[Editor’s note: This story is the fifth of the regional rants that will follow this article about a sense of home. Just a few more … I can’t leave anyone out.]
I stepped out of my brownstone apartment complex on Morton Street this morning, brushed past the old man who is constantly smoking on the doorstep and dodged the guy spraying the sidewalk clean with a hose, as he does every morning. There’s nothing quite like the morning sun filtering through the trees and bouncing off the windows of the brown, brick buildings in the West Village. Aside from the double-decker red buses full of vacationers and tour guides (why do I always feel like Exhibit A?), everyone’s quietly going about their business – buying baguettes and coffee, sweeping off doorsteps, watering the flowers in the outdoor vases. New Yorkers love their fresh coffee and cheap flowers.
I get out of the subway at Rockefeller Center and step into the bustling midtown Manhattan scene: bankers power walking in their pinstriped suits, middle-aged women in demure skirts and blouses settling into the receptionist desks, packs of tourists in matching “New York or Bust! Spring 2006 Choir Tour” t-shirts staring up at the skyscrapers, snapping pictures.
I make my way past the crowds to buy a croissant and a latte, and carry them through the doors, up the escalator and into my building. The security guard nods a greeting as I swipe through the turnstile and into the elevator.
A co-worker and I were in Chicago two weeks ago on a business trip. Sitting on the train en route back to O’Hare, the people on the train started talking. Someone asked us where we were from, and my co-worker said that we were here from New York on business. Immediately, someone asked if everyone in New York was brusque and rude. My co-worker stopped for a moment, smiled and said that people just don’t talk to strangers on the train in New York.
I moved here last June after living near Albany, the Midwest of the northeast, for my entire life. People in Albany are friendly. They smile at you in the grocery store. They hold the door open for you. They help little old ladies across the street. There are trees and mountains within a fifteen-minute drive. A 15-minute drive in Manhattan will get you from the Village to Chelsea, about 10 blocks, during rush hour.
So when I moved to the city, I was expecting coldness and hostility. And on first blush, yes, it’s not a friendly place. People walk quickly on the streets. They stare up at the advertisements on the subway. They never make eye contact. They’re assertive. But after my first week, I realized that it’s necessary to block out some stimuli throughout the day in order to maintain sanity. There are a lot of lights, a lot of people, a lot to read and a lot to take in. Tuning the world out is one way we keep from hyperactivity here.
Besides, stop New Yorkers on the street and ask them how to get somewhere. They will go out of their way to give you the best directions. Stand in a subway looking confused for five minutes, and someone will stop and ask you if you need help. Watch the cups of the homeless people on the street fill up with change. Sit on the subway late at night with a bunch of strangers and listen to their conversations. Go to the coffeeshops and fill up on existential philosophy, politics and literature. This isn’t an unfriendly city; it’s a city full of interesting, driven people with heart and passion.
To be sure, not everyone can make it here. There’s no Southern-style hospitality. It’s expensive (rent alone is over half of most people’s paychecks). Suddenly, a 400-square foot apartment is considered ample size for two people. It gets cold in the winter, hot and smelly in the summer. It’s dirty. It’s loud. Cabbies are scary drivers, and the subways can be perplexing to a newcomer. It takes a certain amount of grit, a degree of flexibility. When the subway stops on the tracks for 10 minutes and makes you late, you must have an ability to see the humor in frustrating situations. The city is a revolving door for many people. Change is the only constant. But those who stay, who find their favorite little haunts, get used to the tiny spaces and seek out fellowship, find an amazing portrait of God’s love for diversity and humanity.
I used to laugh at people who wrote love letters to New York. They all do, sooner or later. Writers like O. Henry and E.B. White and people in The New Yorker can’t help but fall in love with the city – its pulsing life and bright lights. I watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan last night and was startled to realize that I would have smiled unknowingly at the opening montage of black-and-whites a year ago. Now I’ve been to all those places. And here I am, writing my own love letter to New York. I love this city. And God loves this city. It’s bursting at the seams with His children.
I’m leaving my beloved West Village tomorrow for new digs in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’s quieter than Manhattan and there’s no tourists. The commute to work is a little longer and there’s more strollers on the sidewalk, but I’ve already found some new favorite places for coffee and shopping. Another neighborhood to explore, another phase in my life and another New York blessing.