to go to the local hot dog vendor to break it. Stepping out of the cab at the hostel, I met the first unique stranger to help get my study off the ground. He knew where I was going because of my bags and immediately called me Maurice because I resembled a close friend of his from back home in Oceanside, California. He loved to talk, and enjoyed the outdoors only too much. He was buttoned up and prepared for any amount of snow and mentioned that he had never seen snow before. His name was Jay and he smiled about everything, no matter what he was talking about. After our introduction, he dove right into a story about being overcharged for some groceries and although he was quite upset, he ended the conversation with a smile. It wasn’t a vacation and I wasn’t a tourist but on that day it did not matter.
After checking in I remembered many of the old friends that I had made the last time I stayed there and wondered about new ones. I quickly walked to my room dropped off my luggage and ran down to the basement, which is a mix of a full kitchen and a man cave consisting a pool and a ping pong table, a projector that streams internet or dvd’s and a flat screen TV. Pure Comfort! Before the transformation into a hostel, the basement held the bank’s vault. It is now a small room with low romantic lighting, benches with cushions, which surrounded the interior’s edge and candles on a table in the middle. The vault door was cemented open. When I emerged downstairs I could identify which people had been residents long enough to recognize the new arrivals. More often than not someone would introduce themselves within the first 5 minutes. I explained my desire to document to everyone that I met. I simply expressed my love of writing, enjoyment in meeting new people, eagerness to learn about places that I have only read about and desire to capture all of this on paper. Everyone has something to say; it’s the ones that have something worth saying that I was looking for. I was having so much fun that I felt like I was on vacation. I met people from Germany, Australia, Italy, Brazil and several from our own United States. I became everyone’s tour guide with insight into where to go, what to do and where to eat in New York City! (Look at this article, mine-> www.bitlanders.com/blogs/hostel-by-matthew-gudwin/199261)
I came across three girls traveling together from Berlin, Germany. They were beautiful. There was one natural red head the other two were blonde's. One of the girls introduced herself to me. Her name was Anya and it was her first time revisiting the United States since her family had taken her here as a child. After speaking for a while we decided to head into Manhattan to explore. It can be intimidating for some visitors with all the high-rise buildings lined up one after another but she was at peace and totally fascinated. She was a lover of history and desired to teach someday. She knew what she wanted to see and I was her escort. Anya talked at length about the historical backgrounds of old well-known landmarks, buildings and parks. She was a walking computer but her beauty and the manner in which she spoke was dreamlike. It was as if she was a beautiful angel from above that existed in life form with meaningful intelligence. On that particularly day I learned that Central Park, which opened in 1857, was later expanded and reopened in 1873. Anya also told me that it was the first landscaped public park in this country. The snow on all the trees highlighted the park’s beauty and made her want to go ice-skating. Instead we ended up finding hot chocolate, walking and talking the whole rest of the day. It was late and by then I was aware that I had roughly crossed eight hundred and forty three acres around Central Park or at least my feet felt like it even though it was much, much less.
Anya may have had a lot going for her but as a tourist her street smarts were not one of her strong points. Her friendliness was surreal and she believed that she could talk to anyone. That was her first mistake. In the distance a few men talked together. As a resident of any large city for any length of time people tend to grow instincts out of necessity and can almost pinpoint who to avoid on the streets. I never make assumptions but at that time of night nearing the midnight hour I felt it better to be safe then sorry. We were heading back to the train at 57 and 7th Avenue when it happened. Anya smiled as these three men quickly approached us. Without anyone around in the vicinity and at that late hour I knew that we were screwed if they drew a weapon. We were still in the park but nearing Central Park South and were near the New York Athletic Club and other famous buildings, which hopefully meant that people were around. We tried to avoid the three men but it was now obvious that they were coming after us and I told Anya not to say a word and to let me handle it. At the same time I had no idea what I was going to say but I needed to be the one to stand up to them. The scene was out of a movie except that the threat was real. They didn’t need a gun or a knife because they were three big guys with broad shoulders and unshaven. One looked like a mixed martial arts fighter and was in great physical shape. The one in charge asked for our possessions. Profanity ran through my mind like a waterfall into a lake. I knew better and had still let this happen to me and to us. Sweat poured down my face even though I sensed they only wanted our possessions. I figured it would have been a different story if they had drawn a weapon on us. Anya couldn’t resist and screamed with all her might. She was so loud that the thieves covered their ears as if several loud fire engines passed by or the never-ending screeching sound from a subway train. This only made things worse. I heard the name John as the head of the gang and the others discussed what to do with us. John smiled and looked at and through me as if I wasn’t a human at all but either a victim or his toy. He leaned into me like I was on the other side of the cage in a zoo and he was trying to get a much closer look. My sweat poured down my forehead as I smelled his breath and knew good hygiene wasn’t one of John’s strong points. My heart raced faster until out of the blue, a tall man in a black wool overcoat in a suit and tie carrying a brief case stepped into the situation. He wore glasses and looked to be a part of the Wall Street scene or some type of businessman, but for all I knew he worked at the local University. He seemed too causal for this situation and that was when I began to think he was a cop or at least some type of detective prowling for crime. “I think you are going to want to let them go” the tall mysterious man said to John. John slowly leaned his head up away from mine. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it so confidently that I wasn’t sure how this was going to end. “And why is that?” replied John. “You have two choices and listening is the best thing you can do in this situation. He then put his hand out to be polite and actually shook John’s hand. I couldn’t believe it. I figured he was crazy. Again was this a movie? He then turned to us and than back to John. “One, you leave now and realize that you are in no pain what so ever and you get to go home to your mother.” John’s friends began to laugh behind him. Anya came and stood by me. John replied “What are you some cop?” Then he flicked the cigarette into the mysterious man’s direction, which only made him mad. “No.” replied the mystery man who took his overcoat and suit jacket off and placed it down on his briefcase. He began to quickly stretch before approaching John. They began walking around in circles eyeing each other with their fists ready. The mystery man then made the first of many moves to come. I had not seen this type of fighting before but it did not look like your normal fistfight. It also caught John off guard. He was not ready for such quick and deft moves that also included using legs. John tried to get up and was able to after the first two knockdowns but after the third he laid there unable to move. This man than turned to John’s two friends who looked at one another and then quickly ran out of the park faster than a kid running from a bully. Anya and I were both on the ground when he put a hand out. We thanked him but he didn’t say much. In fact he didn’t say anything at all but sometimes expressions and body language means more than words. He followed up by opening his briefcase and handed me a small letter sized unlabeled envelope. Walking to the train station all I could think of was who was that man? I figured Anya thought the same thing too. Anya and I hardly spoke on the train ride back. We were both stunned not only by the incident itself but by the bravery, ability and strength of the stranger. Who was that unmasked hero, and what is in the envelope?
Chapter 2 - A Girl To Remember