Sabbatical 2011, Part 2


After I got back from tripping about Europe, I spent some time visiting and traveling around the United States.

House — Overnight; Arrow — Day Trip.
Black — Train; Orange — Plane; Blue — Boat; Green — Bus; Red — Car.

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Thoughts on New York

One of the highlights of my return to the States was my trip back to New York. During my time away, I had spent a lot of time reflecting on my feelings for the city; as I prepared to return, I found these passing thoughts increasingly persistent in their hold on my attention.

I imagine that returning to a city is a lot like coming back to an interrupted love affair. There’s an undeniable sense of longing, but at the same time an underlying insecurity: a worry that things cannot be the same as before, that the passion will have in some way diminished. And so, on my flight into JFK, I was excited to be going home but simultaneously a part of me was filled with anxiety.

Not that I had been unfaithful to New York while I was away. During my trip to Europe, I visited many of the continent’s great cities but never felt the same ardor that I did for NYC. As I understand it, many people fall for London — I suppose it is the world’s original great city — but it has just never clicked for me. I’d say that throughout my European travels, I was most tempted by Lisbon, Paris, and Stockholm; yet in each case there was something present that prevented me from developing a crush: Lisbon’s slow pace, Paris’s formality, and Stockholm’s winter.

Nevertheless, I was undeniably a bit worried about getting back to New York. Once I arrived, it didn’t take me long to remember all my feelings for the place. As a city, it wears its faults on its sleeve:

  • The Dirt Having few alleys, trash bags get thrown on the sidewalk. And, despite frequent street sweeping, there is generally litter everywhere. When walking around — which is basically all the time — it’s easy to feel surrounded by the city’s refuse. Plus, the filth is not just confined to the ground; the air is also quite dirty, as is easily proven by the thick layer of brown-black dust that accumulates on every surface inside if a window is left open for more than a couple hours.
  • The Trendiness. New York is definitely a city that knows and cares about what’s in and what’s out, whether it be fashion, neighborhoods, restaurants, even types of food (the cupcake craze and food cart mania quickly spring to mind). This can be difficult to handle for someone who self-identifies as a contrarian. When cheap eats and street food got hot, I had a real identity crisis. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, my love of low-brow food won out in the end.)
  • The Cost. Housing is the easiest example: with Manhattan’s shoebox-sized studios averaging over $2,000 a month and its closet-like one-bedrooms closer to $3,000, it’s certainly not a cheap place to live. Oh, and if you want that most New York of amenities, the doorman, be prepared to fork out an extra 25-30% plus hefty end-of-year tips. (Prices from the September, 2011 “Manhattan Rental Market Report”.)
  • The “Peter Pan” Syndrome. People in NYC are slow to “grow up”, whether it be adult kickball leagues, the elaborate Halloween costumes and parties, or the widespread view that meaningful relationships ought to start by meeting someone in a bar. The New York singles scene is full of people who, on average, would be married with children in other places. And, more broadly, the city seems to encourage people of all stripes to extend their youth as long as possible. Ironically (but probably relatedly), I think one of the worries of raising children in the city is that they grow up too quickly.

But in my opinion, these flaws are more than outweighed by the city’s better qualities. Stories about why New York is great are a-dime-a-dozen, so I’ll leave the details to other writers. But, if nothing else, New York manages to be the quintessential American city, despite the fact that it’s almost nothing like anywhere else in the country.

I will, though, offer a few tips on that most important of New York tasks: acting like a New Yorker. The good news is that those things that normally separate insider from outsider — race, accent, religion, national origin — don’t really apply in New York. Being a New Yorker is basically just a matter of acting like a New Yorker. Here are a few simple starting points:

  • Walking. Seems silly, since everyone knows how to walk. Yet New York walking is not the same as it is elsewhere; it’s more like driving, which ironically is comparatively rare in NYC. You have to pay attention to your surroundings, keep up with the flow of traffic, and pull over before stopping. While most New Yorkers walk fast, it’s OK to walk slowly as long as you leave plenty of room for others to pass. It’s fine to stop to look at a landmark, but slow down and move to the side first — New Yorkers do the walking equivalent of tail-gating, and sudden stops may result in a variety of pedestrian fender-benders!
  • Houston Street. It’s pronounced “house-ton”, not like the city in Texas (Heaven forbid!). Yes, this is probably just to identify and laugh at tourists — although the naming of the street (and thus apparently the pronunciation) predates the fame of Sam Houston.
  • Subway Lines. Always use the letters/numbers; never the colors. For example, to go to the Upper East Side one would take the 4/5/6, not the green line. Old-timers, snobs, or transit nerds might refer to the “IRT Lexington Avenue Line” or some such — you can safely ignore such a person. 😉
  • Subway Schedules. Even the most die-hard New Yorker gets confused with the MTA’s weekend and maintenance schedules. The express E is running local on the F line south of West 4th? Huh? Congratulations, your planning effort has been rendered useless. I recommend random guessing.
  • Jaywalking. New Yorkers jaywalk. Constantly. Waiting at a crosswalk when there are no cars will get you an odd look, while blocking the way and preventing others from jaywalking will truly unleash New Yorkers’ wrath. To jaywalk correctly, start by learning to ignore the traffic lights and crosswalk signals. It may be safe to cross when it’s not allowed, and likewise it may be unsafe to cross when it is allowed. Always look both ways, even on a one-way street: just because the light’s red and the street’s one-way doesn’t mean there’s not a crazy bike messenger careening down the wrong way. And, most importantly, never ever follow someone else across blindly. Jaywalking is not a team sport; you have to make your own judgment about whether you can make it or not.

After America…

After a while back in the States, I decided to head to the Far East (although it’s actually westward, and technically my flight flew north over the pole to get there…).