New York, New York

Photograph by Steven Saus

The Out-of-Towners

They arrive on airplanes, in cars with colorful license plates, bearing camera equipment and unseasonable clothing. Welcoming our friends beyond the Hudson.

When I heard that my brother and his family were coming from the country to visit me here in New York, my first thought was that I hoped they wouldn’t get run over by a bus. That would be bad for everyone. For them, of course, and probably for those on the bus, but most of all for me. Think of what our mother would say!

So as I shepherded them around Greenwich Village (“Look out for the cab! That fast yellow thing! Look out!”), I was a bit nervous. They were nervous, too. They’d never been to New York as a family, and it showed. Jumping when they heard an ambulance, spooking at bike messengers, huddling together for security. Three hours later, once they were safely in their car and heading back to the country, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, I love my brother and his family. They live on a beautiful farm up in Massachusetts. My brother is a master with a chainsaw, and can fix Jeeps in his sleep. His five-year-old daughter is a firecracker. Last summer she collected snakes, which is great, but that’s not going to get her across 6th Avenue. Because in the city, my rugged relatives from the country were as skittish as sheep.

This got me thinking. With the holidays ending, and with out-of-towners returning to wherever it is they came from, I began to wonder more about the nature of visitors who come to New York.

I divided them into two groups. Sheep, and cows.

The sheep were like my brother’s family. They wore wool, meandered aimlessly in large groups, watching over their shoulders for some wolf that might separate one of them from the flock, plaintively bleating when they were hungry. I sort of felt sorry for the sheep.

Not so for the cows. The cows were infuriating.

They wore leather and masticated constantly, bumping their wet noses against shop windows, mooing at odd hours in the morning after consuming too much feed or drink. The biggest difference between these cows and bovines, in fact, was thumbs—used by the former to hold cameras with which they take pictures of squirrels in the parks. Why? No idea. They’re squirrels.

As long as the cowherds stayed corralled along 5th Avenue and Bleecker Street, there was a sort of peace. But sometimes they broke free—as if they’d pushed down a fence and gotten loose—and wandered into nearby restaurants or museums. Then, trouble.

No one is more real than a New Yorker. We’re realer. And there are more of us. We consume less, produce more, pay a higher share of taxes, and are the target for terrorists. A few days ago I went to the Museum of Modern Art. A large family from elsewhere (matching khaki pants, matching plaid shirts, plastic identification tags looped around necks), was roaming the Painting and Sculpture Collection, bellowing about where their next feeding was coming from. As the family chewed over the possibilities, their three-year-old toddled over to a nearby Picasso, hopped onto the wood barrier in front of the painting, and started doing a little dance, punctuated by punches against the painting (fortunately behind glass). When his parents saw what he was doing they found it fun and camera-worthy. Believe me, it was unbelievable.

I could go on (and mention the visitors at MoMA who were trying to sneak inside without paying). But really, examples of out-of-towners behaving badly in New York are too numerous to list: I’m just thinking of the best one from Tuesday.

What is it about New York that encourages wayward behavior? Maybe it’s because New York is America’s city; at some deep level it belongs to everyone. People feel free here. But what they forget is that people live here.

If I were a charitable person, and I’m not, I’d say that it’s never easy visiting the places that others call home. All travelers are unmoored. It’s possible that traveling turns everyone into a fool, and if I were visiting some foreign land like Bhutan or Texas, I too would behave foolishly. That’s the nice way of looking at it. I’m starting to believe, however, that there is basic fool behavior, which is mainly shown by the people from small towns and suburbs who visit cities. New Yorkers may be jerks, but we’re not fools. There’s a difference.

Turn the scenario around.

If New Yorkers were visiting a small town or the suburbs, we wouldn’t drive through wheat fields at three o’clock in the morning, wouldn’t leave our trash on lawns. There must be stories about city slickers behaving badly in the country. But I think those stories are apocryphal, whereas mine—I’m looking out the window, and yes, there’s a woman in an Indiana sweatshirt tossing her Starbucks cup in the gutter—are real. And if by chance one of those urban-people-behaving-badly stories is true, I’m pretty sure those folks were from Boston.

I grew up on a farm. I love the country. I’m a fan of Garrison Keillor and the Green Bay Packers. Shucks, right now I’m writing a children’s book about farms! But there is nothing about the country or Middle America that makes their values better than the rest of ours (In Cold Blood, anyone?).

Maybe I’m cranky because of recent politics. As we inaugurate a new era in America, it’s an exciting time, for all of us. But I feel there’s some unfinished business. During the election, small towns were praised as more patriotic, more American, more “real.” Main Street was considered the best street. This still irks me. Because no one is more real than a New Yorker. We’re realer. And there are more of us. We consume less, produce more, pay a higher share of taxes, and are the target for terrorists. We are real America. I include as honorary New Yorkers all those who live in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or any other big American city (at least when they’re not visiting New York). So, you live in a small town or the ‘burbs? Shape up, and back off.

A week after my brother and his family came to New York, we drove up to visit him on his farm in the small town in Massachusetts where he lives. And I want to state for the record that I didn’t walk into any trees, or lick the side of his barn to see if my tongue would stick, or try to milk his pony. OK, I did ruin the table I was helping him paint when I mixed water-based and oil-based paints, but who knew?

I suppose now is the time in the essay where the essayist admits his faults, wins over the reader with humility and self-deprecation, says something accommodating and understanding about how we can all get along. I’m not going to do that. In fact, I’m going to pile on.

Therefore, I have some New Year’s resolutions for out-of-towners (because why should resolutions just be about ourselves?). Here you go, for when you next come to New York:

  • Walk faster.
  • Stay on the right side of the sidewalk.
  • If you happen to stop, step to the side.
  • Don’t ask for directions, especially in the West Village, because we don’t know either.
  • Don’t ride double-decker buses.
  • Don’t stand in line at Magnolia Bakery.
  • Don’t sit on stoops.
  • Don’t hail cabs with people inside. They can’t pick you up, because they have people inside.
  • Don’t touch the Picassos.
  • And lastly—and I can not emphasize this enough—do not take pictures of the squirrels.

If you can change your behavior and make good on these resolutions, we’ll welcome you with (sort of) open arms. I hope this happens. Because then, as one nation, we can all come together… and make fun of the French. Yes we can.