Come to New York City as a tourist, and you see the lights; you feel the energy; the tall buildings close in on every side. You walk bedazzled and amazed–Broadway! Times Square! Central Park! Place names you’ve heard since childhood. New York City is a vast and storied place where historic moments have taken place. A bigger-than-life city by every human standard.
But living here–in a neighborhood, in an apartment, off the tourist path, as a regular working joe–now I that’s a different story. And what happens when you come to town after months spent in open and unpopulated places?
Well, you notice things that the locals take for granted. People who live in New York City seem to have a dandelion-like ability to adapt to unpleasantness because if you can’t adapt, you can’t live here. Either you are young and adaptable, or you don’t know any better, probably because you grew up here. Indeed, I have heard of New Yorkers who are unfit for living elsewhere. They insist that anything in the world can be found here, so why go anywhere else?
While I can’t address that question, I do have a short list of characteristics peculiar to New York.
- Traffic. If there is an easy way to die in New York, it is by being a pedestrian. Don’t worry about muggings or air travel or terrorists–you are far more likely to be killed by a New York driver. Traffic is aggressive in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s bad in Rome. But New Yorkers have their own special cachet on aggressive driving. They will turn in front of you with inches to spare, creep up behind you, nudge you off the sidewalk. New Yorkers seem not to be aware that a little nudge by a 4,000 box of steel can do serious damage to flesh and bones. I don’t think they care.
And while many New Yorkers don’t have cars, those who do seem impervious to environmental concerns or, indeed, to the personal stress they inflict on themselves by driving on streets clogged with lunatics who will honk if you neglect to jackrabbit forward when the light turns green or fail to hit 60 mph in the block between lights.
New York drivers will execute three-point turns in suicidal traffic for a parking spot. They will make left turns across three lanes of traffic and a crowded sidewalk to get into a gas station. They will double-park on sidestreets without explanation or apology, reducing the street to a single lane.
One would think that, what with astronomical gas prices, the fight for parking spaces, and the need for maneuverability, New Yorkers would drive small cars. They don’t. They drive big, honking, environmentally lethal vehicles in order to sit stranded in bumper-to-bumper traffic and run into pedestrians.
I will say this for New York drivers: they are very good at parallel parking. If you can’t parallel park, don’t drive in the city.
- Dogs. New Yorkers love dogs. They may live in some of the tiniest and most expensive real estate in the world, but they are eager to share that space, not with the homeless or with children, but with their dogs. Dogs. Plural. Because if you have one dog, you need another to keep it company when you are gone for 10 hours a day.
Now, I like dogs. I’ve had a lot of them, but in a crowded city, dogs take up space. They also bark. And excrete.
On a 90-degree day, of which there are many in the summer, even the most tony neighborhoods smell like dog piss. Dried rivulets lace the sidewalks, creating a doggy kiosk to which every four-footed passerby adds a liquid message, as well as the occasional chocolate drop.
By and large, the dogs are leashed and well-behaved. Still, I give right-of-way to pit bulls and great danes when they are tugging their owners around on a leash.
- No Nature. The neighborhood in which I stayed has some of the last wild, unplanned bits of natural forest in the city. Yet, since the apartment mostly faces a brick wall, you can’t tell whether it is raining or sunny or cloudy. You almost can’t tell if it’s morning or evening. Lights are on all day. This messes with your circadian rhythms.
I think this is difficult for me because I so recently spent so many months in truly wild and open spaces, so even a walk on a crowded street is somewhat claustrophic.
I realized how nature-deprived I was one night when I saw the moon reflecting on the kitchen floor, and I was startled, realizing how long it had been since I’d seen the moon. I had no idea what phase it was in.
I walked to the window to see my old friend.
It was a circular fluorescent light someone had left on in an upper apartment across the alley.
I’ll return to the city this winter for the utterly delightful privilege of being granny-nanny to my new grandson for a few months. I’m looking forward to the caretaking, but the city and I will have to come to terms. The city, I’m sure, will win.