I peer up from my paperback, a collection of Nora Ephron's published essays, and catch a glimpse of a tall, golden man.
It was as if an Oscar statuette had come to life — slightly less regal, topped off with a baseball cap and sneakers — and was pushing his way through closely arranged Panera tables. Not even a splotch of dark skin leaked through the makeup; the spray paint that touched everything from the very tip of his disheveled head to the soles of his hightops (clearly pulled from a teenager's closet in 1997) left a lingering scent that snuck through the scarf pressed up to my face.
He was polite. He was quiet. He was pushing a gold-stained grocery cart through the restaurant to a corner table, where, for once, he didn't have to put on a show, didn't have to pretend he's a carved sculpture, holding so still that a sudden twist in his seat scares the kids inching closer for a poke. No, for now, he was simply a man, enjoying his lunch break on a chilly Sunday afternoon.
And everyone in the restaurant treated him exactly that way. (Everyone from the fountain soda machine to the bathrooms, as far as I could see; the always-friendly cashiers may have reacted differently, though it seems unlikely.)
In New York, there is no such thing as a double take. People don't stare or ogle or think twice about the elderly woman shouting obscenities from the sidewalk, or the teenager suspiciously holding his unbuckled belt as he wanders through the subway station. They are just another piece of furniture, worn and invisible.
"Yes!!" a friend exclaimed recently when I mentioned the subject of this column. A simple yawp, as if she'd been waiting her entire life for someone to finally publicly acknowledge the overwhelming eccentricities that are the blood pumping through New York City.
This town, though, would be nothing without those oddities. It would just be another overcrowded city with sky-high buildings and posh restaurants, and the country certainly doesn't need another Chicago. No, what makes this city stand out is that feeling you get walking down Fifth Avenue on a crisp early March day, somehow knowing that you are ensconced in a world that doesn't exist anywhere else.
This is an island that celebrates the weird and unconventional — like a TLC reality show. Step right up, folks, and see the freak show "New York!" But we wear it proudly.
A multi-pierced woman wearing a live boa constrictor as a necklace shoves up against you in the subway car; an old man crosses the street at Broadway and Fifth, wearing a leopard print dress and mismatched Velcro-strapped shoes: Not an eye batted.
Meanwhile, the guy riding a two-level bicycle through Frederick's Baker Park elicits pointed fingers and oohs and aahs; the woman decked out in full "Showgirls"-like attire in the cheese aisle of Wegmans garners the up-down, then whispered judgments. In the Big Apple, it's just another Saturday night.
The fact is, the very same thing that makes this city so intimidating is also what makes it so special: the abnormal.
Maybe I should drop a quarter into that golden guy's cup the next time I pass him in the Union Square subway station.
Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.