Welcome to Our New York
As I strolled the streets of Jaipur, northern India’s “pink city” nicknamed for the hue of its old buildings, men with time on their hands called out to me: “Hello; where are you from?”
“New York,” I’d say.
“You are from New York?” they’d ask with a gleam in their eyes and a quickening in their step.
Exchanges between the men followed in Hindi or Urdu, the local languages. Then, back to me, in English. “I have a cousin in Brooklyn. You know Brooklyn?”
“Oh, Manhattan! I know. Times Square, Empire State Building.”
“Have you been there?” I would ask.
“No, but I would like to go.”
I have traveled to six of the seven continents and no matter where I go the mystique of my hometown follows me. Nearly everyone I meet has an impression of New York, even if they’ve never been there.
In my late 20s, I interviewed for a job at Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The interviewer, who was from the Midwest, expressed appreciation that I’d made the two-hour train ride from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to central New Jersey.
“So, you grew up in New York?” is how he started the interview.
“Yes,” I said, uncertain where the conversation was headed.
“People actually grow up in New York?”
I smiled. I was eager to move on to the particulars of the job. However, an instinct whispered to me to embellish.
“I know when people think of New York, they think of theater, restaurants, cultural landmarks and shopping,” I told him. “But beyond the iconic skyline and the news from Wall Street, New York is a collection of villages.
In our neighborhoods, we attend school, play Kick the Can, handball and ride our bikes. I grew up knowing the names and faces of the baker, the shoe repair family, the Knish man and the Good Humor man who sold me and the other kids in my neighborhood half a popsicle for a nickel. My father took me to the playground where he pushed me on the swing, helped balance me on the seesaw and watched as I hung upside down by my feet on the monkey bars. Yes,” I told the interviewer, “people actually grow up in New York.”
In 1983, a few years before that interview, I sat in a Times Square movie theater filled with New Yorkers watching the film, Terms of Endearment. In the movie, there is an exchange between the character Sam Burns and a supermarket cashier:
Sam: You’re a very rude young woman. I know Douglas from the Rotary and I can’t believe he’d want you treating customers so badly.
Cashier: I don’t think I was treating her badly.
Sam: Then you must be from New York.
Everyone in the theater cracked up. We think it’s hilarious that we have that reputation – though we understand why.
In the popular media, New Yorkers are frequently depicted as loud, rude and profane. I can promise you that growing up in a city where, on a daily basis, I negotiated with millions of people to access transportation and other lifestyle resources, I was no stranger to profanity and intensity of purpose. I believe, though, in the reflexive laughter of the couple hundred of us who sat in that Times Square theater, there was the distinctly native recognition that, in general, New Yorkers are not rude.
By necessity, we are direct and swift in speech and movement. This is the true dynamic that underlies our apocryphal rudeness. Also true: we do not make eye contact. Neither do we encourage it. Consider the number of humans a New Yorker will pass on a given day – on the subway, in a train or bus terminal, in an office or simply walking down the street. To facilitate speed and minimize drama, it’s productive to keep one’s eyes focused ahead.
For all the energy directed toward the stratagem of big city living, New Yorkers are never too distracted to respond to, and more often, proactively assist visitors. Tourists tracing the routes of subway maps with their fingers, squinting at street signs or staring at a slip of paper with confusion are typical recipients of our generosity. We know our city can be as challenging as it is fascinating, and we want visitors to have a good experience.
But don’t take my word for it.
In Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York, you will meet Rebecca, 33-year-old owner of a California bistro who writes:
When I arrived without taking a cab I felt like I had tamed some great beast!...I decided to take advantage of my subway streak… I made it to 23rd Street and once again, asked for directions at street level. This became my method of getting around the rest of the day. I just asked people who did not look like tourists. And every person I asked was helpful; no one was rude at all. I was thankful, but a little disappointed because I had bought into the “New York rudeness” people always talk about.
And Katharine, an operations manager who celebrated her 26th birthday by moving to Manhattan from her native Los Angeles:
I always thought of New York City as a very fast-paced place, where everyone is rude and doesn’t want to be bothered with any other person. I was accurate on the pace, but not at all accurate on the general attitude of New Yorkers. They get a bad rap for being rude; 90 percent of the people I’ve encountered have been nothing less than sweet and gracious. New Yorkers are absolutely more brash, blunt, and outspoken than people in Los Angeles, but I find that I much prefer it that way.
A book filled with New York City “postcards” must be as diverse, vibrant and textured as the city itself. That is why Rebecca and Katharine are just two of the 35 remarkable women, ages 24 to 72, who join me in sharing life-enhancing experiences while traveling solo in one of the world’s most fascinating cities – whether we blitzed our way through a long weekend, pit-stopped en route to another destination, conducted business or decided to move in.
Though our adventures were rich, many also had challenges. Bree, who felt lonely at the start of her journey because she had hoped to share New York with a lover, later realized, “My happiness was not contingent on ‘him;’ it was growing from within me every single step I took down Fifth Avenue.” The intrepid Kirsten, who coordinated a segment for The Early Show at CBS in the middle of a transit strike, proved that very little will stop her – or New York – from taking care of business. And the travelers who got lost, quickly found their way – almost always with the help of a New Yorker.
Though I have not lived in New York City for more than two decades, these storytellers – from the United States, Britain and Canada – have touched my heart with their openness, inspired me with their joie de vivre and deepened my appreciation for my hometown as a worldwide phenomenon.
Welcome to our New York.
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