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New York Fleet Week, the Movie

May 30, 20245 Mins Read

“I feel like I’m in a movie right now,” Petty Officer Third Class Ayanna Crawford said last weekend as she navigated the bow tie of Times Square, with its hordes of panhandlers costumed as Elmo, Minnie Mouse and Spider-Man. “I’m in culture shock.”

Petty Officer Crawford, 20, who serves on the Wasp-class amphibious assault vessel U.S.S. Bataan, had cruised into town with a fellow crew member, Airman Kobe Brents, 22, and many of the roughly 2,300 sailors, Marines and Coast Guard members who alight in New York each Fleet Week for a weeklong annual celebration of those who serve and protect the United States at sea.

Held nearly every year since 1984, Fleet Week often has the unintended effect of reminding even the most jaded of locals that the gritty and complicated place they call home remains a peerless backdrop for what can sometimes seem like a never-ending cinematic reel. It was the film director Milos Forman who was reputed to have termed New York “the only city which in reality looks better than on postcards.”

He might have added that it is also a city that, perhaps more than any other, is conscious of starring in its own movie. This is never clearer than when Manhattan fills up overnight with thousands of crisply uniformed sailors looking like extras from “On the Town.”

For Petty Officer Crawford, who accessorized her regulation whites with a chic black Valentino shoulder bag bought while on leave in Cyprus (“It’s a real one,” she said), what most surprised her about a city she was visiting for the first time was the variety of stuff people wear on its streets — and equally what they do not.

“Big tops and big bottoms, small tops and big bottoms and — oh, my God — a lot are hardly wearing anything,” said the petty officer, a native of Norfolk, Va., a conservatively dressed place where it is safe to say no one has ever crossed paths with a Naked Cowboy.

From Times Square, Petty Officer Crawford and Airman Brents were headed to 34th Street and the Empire State Building, a must-see on Fleet Week itineraries, if the lines of sailors waiting for a ride to the observation deck were any indication.

“I’ve never been to New York, but it’s pretty much what I expected from ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘King Kong’ and all of that,” said Kyle Stauch, 22, now serving aboard the frigate Baden-Württemberg.

For Mr. Stauch’s shipmate Yuvraj Dhillon, 21, the “mind-blowing” thrill of the ride to the 102nd-floor perch in the skyscraper was less the panoramic King Kong views than an opportunity to be photographed in a spot where “all the social media celebrities do their selfies,” he said.

“Since I was a kid, New York was in every kind of movie,” said Mr. Dhillon, whose to-do list also included social-media friendly locales like Joe’s Pizza, Little Island and Shake Shack. “I also want to go to Central Park because it’s in ‘Home Alone,’” he said. “Being in these places I’ve always seen in movies is almost surreal.”

If the giant silver screen defined the global image of New York for the better part of a century, it is increasingly a tiny hand-held one that does so. True, something of the majesty of John A. Roebling’s 1883 masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge, is lost when seen on TikTok. That did not discourage Emerson Quiroz, 26, and Joshua Banez, 24, two sailors from the Bataan from making a beeline to the East River crossing to shoot obligatory reels against the downtown skyline.

For a naval officer like Samantha Brantley, 38, months at a time pass when she has no vista at all. A logistical chief on the missile submarine U.S.S. Wyoming, Ms. Brantley often goes that long without even a glimpse of daylight. “You get used to it when you’re at sea and you’re focused on doing your job,” she said.

Still, Ms. Brantley was reveling in the hot sun of Midtown Manhattan as she and a colleague made their way west through Times Square to Pier 55 and Little Island. “I hear it’s good for pictures,” she said.

Ms. Brantley was toting a bag of souvenirs like a glitter Cinnamoroll tumbler she had bought for her daughter. Unlike a lot of Fleet Week personnel, she had not disembarked from a ship docked in the Hudson but rather traveled by train from her home base at the naval port in Groton, Conn.

Like almost all the sailors disporting themselves on the streets during Fleet Week, she had worn her starched dress whites. “It’s a matter of respect” for the Navy, Ms. Brantley said, adding: “When I’m off duty, I’m a very girlie girl. I do love my heels. And I love a long bright nail with a coffin tip.”

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