I've become so familiar with President Barack Obama's frequent trips to my neighborhood, such as his appearance last night at a fundraiser at Vogue Editor Anna Wintour's townhouse on Sullivan Street, that I know the routine by heart. It goes this way. In the morning, the Command and Control Center, a big white NYPD van, sets up shop nearby, followed by the arrival of hundreds of NYPD policeman, some in patrol cars, others on motorcycles or plain bikes, as well as the blue-shirted community affairs specialists. After the policeman gather to hear their instructions or check their equipment, they fan out to their designated positions. Street barriers begin to appear along the route. A policeman takes a stroll through our apartment's laundry room. For the many of us Village types of a certain age, we have flashbacks to the Vietnam War.
The neighbors go about their business, passing one another on the streets or in shops, but they will talk about the events. Shopkeepers vent worries that no one will be able to get to the stores or restaurants. Typical comments address the enormous taxpayer expense or personal hassle involved with these high security visitations by the President of the United States. Helicopters are involved. There are a lot of sirens and the towing of cars. At every single one of these visits, a poor delivery person on a bike, oblivious to what's happening, ends up casually cruising past a police barricade and into the arms of a nearby patrol officer. Bystanders enjoy these occurrences. Several neighbors panic that they cannot reach their homes.
Then there's a lot of waiting. Knowing the routine, I stayed in my apartment until the arrival of helicopters started shaking the building. Then I knew that the POTUS motorcade was on the scene. Even then, I had no real motivation to leave the house, especially as I was not invited to the affair.
Nevertheless, I went out for a stroll on Bleecker and stopped at the street's intersection with Sullivan. While squinting past the barricades to look at the white awning set up in front of Wintour's townhouse, I exchanged in a Q & A with a police officer:
Me: "What is this, like the fourth visit to the neighborhood since he's become President? First, there was the date night at Blue Hill."
Policeman: "I was there for that one."
Me: "And then the Clinton meeting at Il Mulino."
Policeman: "Yes, I was there for that one, too."
Me: "And then the speech over at Cooper Union not so long ago."
Policeman: "And I was at that one, too."
Me: "So, is this the fourth time, right?"
Policeman: "I think I remember another one, but the guy might as well go ahead and move into the neighborhood."
This particular policeman knew how to work a crowd. One woman asked him if the President would be leaving by way of Bleecker Street and if there was any chance of seeing him. He responded, making the hand signs of a movie director, "You're not going to see anything. It's like The Sopranos. Just a fade to black."
As the officer suggested, the entourage would leave via Houston Street, so I walked over there. And clearly that's where the spectators had assembled. Typical of these special events, people constantly stopped to ask what was going on and someone would always offer a completely stupid and wrong explanation. Yet, it was a pretty night to linger and chat with strangers. Conspiracy theorists, of which we have many in the Village, speculated on various decoy vehicles and plainclothes policemen. Compared to past occasions, the crowd was on the thin side.
I also talked with a few neighbors about how we did not know Anna Wintour. We rarely see her slight figure gracing the sidewalks of our fair neighborhood. I offered my surprise that she even lived in our historic though pricey bohemia, largely because of the many besotted and unfashionable youth cruising our beer-soaked taverns. I do know that she showed up recently at a community board meeting to protest the opening of a club on her corner. I figured her for an uptown type, like the East 70s near the park. We make a ton of assumptions about people in New York City solely based on where they live. With her, it's like she was assigned the wrong neighborhood.
The sun was setting over the Hudson. As I was chatting with a pair of cops on traffic detail, I could see in the distance the headlights of several cars in the official motorcade. Two sped by in the wrong lane at a high rate of speed, prompting one theorist to offer the opinion that one car secretly carried the President and that it was time to go home. She left. Then the motorcycle policemen walked over to their respective bikes, turned on the lights, and cranked up their engines, pumping the gas for that impressive chorus of zoom.
Showtime. My experience is always the same. The wait is forever, but the end comes blazing fast. Black cars with tinted windows roar by in a total blur. In the middle, an impressive longer car, one with flags, signifies its importance. The crowd roars. Cameras flash. The heart races.
The President has left the neighborhood.
Until next time.
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from the evening of July 28, 2010. Greenwich Village, New York, New York.