New York, New York

Little Indignities: A Beginner’s Guide to New York

The American calendar starts in September with back-to-school specials and football games. For everyone new to New York this fall, a big, hearty welcome and a few tips for survival.

‘…New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience—if they did they would live elsewhere.’

– E.B.White, Here Is New York

There are as many New Yorks, it’s been said, as there are people living here. I’ll go a step further and say there are as many New Yorks as there have ever been people herein. Bleeding-edge but salved by the weight of history. Full of little indignities and big beauties: getting shoved through a turnstile at Grand Central only to come aboveground and see the sun glaring off the silver eagles’ heads you hadn’t even known were on the lower corners of the Chrysler Building. Having a rat almost run across your foot in Central Park, then getting to a small wooden bridge and leaning out over a little stream to watch the fireflies dance in the dusk.

New York really is more an entity than a geographic place, its Dickensian infrastructure (Central air? Who evahearddathat?), forming a deceptively solid base from which the rest of the world sometimes seems created. (Do not think that substandard anything is ‘the price you pay to live in New York,’ but get used to the substandardness nonetheless.) It’s a fast town, sure, but in some ways not fast enough. On escalators here, ‘stand on the right, walk on the left’ doesn’t seem to occur to people. And taxis can offer some stereotypically ‘New York’ experiences, but a lot of the time it’s faster (and of course always cheaper) to walk. But however you travel, don’t get locked into a looking-down-walking-fast-day-to-day routine all the time. I mean, don’t gawk like a tourist, but do look around: at your feet may be a pile of terrier droppings, but two stories up may be an art deco frieze you won’t see the likes of outside the Old Country.

Speaking of taxis, there is the matter of the lights. This may be old news to you, but I know at least one genuinely brilliant person who can’t keep these straight to save his life. To wit: There are three lights across the top of each cab. If the middle one is lit up, the cab is available. If the lights are out, the cab is occupied. Do not wave frantically or stamp your foot or curse. It will get you nowhere and make you look very silly. Now here’s the tricky part: If the lights on either side of the middle light are on—whether or not the middle light is on as well—it means the cab is off duty. Those lights read ‘off duty’ for just that reason. People have been known to get rides in off-duty cabs, but I consider it a courtesy not to try. So here comes a cab, that middle light beaming like a beacon down the avenue. Do not yell. Do not whistle. Do not wave. There is no need. Just lean, hip perhaps insouciantly out, into traffic and ever so nonchalantly raise your arm to hail one. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Why would one get so thrilled—feel so in control of the known world—just by flagging a cab? Because New York is an emotional magnifying glass. It’s hard to have small feelings here. One day a grocery store manager sends a box-boy down to the basement to fetch some yogurt for you after the power went out in the dairy section and sure, he’s only getting yogurt from a cooler downstairs—still, you walk home feeling like you own the neighborhood. Another day somebody gets their Metrocard hung up in the subway turnstile and you miss your train, and suddenly feel like throwing yourself in front of the next one.

You do have to be assertive here. But be brave, not a jerk. Sometimes it’s hard to keep tempers in check, especially with all those great phrases that have been drummed into your head from TV (‘Wha? You lookin’ at me?’) The upside is that Karma works, especially when it involves couch-surfing and helping people carry heavy things (those old-lady-laundry-cart things, strollers, etc.) up and down the subway steps. A little niceness here will get you a long way, when you can muster it. Then again, if sometimes you just can’t put The Face on, feel free to stay home, or wait in a longer line, or have someone cut hazardously in front of you on the subway. I do it from time to time, to the incredulity of friends, and find it a great relief.

Then there is the eye-contact thing. In general it’s safest (note I said ‘in general’ and ‘safest,’ not ‘always’ and ‘best’) not to make full-on eye contact with strangers, especially when traveling for God knows how long sitting across from them on the subway. This is mostly because people here seem to feel that locking eyes gives them license: to tell you their life story, ask you for money, tell you how ‘beeyooteefool’ they think you are, whatever. New Yorkers’ outer shells—while they are indeed as crusty as advertised, covered with spikes, barnacles, and other miscellaneous booby-traps—for the most part conceal a correspondingly great need to connect with other people that can be overwhelming in its intensity. It’s why were so goddamned aloof most of the time: it’s much less embarrassing that way, and we do have a rep to protect, so fuck off. All that being said, if you do see someone you think is eye-contactable, spare no glance: you may—you probably—will never see them again.

New York seems equally filled with put-upon patient good people, and genuine nutcases—made, I firmly believe, even more menacingly nutty by their residence here. There is also a huge gray area in between, and it’s always helpful to keep in mind that it’s often just a matter of timing or circumstance; On the day when you finally lose it and yell from the curb at a swerving cabdriver, you’ll know what I mean.

There’s a conundrum inherent in living in such close quarters: people close themselves off from each other, but yearn for human contact; and in one of the biggest cities in the world, the small town habit of everybody knowing everybody’s business (or wanting to) thrives. People stare here. Not leer (though that happens sometimes, too), but stare. Common and condoned. So is reading over people’s shoulders—either to catch up on the news or just to see what they’re reading. I stopped writing on public transit the day I craned my neck to see what someone else was writing. Not to make you paranoid or anything…

Despite all the people (or perhaps because of them) I’ve found this a hard city to lose myself in. Everyone has a different experience, but mine has been that New York is an almost anti-anonymous town. Everyone knows someone who knows someone you know. It’s not six degrees of separation, it’s more like three or four. I went on a blind date recently and it turned out we once worked at the same company, six years and 3,000 miles away.

By the opposite token, solitude, when you find it (and you will), looms as large as the Midtown skyscrapers. And though I’ve always found odd comfort in the big buildings here—they remind me strangely of the forests where I grew up—sometimes they can press in on you. A friend once told me that no relocation to New York is complete until you’re sitting alone crying on your bathroom floor. (I managed to put it off for a good long while, but it happened eventually.) The thing is: If you can manage to be alone in a city this big, you are really fucking alone. You’ll even find it difficult sometimes to get together with your closest friends: they’re busy, you’re busy, you’ve taken a vow never to hang out north of Union Square, they simply cannot—cannot!—come to Queens, etc. But do see them. Spur of the moment things work well—it doesn’t leave room for excuses or inertia.

But even on the worst day (yes, even that one), there will still be flashes of beauty and grace and life that will stop you in your tracks and dry up your tears on the spot. No, you cannot pinch the foot of the baby who smiled and giggled and cooed in his stroller that day. But, like true New Yorkers everywhere, you can dream.