For 25 years, I’ve been posing as a native New Yorker. “Wave to the tourists!” I call out to friends whenever a double-decker bus passes by. Of course, I’m no such thing, any more than I’d be a native Nantucketer if I’d been born on the ferry as it rounded Brant Point instead of waiting until it docked. But I’m no longer a visitor, either.
“I used to be you,” I think when I see the day-trippers getting off their buses in the theater district, nervously looking around as if they expect to be mugged any minute. Like them, I used to get out of the car from Pennsylvania, or the Trans-Bridge or Fullerton bus (five hours each way from State College), or the plane from Rochester, or Amtrak from Boston. As usual, Stephen Sondheim — consummate New Yorker that he is — said it best:
Another hundred people who got off of the plane
and are looking at us
who got off of the train
and the plane and the bus
On May 6, 1988, I got off the train and the plane and the bus for good. That day, I bought a one-way ticket on the Eastern Shuttle, flew down from Boston (with Cora, tranquilized, in her carrier under the seat in front of me) and took a taxi from LaGuardia Airport to 347 West 57th Street in Manhattan, where I was to occupy 33F for the next 10 years. I set up my answering machine and, over background music by Kander and Ebb, recorded my outgoing message: “Yes, if I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere. This is (212) 974-3293 . . .”
The following December, during a raging snowstorm, I was heading back to the subway from lunch in the Village with my college friend Gina, with whom I was reconnecting after 15 years. Through the white, the dark figure of a man came toward me. I froze: was he that inevitable mugger? “FAAAB-ulous coat!” he purred, and walked on. (It was — a bright red wool Burberry with scarves attached.) I smiled and went home to 57th Street.
That was the moment I knew I was really in New York. But when did I become a New Yorker? That’s a tougher question.
Was it on 9/11, the day I decided it was better to die in Manhattan than to live anywhere else? The entire city was in shock, but I knew instinctively what to do and where to go – in fact, had a place to go. Watching anonymous heroes rescuing people from the rubble and lining up to donate blood, I felt I was doing nothing of value. Only months later did I realize that I had done something: I kept going, and that’s what New Yorkers do. On that day, I discovered my personal brand of patriotism: I care deeply about my country, but my country is New York.
Was it seven years ago, when I joined the ranks of the rent-stabilized? Was it last Christmas, when I brought my tree home from Lincoln Center by subway?
Or did it happen gradually over the years as I learned where to stand on any subway platform so I’d be right at the turnstiles when I got off — why waste time? I’ve even mastered the art of moving between cars while the train is in motion.
I can hum the Mr. Softee jingle and calculate tips in a split second by doubling the sales tax. I can converse using words like shlep and mishegas. But there are native skills I have yet to master — for example, haggling over prices or pushing my way to the front of any line. I suspect I’ll never be able to wait on line instead of in line. Not that I have the patience to do either. I’m a New Yorker.
Will I remain one forever? Frankly, I never expected to make it this long. Now I see young people on the street, briskly marching to their urgent tasks, and realize I used to be one of them, too, but no more. The idea of stealing off to a quiet, affordable, beautiful place where I could do little but read and write is appealing.
Less than a year ago, during a nightmare of a summer, I was almost ready to pick up and go. Months later, in The New Yorker (where else?), I read the recently discovered introduction to a never-completed memoir by the longtime staff writer Joseph Mitchell. His words echoed my thoughts:
“. . . I used to feel very much at home in New York City. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t a native, but I might as well have been: I belonged here. Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I had never belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. . . . Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me.”
Mitchell doesn’t say what happened, but maybe it was something like going to Shakespeare in the Park on a perfect summer night, or taking visitors from the other side of the world on a walk along the Hudson to the Little Red Lighthouse under the great gray bridge. At times like these, I chide myself: “How can you even think about leaving?”
New York is a city that’s hard to leave. My late more-or-less mother-in-law, New York-born and -bred, moved to Boston in her late 20s but remained a New Yorker to the core until the day she died, at 96. Still, people do leave; even Elaine Stritch has gone home to Michigan after more than 70 years. “Two years ago,” The New York Times reported in her farewell, “Ms. Stritch answered New York magazine’s question ‘What makes someone a New Yorker?’ with a single word: ‘Stamina.’ ” Hers has apparently run out, and some days, so does mine.
But next weekend, for the 24th time, I’ll walk 9th Avenue during the annual food festival, which I regard as my personal anniversary party. (I’ve missed twice, but only because I was abroad.) I’ll feast on my favorites: Asian chicken salad from EAT, jambalaya from Delta Grill, cherry strudel from Poseidon Bakery, the world’s best chicken fingers and lemon meringue tarts from Mitchell London — 2 for the price of 1 at the end of the day. More than that, though, I’ll savor being part of the crowd. I’ll look up at my old apartment on 57th Street and, in my head, sing another Sondheim anthem: “I’m Still Here.”