The invisible man: how a Chinese takeaway proved you can get lost in the biggest crowds

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The Independent Online

New York can sometimes seem like the loneliest crowded place on Earth. It's especially like that in spring, when neighbours emerge grinning from hibernation. In your more paranoid moments, you imagine that everyone knows everyone but you. You are missed by every passer-by, as if you are invisible.

New York can sometimes seem like the loneliest crowded place on Earth. It's especially like that in spring, when neighbours emerge grinning from hibernation. In your more paranoid moments, you imagine that everyone knows everyone but you. You are missed by every passer-by, as if you are invisible.

Of course, the anonymity of the city can seem like its greatest luxury. Only in a metropolis of eight million is it possible to go about your business, whatever it might be, with little concern about bumping into anyone you know. You can keep yourself to yourself - if you so choose. You can make it your mission to get acquainted with everyone in your building or you can ignore them and no one will mind.

If a double life is your game, there are still risks of being tripped up. I am reminded of a recent story of a corporate type who tried to buy a pied-a-terre in the Village for himself and his secret girlfriend. The scheme came unstuck disastrously when the estate agent rang his real home number, in Connecticut, and congratulated the wrong woman on the cozy new pad. Divorce quickly ensued.

Take your invisibility fetish too far, meanwhile, and something scary will eventually cross your mind. What if bad luck befalls you? Who will bring soup when you fall ill? Will anyone notice if you die in your sleep or somehow disappear? Where will the posse be when you get stuck in a lift for days?

Ask Ming Kuang Chen about this. Mr Chen belongs to that very considerable constituency in New York where invisibility is more than a luxury. Two years ago, he paid a smuggler $60,000 (£32,000) to spirit him to America where he has remained as an illegal alien. There are at least 400,000 Mr Chens in the city. They want to be paid wages but they don't want to be noticed, certainly not by Immigration.

Things went moderately well for Mr Chen, who found a job bicycling take-out food around the city. While striving to stay below the immigration radar, he pedalled 12 hours a day, six days a week for a weekly wage of $300 - not much, especially as he sent a portion to his family back in China. Then he had his stuck-in-the-lift moment.

I don't mean this metaphorically. Two weekends ago, Mr Chen had just delivered to an upper floor of a Bronx high-rise when, clunk, the descending lift abruptly stopped between floors. He shouted for help, nobody heard him. He pushed the emergency button. No one came. He stared at the small surveillance camera in a corner of the compartment's ceiling yet nobody downstairs spotted him on the monitors. Be careful what you wish for - he had achieved invisibility and now it was his curse.

Mr Chen, 33, remained thus suspended for three whole days with neither food nor water. Relief eventually came the following Tuesday morning when rescue workers retrieved the lift and its desperate occupant. After a brief hospital check-up, he was released. Almost at once, however, he resumed his old habits, instantly vanishing from view and from all the inquiring reporters. Mr Chen is still nowhere to be found. No wonder. The story of his illegal status has come out and he fears instant deportation.

Someone should reassure Mr Chen that in these parts at least - not so in all the United States - the authorities are in more than one mind when it comes to dealing with illegal aliens. Immigration enforcement officials clearly indicated that they are most unlikely to pursue Mr Chen, particularly as he hardly presents a threat to national security. He is, however, a member of a community upon which the rest of us depend almost daily - not least to deliver our take-away dinners.

The moral is that while vanishing in New York is not hard to pull off, it is rarely worth the effort. Splendid isolation in the middle of a crowd will seem much less splendid when you need help. For myself, I will be inviting all the building's tenants to a little soiree in my apartment soon. Well, fairly soon.

Spies like us

Last week, I got myself to see the National Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's political thriller Democracy on Broadway - with an American cast. James Naughton, who plays Chancellor Willy Brandt, and Richard Thomas, who is Gunther Guillaume the East German spy planted in the Chancellor's office, stayed behind after the curtain to talk with the audience. Several US politicians had seen the production, they revealed, including Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, said Naughton, reported having met one of the other characters in the play, grizzly Herbert Wehner or Uncle Herbert, also in Brandt's inner circle. The former Secretary of State said the real Wehner was indeed "a bastard" just as Frayn had drawn him. To which a woman behind me blurted, to general mirth: "Takes one to know one."

The music's over

Do New York's ubiquitous iPod wearers know what peril they are in? The Police Department reports that subway thefts have soared 20 per cent this year and all because of iPods, the MP3 devices for downloading music.

How aggravating this must be. Victims of iPod theft are losing more than just the gadget itself, but all the thousands of songs they have painstakingly downloaded on to it and, you never know, even paid for. If you have one of these things take the advice issued last week by New York University to its students: at least ditch the tell-tale white wires trailing from your ears and use black ones instead.

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