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Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Being a New Yorker

I was browsing some blogs last night, after doing a search on 'New York'. Then I read an interesting post about being a New Yorker.

Reading the Addie's post got me thinking: Would I consider someone a ‘New Yorker’ if he's lived in the city for a year? Anyone who’s lived here much longer than that would heave a resounding NO...are you kidding? One-year newbies are pretenders. They’d like to wear the mantle without earning it. It’s like buying a pair of Prada pants and thinking you are automatically fashionable.

Sure, someone who's lived here a year will have found an apartment, found a job, gotten through the cold, cold wind that comes off the Hudson at wintertime, and the intense heat on the subway platforms during the summer….but a year is nothing. Zero.

There are various stages of living in New York and if you’re further along the path, it’s hard to be around anyone less enlightened. Example: when you first move in, you skip around in disbelief over your luck. You go out every night with the stamina of a teenager on Red Bull. You keep a celebrity sighting list. You go to all the hip places and have opinions about everything. 'Butter? Really photogenic, excellent food, but so two years ago.'

Soon, ecstatic joy is eclipsed by fear. The thought being, ‘New York is by far the most amazing, beautiful, vibrant place to live. How could I possibly live anywhere else? Oh no, what will I do?’ Like an addict aware of his dependency, the fear only makes you hang on more tightly. Every other city is poo-poohed. There can be nowhere else. Yes, you might tolerate Paris or London if you absolutely had to, but where could you experience such cultural diversity? How could you leave your favorite Afghani place? And what about the Ethiopian place?

Somewhere along the way, reality checks in. Your landlord collects your money, yet avoids your calls. You realize the guy upstairs is a heavy-footed ogre. Does he have to wake up at 6 am to do jumping jacks? You find yourself going to parties and comparing kitchen counterspace with complete strangers. And what you’d budgeted for rent and living has become completely impossible. You wonder how people here get by.

You ease up on the festivities, to start. You feel lonely, despite being in a crowd all the time. You realize that New Yorkers are workaholics, and that more is expected of you here than anywhere else. You go through a stage of paranoia, where every cab driver is a potential thief. You realize there will always be someone who has a nicer apartment, a better job and better fashion sense. All these are signs that point to your needing time away from paradise.

You venture to the country and realize that a one-room studio is kind of small for a grown adult. You attend loft parties, possibly even in Brooklyn (this rarely happens until your fifth year, unless you already live there). Your friends purchase houses in the suburbs or apartments in the city. Time passes. Your apartment remains tiny. You are still single. Suddenly, New York doesn’t seem so great a place.

Then, one of a few things happen. You might move out of the New York completely, for quality of life reasons. Or you might move out to Brooklyn, Queens, or Jersey for a bit more space. Sure the commute is longer, but you don’t need to live in the middle of mayhem. In the rarest cases, you stay in Manhattan.

Whether it’s in Manhattan or the other boroughs, it's only after some time that you call yourself a New Yorker. It's a mystery what keeps you here. Perhaps you’re young at heart, or you don’t mind living with roommates, or you have a well-paying job, or you don’t mind the compromises that city life brings.

You could certainly live anywhere else if you had to, but you deliberately choose not to. New York, after all, is your home.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bridge and Tunnel

I worked late last week and took a cab home. My one small luxury.

‘Park Slope. Take the Manhattan Bridge.’

We rounded the corner, turning south. It was a Monday, but it was one of those perfect early summer nights and the sidewalks were overflowing with people. We turned left onto Canal and suddenly confronted a mass of cars ahead. There were flashing lights, and no one was moving.

The cabdriver cursed. ‘Brooklyn Bridge, we take the Brooklyn Bridge,’ he said. ‘What the hell is going on?!’

So we turned again, making our way further downtown. There were noticeably fewer people outside and the streets were dark. Eventually, we got to the bridge. We wound up the ramp, only to be stopped at the top by police on horseback. Cars were idling everywhere. Drivers opened their windows and dangled their arms outside.

‘Bomb scare,’ the cabbie said, ’Must be a bomb scare.’ Then he ranted long and hard about how the ramp should have been blocked off and that Guiliani should still be mayor.

I called Mark. ‘The bridges are closed,’ I said. ‘Can you turn on New York One and see what the subways are doing?’

It turned out that nothing had made the news. I called 311, the city hotline, but the operator was equally clueless. He forwarded me to the MTA hotline, which was a recording claiming that all trains were running on schedule.

Eventually I got on the D train, which was running fine. In the car, people were dozing after a long day. Others read magazines or listened to music. We emerged from the tunnel and chugged slowly across the East River. I could see the Manhattan skyline behind us, all lit up.

I wanted to tell everyone on the train what was going on. I wanted to say, hey, can you believe? They shut down two bridges. The traffic is horrible. Cops everywhere.

But the car was so peaceful. Everyone was so calm. I held my breath and stared out at the lights outside.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Urban Legends

We were out the other day at the Bowery Bar for drinks. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect for sitting outside. The three-day weekend was just ahead, with summer tagging along after it. The mood was cheerful and relaxed.

Above the garden wall, the sky was filled with a huge crane. There have been concerns about the economy but all signs in New York are optimistic. There has never been so much construction.

Everywhere you turn, something is coming down and something else is taking its place. The Bowery, for instance, always the symbol of sketchiness, is undergoing a major facelift. There’s a new hotel and swanky bar that everyone’s talking about. Skinny glass condo buildings are popping up alongside the shlubby tenaments still selling restaurant equipment.

Throughout Brooklyn, the skeletons of future buildings are everywhere. It’s most obvious when you’re on the BQE, which winds along the edge of Brooklyn: Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City. It is all happening everywhere and all at once.

