Friday, October 2, 2009

New York: My Kind of Town

I think I've already mentioned that I recently took a trip to New York County, New York, which is a densely settled island in the estuary of the Hudson River across from Elizabeth, New Jersey. And certainly, in many ways this storied land of Manhattan lived up to its reputation. It is a big, exciting, cosmopolitan city, as packed with recognizable landmarks as anyplace I've seen (in my admittedly fairly provincial life) this side of London.

And yet, there was much in the proverbial Big Apple that surprised me, where the reality of the city didn't really match my expectations. For one thing, people didn't seem any more wrapped up in their own business than they are anyplace else. I made a point of greeting people, nodding, making eye contact, and everybody seemed friendly enough. I struck up a few conversations with random people, who seemed uniformly courteous and gracious. So much for the off-putting New Yorker.

Also, in all my travels -- a meandering drive up the island from the Holland tunnel to its northernmost tip, and an urban hike from the projects of Harlem south to Grand Central Station -- I didn't see a single beggar with a sign, nor did anyone ask me for that great oxymoron, "spare change." Even passing through a breadline, nobody hassled me or made a move for my heart- or purse-strings. This made me sad for my own town, with its massive reserve army of fauxbos and, apparently, folks willing to underwrite their lifestyle. New York looked remarkably prosperous, safe, and clean compared to back home -- more stereotypes falling dazed under the onslaught of experience.

But the stereotype that fared worst from my expedition was that New York is a hotbed of sophistication. Friends, it is not. And I say this as a highly qualified Yokel, a man who grew up in a village of 2250 souls. And wherever I went in New York, I saw people acting in ways that were, for better or worse, much more what you would expect from the crossroads of Sarah Palin's "Real America" than from the stylish citizens of a World City.

The New Yokels

Since there's not a lot of spare space around, New Yorkers tend to do shit right in the street. Unloading a truck? Why not park in the middle of this major artery! Need a place to stack construction supplies? Why not right here in the busy street in front of the site! This is a common enough way of doing business in a small town, but you'd never get away with it in a city. But New York is a small town. I swear, I saw a guy washing his car -- like, with suds and a hose -- right in the middle of a city street. Who does that in a city?

Not even to mentioning the rampant jaywalking. Very small town! It would give a Seattle cop a freaking coronary.

Where you would expect all the Starbucks to be? Dunkin' Donuts. Ooh, Sophisticated. Where you would expect the groovy independent coffee shops to be? Starbucks.

Carts all over the place selling hot dogs. Seriously. Hot dogs. What the hell is this, the Fourth of July in Muncie?

Honking. Here's a thought for all of you New York drivers reading this: your personal sense of outrage about another driver's error, arrogant behavior, or timidity? No one else cares about that at all. No one. Just you. And you know what else? Honking is annoying. And very small town.

People yakking on cell phones while strolling blindly into busy lanes of traffic. Yes, it's an exciting new technology! We're glad you're enjoying it! But the real urban sophisticate always keeps one eye on his or her physical surroundings.

Where are all of the same-sex couples? I thought that there were supposed to be gay people in Manhattan; if you listen to New Yorkers, they'll make like it was the city where homosexuality was first invented. But in all the time I was there, I didn't see so much as a pair of college girls holding hands. Just a bunch of boring straight people.

And finally -- and I know, I know, the taxi is an important element of the city's transportation system, blah blah blah... -- but it's hard to imagine someone looking more ridiculous than when they are "hailing a cab." Especially the ones who are really practiced at it, who you can tell are thinking "ooh, look at me, I am hailing a cab with great skill and panache!" They could not look more like yokels.


fingerstothebone said...

Oh, that was harsh.

Christine M. said...

Molly Ivins said "I love New Yorkers, they're so provincial." Being from Texas, she was an expert on such things.

I'm sorry to hear that Portland still has a lot of panhandlers. I was visiting in 1991, fresh from Austin, which certainly had no shortage, but the panhandlers in Portland had such an attitude of...entitlement? And they were mean! Oh, now THAT'S a marketing strategy.

DrSchnell said...

I have heard New York described as "the world's biggest collection of small towns."

Curiously, you're far more likely to find a classic corner grocery store, or a small hardware store in NYC than in most small towns, since Wal-Mart et al. can't afford the acreage needed to do their usual destructive thing.

DrSchnell said...

And honking: if you hate honking, go to Honolulu - never have I been in a big city or a small town where people honked less (pretty much only if their life or the life of someone else was in imminent danger.)

Nichim said...

You are funny, and sophisticated.

Just wondering: Did you see any couples holding hands? I've found holding hands while walking in NYC very logistically difficult. Also, like Koreans, meat-packers, tailors, jewelers, Russians, etc. in New York, all the gay people (mostly men, as I recall) live in one neighborhood. Super-provincial indeed.

boo said...

Well this certainly makes the big city seem much less intimidating.

When I think of a city that size I imagine that it would take months to find the sweet spots and that they would have to grow on a body. I doubt I would have the time to allow for it.

balaywho said...

OK, I can't resist, as a 20 year yokel, but a childhood east coast city slicker and a temporary east coast city slicker, I must object!
1. People do shit right in the street because the place is so packed, there is absolutely no place else to do it. And they don't care if their shit is interfering with your shit. That may be rude, but it's not small town.
2. The prohibition on jaywalking is something exlusively pacific northwest. In every other city I've been in in the world, jaywalking is the norm. This thinking that adults are not qualified to cross the street seems to have originated with your rainy weather or something.
3. There is no excuse for Dunkin Donuts, but it's an east coast thing, they're still figuring out good coffee out here.
4. Hot dogs, more specifically hot dog carts; city people junk food. You may be right about this one.
5. Honking is very big city, although it's certainly not an indication of intelligence. The worse the traffic, the more the honking.
6. There are plenty of same sex couples in NY. You perhaps missed the appropriate neighborhoods. I forget the name on the neighborhood in Manhattan, but then there are also the other boroughs. Park Slope in Brooklyn, for example.

Of course not all New Yorkers are sophisticated, and frankly, thank god. But that doesn't make them yokels. But perhaps it takes one to know one.....

Jenners said...

This was too funny! I'm glad NY exceeded your expectations in some ways though!

Just Another East Coast Yokel

Melissa said...

Dead on.

Though you forgot to mention the endless shops selling junk jewelry, mugs, baseball caps and shirts that say "I heart NY"--the kind of crap you would see in any small town flea market.

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: No it wasn't -- it was affectionate!

@balaywho: Although I've traditionally shared your feelings about jaywalking -- there being, after all, only one significantly busy street in my hometown -- the good people of New York did nothing to support the hypothesis that adults are qualified to cross the street.

Also, the notion that the same-sex couples keep or are kept to a neighborhood all their own doesn't really hit a home run for the sophistication team. Back home, they mix in just like regular folks! Yep.

@Melissa: Word.