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Walking here can be a trip

June 16, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

New York — New York

They say the path to perfection is paved with pitfalls and peril.

In an ambitious city like New York, this really is not a figure of speech. This town's pedestrian pathways are paved with gaping holes that untold numbers of people routinely fall into. Many more intuitively know how to avoid them -- it's part of a New Yorker's survival instinct like always having exact change for the bus or knowing that a pocketbook clutched firmly in the armpit is less likely to be snatched.

On almost every block the sidewalks are marked with sets of deeply bowed and dangerous-looking metal doors. If they are closed, many people swerve adroitly to avoid them. But when the doors are open it's hard not to look. It's spooky peering into the depths, past steep wooden stairs or metal conveyor belts at a floor sometimes strewn with heads -- of lettuce.

The city is so chockablock with buildings and storefronts that there is no room for backdoors the way there are in normal places of American commerce, like suburban strip malls. So deliveries must come through the sidewalk. For a restaurant on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or a beauty parlor on a side street in Brooklyn, the only way to receive a keg of beer or a case of toilet paper is through these cellar doors.

Listen on a blustery weekday morning to a bunch of New Yorkers passing by a Chelsea coffee shop at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street. (It's early enough that several storefronts have their cellar doors wide open, like voracious animals hungry for a case of Snapple, a rack of dresses or bags of cement.)

Ellen Jacobs, whose level of pre-coffee intensity makes Woody Allen look serene, is waiting for a client in front of the cafe. She nervously glances down its cellar entrance.

"I think it would be so easy to fall in there," says the book designer.

Does she know anyone who actually has?

"No," she says. "And I find that alarming."

When asked what he thinks when he approaches the metal doors, a shaggy-haired Michael Carrino says he prefers it when they're closed -- but not because he's scared.

He likes the sound his skateboard makes when the wheels hit the metal as he whips down the sidewalk.

"Rrrrrrrrr Rrrrrrrrrr RRRRRRRR," says Carrino, rolling his Rs like some "Sesame Street" character teaching the alphabet in Spanish.

The next few people who amble past are, not surprisingly, all lawyers. You can't throw a knish in this city without hitting one. So these sidewalk openings are inevitably the root of stacks of lawsuits called trip-and-falls. Sometimes victims sue the city; more often they target storeowners.

These sidewalk cavities are just one more obstacle to city living that New Yorkers face with considerable but unspoken wariness. For the great rewards of living in New York have their price and require relentless sacrifice.

There is never enough time or enough space or enough money, and you have to live in perpetual awareness of your surroundings. Which means: Every time you walk a sidewalk, you must take into account exactly how and where your foot falls.

Seth Kaufman, a young real estate attorney, is escorting his 2-year-old daughter, Blue, to nursery school.

"I walk by here every morning and I just think, 'lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit,' " he says, pointing at the chipped, narrow steps leading to the Chelsea cafe's dank cellar. "But, you know, I grew up in Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue, you know. And these things were everywhere. So I don't worry, you know, about falling in or about Blue falling."

He says that but he never removes a parental paw from the top of her head. Just in case, you know.

Dru Carey, a defense lawyer, reports that outside her office building a set of metal doors on the sidewalk covers a mechanical elevator leading to the cellar of a furniture store.

"Sooo," she says, faking an archetypal New York accent as she narrates her tale. "You're walking down the street, minding your own business. Which, of course, I nevah do. And you hear a loud, very loud, mechanical sound. Black doors on the ground in front of you start to open. Then something starts going, 'Beep, beep, beep' and all of a sudden the lid pops open and these three big delivery guys emerge on a lift with a king-sized mattress.

"It's terrifying," Carey says. "And I'm not the type who worries about every little thing."

Shortly after Sept. 11, the encumbrances of city living got to be too much for a lot of tense New Yorkers. They were tripped up, pushed over the edge by the littlest things -- a broken car alarm, one too many sirens, yet another crazy person ranting on a street corner.

But Randi Epstein, a writer who is constantly walking the city streets with her four children and two dogs, held steady even after she almost fell through the sidewalk into a liquor store cellar.

"I stepped into air," she recalls. "The deliveryman tried to slam one of the doors so I wouldn't fall in. He slammed it, all right. Right on my ankle."

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