Now that New York is no longer a dangerous place to be, there’s no end in sight. There will never be a shortage of people who want to live here, or own a little place to stay on their visits. The Times reported recently that the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $2500. On television, I’d heard it was $2900. Whatever it is, the cost of living for a young person just starting their career is prohibitive, unless subsidized by parents or sharing a Brooklyn loft with multiple roommates.

I have a theory that Law and Order could not get on the air until 1990, because by that time, the dangers of New York were more myth than reality. Its producer, Dick Wolf, spent thirteen years getting the show to television, where it now has a small empire. The early episodes capitalized on urban legends like waking up in hotel room without a kidney . Back then, New York was mythic and tinged with danger, but no one considered it entertainment until danger no longer lurked outside.

Everyone who’s lived here a while has his or her war stories. Alphabet City is a popular setting, or Washington Square Park, or simply the subway. The city had been littered with needles, bums and graffiti. Times Square was as uninviting as it is today, but not because it was an overwhelming tourist trap. It was a desolate, scary place to be.

My first summer here, I encountered a man lying on the sidewalk, who'd been stabbed near the Pennsylvania Hotel. It was just after lunch, and I was on a coffee run for my boss. It was my initiation to the hazards of the city and the finer shades of coffee (‘dark’, I learned the hard way, is wholly different from ‘black’).

The contrast between then and now could not be more striking. Now you can get an ‘Iced Decaf Triple Grande Vanilla Non-fat Latte’ on every corner, without fear of walking down the street. But affording an apartment here is another story altogether.


Monday, May 28, 2007


The week I was home from work passed extremely slowly, a high contrast from the usual insanity.

I spent my days parked in front of the tv. I watched Deal or No Deal. I watched Celebrity 50 Worst Break-ups (or was it 50 Best Hairdos?). At the lowest point, I watched Golden Girls, with an Oprah chaser. My mom stayed with me for a few days, helping me cook and carry things, and the two of us became addicted to extreme makeover shows.

I focused on just getting through the day. Tasks as simple as putting on socks or getting out of bed were small nightmares. I avoided sneezing, laughing and coughing. I had new respect for the human torso. You don’t realize how large a role it plays until you have four little holes in it.

The days grew longer after my mom went home to LA. Mark came over when he could, but during the day it was mostly me on the couch with the remote control, the cat sleeping nearby. I verified, then reconfirmed the finding that cats do absolutely nothing all day.

Now, just a couple weeks later, I am nearly back to normal. There are still some tender spots, but I roll out of bed in the morning without thinking. I no longer brace myself before a sneeze. I am reimmersed in the tumult of work.

Best of all, I’ve been reunited with my favorite foods, the foods of all nations. For months, I couldn’t eat things marked by the little red pepper symbol, or described as having anonymous ‘spices’. ‘Nothing hot or complicated,’ my doctor had cautioned me, which meant that foods from India, Thailand, New Orleans, Ethiopea, Korea, Morracco, Mexico, and Malaysia...all the foods I loved, were off limits.

My insides had some catching up to do, but I’m happy to have rejoined civilization. Massaman curry has never tasted so good.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Situation Avoided

Today, Mark and I were enjoying the day, lunching outside. The city had cleared out for the long weekend, and absence of foot and road traffic brought an uncanny silence. The sun was high and bright, and there was a perfect breeze. Little birds jumped from branch to branch and we could hear their nervous twittering.

Perhaps in response to a big Italian dinner the night before, we were feeling the need to be healthy: a heaping Cobb salad for me, a veggie burger for him. Then I said, ‘I wonder how come they named it a Cobb salad. I think ‘cobb’ means rooster.’

‘No, it’s named after a guy.’


‘I saw it on the Food Network. A guy named Cobb made it up late one night when someone came into the restaurant. The kitchen was closed, so he took whatever there was – chicken, blue cheese, tomato, whatever...mixed it up and it was a hit. So they named it a Cobb Salad

‘They should have named it after the other guy,’ I said.

He scrunched up his face.

‘Imagine if the customer came in the next night. There’d be a whole different set of ingredients for the salad.’

He shook his head.

‘Really, the salad depended much more on the guy who came into the restaurant.’

‘It’s named after the cook’, he said. ‘Things are always named after whomever invents the thing. That’s how it’s done.’

But before a skirmish could start, we decided to lay down our weapons. It was simply too nice a day.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Geezer Factor

I sat in the reception area, famished. It was past lunchtime and I was waiting for my doctor. All the seats were full of older people and their helpers. I jiggled my foot, thinking about the pile of work waiting for me, back at my desk. I was annoyed, because the others were retired, and an hour for them was different from an hour for me. After much foot jiggling and sighing, I was taken to an exam room.

‘We have so many elderly patients’, the receptionist said, explaining the delay. ‘They need a lot of time getting in and out of their wheelchairs.’ Then she left me alone with a paper gown and the wall full of diplomas.

I undressed and put on the gown. An hour later than scheduled, my stomach was presented for viewing.

Gingerly, the sticky bandages were peeled away from my scabs and stitches. I focused on the wall of merit in the meantime. All the hurdles my doctor had jumped were there: college diploma (Harvard), med school diploma (Columbia), medical exam, surgeon’s exam, and some others. Each piece of paper hung in a tidy black frame.

‘You’re a tough one’, he said. ‘Your gallbladder was enormous,’ cupping his hands to the size of a grapefruit.

Then he told me that I was free to bike, run, swim and take baths. I could eat what I pleased. I was free to go.

And then my doctor made a gesture that startled me: he shook my hand. I was surprised by how warm his skin was, and how this gesture expressed so many things: ‘We made it’, and ‘I hope I don’t see you for a good long while’ and ‘You’re welcome.’