It’s tough not to have preconceptions.
“In New York, this. In New York, that.”
Regardless of the subject, (be it bagels or fashion), the statement was often a profession of what was the best, or which was the smartest/most efficient way to do something. I used to find that formulaic phrase very annoying. While its annoyance has not completely evaporated for me, I realize my reaction was about an Angeleno being offended by the audacity of NY pride . “This place is the best and the only place to live and I’m gonna shove it down your throat.” By the assholes, I guess. But there’s a difference between being an asshole and being assertive.
It’s amazing how my communication has shifted even in such a short period of time. Getting around this maze necessitates being swift and assertive, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Last week I surprised myself speaking quickly while asking a grocery clerk a question. You may forget to say Hello sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. So I understand why this city has the reputation for molding people into brazen ball-busters, and how the city’s fierce cultural identity instills much pride. It helps you swim.
For example, something negative I heard from several people is that in New York, even though you are surrounded by tons and tons of people, you can feel very alone. Though I haven’t yet had the horrible, snowy commute that would lead me to think so, I can concede the point. A lack of both personal, intimate space combined with complete anonymity is a recipe for something disheartening. On the other hand, I’ve never gone out alone so much in my life and it’s absolutely empowering. Most of the time the establishment’s employee has many more distractions than the customer who just needs to be out of her apartment. Maybe this is also an evolution of my social nightlife. I don’t know. Seems like a scam.
What has not surprised me, however, is the general feeling of homogeneity. It’s like any other big city. I walk around any part of town surrounded by a mix of ethnicities, hearing Polish, Arabic, and Chinese from native speakers. It’s a beautiful, cacophonous, cultural symphony. But then all of a sudden, a strong local accent cuts through the hubbub like a scythe.
I was crossing the street near my apartment in Greenpoint, and a man in a mid-size, Plymouth-type car had poked his nose out across Manhattan Ave. A few cars pass, but then comes a loud honk from a white, industrial van right behind him. In a zooming baritone voice with a classic New York accent I hear “Go! What’s your problem? Go! Stupid. Fuckin. Idiot.” Straight from the babe’s mouth, that one was. It’s subversive in a weird way. I had the same reaction in Boston whenever I’d hear the Southie accent. The unexpected tonality pins me back to the mat. Whatever personal, inner journey I’m hyperbolizing in my mind at that moment disappears completely.
At my ripe age of 28, I’ve lived in four other large cities. Besides navigating public transportation and the daily reality of communication, a third key to me for understanding a new home city is exploring its history. Boston has its brownstones. New York has its bridges, Art Deco skyscrapers, and its public parks.
I spent a late morning meeting with a friend in Prospect Park, which is about 4 miles deep into the borough of Brooklyn. After dodging the multitudes of pedestrians sweating on the bike path, I stepped off into the first clearing of Long Meadow and gasped. It is bucolic, tranquil, and a respite. I wanted to run across the sudden mile of open grass. The blue sky, unobstructed by concrete and stacks of apartments, was staggering. It was a time warp back to the 19th century. I imagined ladies in hoop skirts, taking afternoon strolls in the woods, to take a picnic lunch with their families and feed the swans by the lake. (I found the whole thing especially pleasurable because I was in the middle of binge-watching every season of Parks and Recreation on Netflix. So I also imagined the hundreds of Rons, Leslies and Jerrys it took to maintain such a beautiful place.) Even further back, it was the site for The Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776. Though a loss for George Washington and the fellas, it was a thrill to walk those hills feeling a tinge of patriotism, and to envision Pre-Industrial America in its hey-hey-heyday.
I get the same feeling sitting across from Strand Book Store in the East Village, sipping a coffee, my winnings from the day’s shopping by my side. It was precisely like sitting in a cafe in the Rive Gauche area of Paris, eating a fucking chocolate croissant from a paper bag. The air is textured with the footsteps and conversations of the past. Of Anaïs Nin, Picasso, Serge Gainsbourg. Of Mapplethorpe, Dylan, and Frank O’Hara. Sitting on top of the massive creative undercurrent of these artists’ legacies has a downright holy vibe to it. The streets may be concrete and stone, but the ghosts of 60’s counterculture still dance up and down the street.
It is curious to live in Greenpoint. It is calmer & quieter, sceney for sure, but I also cannot put my finger on a moving target. Word is it’s like Williamsburg circa 2004. I am among the 2nd flood of young creatives participating in the gentrification of an ethnically diverse, blue-collar neighborhood that centers around its waterfront industry. But only a couple blocks away from the East River Ferry, the sight of a film crew on a street corner is a guarantee. I am by all means still a newb. Hell, I haven’t even been to Central Park yet, and I don’t own a winter coat. I’ve got deeper still to go, money to find, open mics to check out, and preconceptions to question.