This is the first part of a longer essay on being a native New Yorker who lives in New York. More to come over the coming weeks.
I had lunch with someone the other day who grew up in New York. So did I. Well, I had hot water with lemon and she had a sandwich that had so many onions that she wound up feeling sick, and she was on her phone when she walked in the door, but unapologetic about it because that’s how we are, we New Yorkers, we born-and-breds: We live here, and the street is our living room, taxis and subways our parlors, and restaurants and cafes—forget it, we might as well take out a toenail clipper and go to work. Though we never would. There are boundaries. We have dignity.
There’s a special flavor to a fellow lifer. I can spot my kin from across a crowded subway platform sometimes. We have a way of taking up space that is upfront, frank. We say, I belong here. There are no I’m-sorries about our demeanor. If we need to take a phone call, we take a phone call. If we want to speak or laugh loudly or gesticulate or sit on the same side of the table or take a selfie, we do.
Some see this as entitled. I’ve seen the looks—are you kidding? That’s the other thing. We never miss a thing. You might think we didn’t notice your eye-roll or your sideways comment or even your catcall, but fret not: We heard. We’re just ignoring you. Anyway, it’s not. Entitled, that is. It’s confident. It’s asking for what we need in the world without feeling bad about it. It’s taking up the space we require to breathe in this city. That’s why we don’t feel claustrophobic. We stretch out.
I often hear people talk about what one of my friends calls the “psychic claustrophobia” of the city. It’s so grim, they say. Just so dirty. Move, then. I did, for seven years. I lived in Santa Fe. The sun shone most every day and there was nothing to block it: I could see a hundred and eighty degrees of sky wherever I was. Those seven years were healing, transformative, restorative. It was like a seven-year-long yoga class. And now I’m back, hammer and tongs, and silly things like weather or the state of cleanliness of any given block are not going to stop me from enjoying myself.
There are two ways to view city life: Pro and anti. By city life I mean New York city life—of course I am aware there are other cities, but New York is the city. I’ve never called it by any other name. Including New York City. It’s just New York, or the city. In any case, the anti-city types will give you a whole grocery list of complaints, but the pros: Well, we’re pros. We can take it. Take today, for example. My friend and I left lunch—at a cafe in the East Village, my childhood neighborhood, that popped up in the past seven years, but what hasn’t, really?—and walked up University Place in search of cigarettes. Not for me, but that’s the other thing: New Yorkers smoke like Europeans. We go outside, but we enjoy being outside. Or we enjoy complaining about it. There’s a certain savor in the act of smoking. And you better believe we won’t apologize for it. Once they were procured, I had two drags of Camel Light, thank you very much; and yes, it was delicious.
So there we were, on the street, and a spritely Asian man pushing a wire shopping cart full of laundry began serenading us. He said, Tell me, why am I so short? He answered, Because my parents were both short! He cracked himself up. He told us, Your mothers were both beautiful! Then he resumed his song.
If you’re not from the city, this might be an alarming or noteworthy experience. You might not know how to react. You might worry he’d next pull a gun from his pile of laundry, or try to have a quick grope as you passed. We wished him good day and moved on. Which brings us to five minutes later.
We were outside the newsstand; she was smoking, and I was fiddling with my phone. There was some schmutz on it—a feather, or an eyelash, or something—so I blew it off. And as though he were an actor offstage just waiting for his line, a fortyish man waltzed by and said, “You just blew on your phone! Is that a new app?” He waited for his applause, paid in the form of acknowledgement, and continued on his way. That’s the thing with New Yorkers: We interact with one another. Or, rather, others interact with us—God knows if the crooner or the actor were born in New York or not, though I suspect not—and we take it in.
This is the other thing: We don’t really take it in. I mean, all of the experiences I’ve had in New York have amalgamated into one rather delightfully juicy apple, if you’ll pardon the awful metaphor. Actually, I won’t pardon it: That’s one thing I can’t roll with. All of the cutesy New Yorkisms: The big apple, the city that never sleeps. Those are phrases we made up to titillate tourists. It might work on them, but it doesn’t do much for any of us. We can see behind the curtain, and believe me: There’s a dead rat in there. As there is in many of our walls, and on every subway track ever.
Anyway, the apple. Every time a stranger has had an opinion about my appearance, asked where I got my shoes, or asked for directions to the nearest L train has been collected in a lovely, hazy memory bank. It’s a foggy mental scrapbook, and on the cover is a raked-up photograph of, like, Tompkins Square Park. In other words, I take these experiences in the way I might a breath of fresh air. Or stale subway air. Or piss-tinged stench on a hot day on Fourteenth Street. I take them, and I experience them, but I also forget about them right away. I interact—or not—and I’m present—or not, as the case may be—but I also move on right away. It’s rare that I’ll remember an interaction with a stranger.
There are exceptions. I can still picture a man shuffle-punching down St. Mark’s Place in the Eighties. I was a kid, probably with my mother, and we crossed the street to avoid him. That was her strategy back then: If you see something strange, cross the street. Now they say, If you see something, say something. Not to the person, I hope everyone understands. Those poor out-of-towners trying to say something to the pervert on the corner. When I say shuffle-punching, I mean exactly that: He was so drunk or coked-up or insane that he more crabwalked than sauntered, and he was kicking the shit out of someone who did not exist. In this man’s mind, though, he was absolutely fighting a pretty awful guy. Or gal, I suppose. He was winning, too.