At exactly five-thirty in the morning I climbed into the van with Joe and Eddie. It was still dark, but my friends wanted to start early to avoid the morning rush traffic into New York City. Joe, with his customary ironic humor, told me that today I would see the illegal side of New York. Big deal, I shot back at him, but secretly I was as curious as twenty cats.
I was relaxing in the back seat while Joe was dexterously negotiating our way through the maze of highways between Philadelphia and suburban New Jersey. Eddie and Joe were chatting but I was only half-listening to their conversation, chiming in once in a while but mostly looking out of the window at the dark landscape dotted with white lights.
Contentment was my state of mind. Here I was with friends from a totally different walk of life. Everything about them was a far cry from the corporate world I'd been submerged in for so many years. I felt deliciously refreshed by their free and independent spirit. Not that my friends were wealthy - they earned their livelihood hawking cheap Chinese goods at flea markets, campgrounds and parties, which was the reason we were heading to Manhattan at this early hour to buy from some shady Chinese dealers.
The conversation up front shifted from gambling in Atlantic City to poverty in West Virginia, where Joe had spent some time. Joe was talking about a girl who had been telling his wife about a date she would have that evening with a man who would let her "spend all twenty dollars just on myself." The girl had been extremely impressed by the perceived generosity of her man, and had entertained some hope that a proposal of marriage would follow. I couldn't help laughing so hard at Joe's perfectly mimicked hillbilly accent, then I felt bad for having had fun at the poor girl's expense.
We arrived at 26th Street about twenty minutes before the stores opened and stopped by a deli for breakfast. Sitting at a small table, we old friends looked at each other and smiled, so delighted we were to be together after all these years, and after a cup of hazelnut-flavored coffee I knew I would immensely enjoy this day away from my regular days.