Bibi Deitz on Being a New Yorker

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.

In The Car by Bibi Deitz

In the Car

Bridges. Tunnels. Miles. There is movement. Constantly, the promise slash question of what is to come or what will be slides by me, along with the rolling farms of Pennsylvania. Ahead of me, New York looms: bars to be frequented, streets to be walked. Gum-stained, they are etched with the footprints of thousands. All of the times I have seen these streets will come again and again, a neighborhood of merry-go-rounds.

A man is waiting in a lair of paper and hardcovers. His clothes smell like books. His brain smells like books. He speaks literature. His words work themselves to make sentences, and his sentences sound lyrical. Plotting, plotting, planning: the dress with the boots with the eyeliner with the necklace. A kiss but not sex. Sex, but later in the evening. His lair is bathed in an alcoholic film, atop books stacked precariously, though I am probably the one falling. Pennsylvania, stocked with tunnels, feels alternately claustrophobic and wide open, dark mingled with light. That, I think, is how it feels to be me.

Back in Brooklyn, it will feel like Mister Softee faux ice cream at three in the morning, or walking down Fifth peering in storefronts pretending to be rich, or trips to the Strand with their miles of books, or sitting on benches in Washington Square. I was born just down the street, at Beth Israel. I have been so far away for so long. I imagine the manifestation of returning to New York will be less than I envision. It might be empty and sullen, as I fear this man with the books and the words will be. I push these thoughts out with music, a shove a motorcycle boot gives to an open door, letting in draft. My wrists are skinny. The sound of air passing horizontally faster than rain falling vertically startles me, so I roll up my window. I keep going. I cannot drive fast enough, so I drive the speed limit. Two speeding tickets in my wake, I calculate their cost. As I age, everything that hasn’t happened to me yet happens. I have never broken a bone. I have never tried lobster.

***

I have been two months back in New York and I haven’t gone to any galleries. In March, when I spent seventeen or twenty-three or however many hours with this wildcard of a man, we hit Chelsea tout suite, clutching tiny cups of espresso warmed with frothy soy milk, embodying the yuppies who have invaded the East Village, only without money. We saw large-scale prints of photographs digitally altered and tiny paper collages. By crossing the street, we saw these things. Across the country, in the tiny Southwest town from which I drove two months back, you can’t see these things. Or you can, but not in this light: valley light, the light of sun filtering into the cracks of a canyon. New Yorkers in a constant gorge. Desensitized to the infamy of their peers, these city dwellers mumble and keep walking, forgetting to stumble into galleries. I forget. I have barely seen art, other than the constant barrage of art it is to walk up Second Avenue and across Eleventh. Up Fourth Avenue and across Ninth.

We never go to galleries. On the lazy Sunday when this panther man and I wander lower Manhattan, we go to the High Line and gaze down at the galleries. Art, both seen and unseen. An architect, or an arsenal of architects, designed this ex-elevated train platform into the shape of a park, let plants take root. Chaises dot and line the walk, inviting gym-bodied women to take off their tops, sunbathe. Twenty or thirty feet above street level, it feels precarious, towering, the view as if we turned the city on its side. We climb up and look down. I never want this to end, so I grasp it by both sides and walk slowly, precariously. Talk faster. Speed up each moment and hold it carefully. It is only an attempt. I still haven’t eaten lobster, I still haven’t broken a bone.

***

I am rendered sentimental. J Dilla sings to me and I wonder if I would have discovered him regardless of my months in New York. Again in Santa Fe, the tiny mountain town 2,000 miles away from the metropolis that was my home for a time (in the summer; as a child) I tally everything gained or lost there. More music. Less honesty. A beautiful pair of leather sandals. A job lost. A man gained, and then lost. Words written and then scribbled out. Perhaps I broke even.

I want to have gained, I want to have earned, I want to keep the things I gathered. I have, to a point. The losses collect, cumulate in a section of my heart. The past piles up, gunking like hair and debris down a pipe. There is no Draino for memories. There is fuel for them, and I let the fuel play through headphones. It has a beat. It tells me, you were there and you discovered this music at that time. When you were at Red Lobster in Times Square, the night you started at Croc Lounge and ended at Lit and paid a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in the interim, took a cab downtown drunk and clamored out to walk halfway down due to traffic: there was music, constant songs, a soundtrack. Kabuki performance artists gyrated with faint helium balloons and scant costumes to techno in the atrium of the MoMA. Elevator music tingled in the bathroom of Red Lobster. A baby hipster spun borderline terrible tunes at Lit from a tiny booth, and the bouncer ordered you to replace your shoes upon your feet. “You don’t want to walk around barefoot around here. You don’t want to know what’s on these floors.” Ten years ago, no one would have dreamed of removing anything at Lit, populated with the lowlifes of the Lower East Side, the drug addicts claiming space in the corners of the underground, the bar alit with drunks, syringes akimbo along the space where the walls meet the floor. Gentrification has changed the way we think of places like this, more than places like this have changed. Distance has changed the way I think of New York, more than New York has changed. The sum of the summer changes everything. There is no lobster in sight.

Bio: Bibi Deitz is a writer living in Santa Fe by way of New York. “In the Car” is an excerpt from a novella in progress called “Second Avenue.” Twitter.com/litterateur is her meek and fledgling attempt at starting a blog about books. If Tweeting goes well, a blog will follow.

I’d like to add that I’m grateful Bibi let me post this piece. She was an editor at SANTA FE LITERARY REVIEW for two years and completed the writing portfolio class at Santa Fe Community College last semester.