“So where are you from?” The new guy asked me. I eyed him carefully. He was probably old enough to be my father (though I wasn’t yet old enough to be a good judge of other people’s age) and I just figured he spotted me for a newbie, an immigrant to our fair city, and it was my job to set him straight.
“Me? I’m from New York,” with no uncertain amount of pride. Who cares that over 2 million people are born here every year? (I am totally making that number up.) I probably didn’t deserve any credit for being from the Big Apple, but I wanted to claim it as my own, just the same. The old guy looked at incredulously.
“You’re not from New York!” He cried. “Nobody is actually *from* New York!” I smiled at him. I was, and I knew it. I’d seen the City in its darkest times and I’d been mugged on the streets and I had my New York, certainly more than this man, who (I figured) had come to New York from Ohio, or maybe even Missouri (the OTHER side of the OTHER river). I had Steinberg’s view of the world. My mother had hung a poster of the New Yorker cover on the wall of our floor of our apartment building.
I didn’t even know how to drive. That’s how much of a New Yorker I was. All of you who live elsewhere in this country, have you ever even heard of such a thing? A young woman who is almost proud of the fact that she’s been legally allowed to buy alcohol for over a year, but doesn’t know how to park a car?
My New York City had improved over the years. I was born two days after the Watergate Break In, which means President Ford refused to bail out my home town before I started elementary school (my father even worked for the newspaper which ran the headline, “Ford to City, ‘Drop Dead’”). I remember Needle Park, the junkie who died on my very block, unfortunately in the spot between Broadway and the entrance to my elementary school, so too many parents had to explain to their children who the man who didn’t look like he was sleeping was doing in the alley. By the mid 90s New York had reinvented itself a few times, and Mayor Giuliani was busy criminalizing homeless behavior, so as to push the homeless into prisons and hospitals, to make the city SEEM like it was doing better, without having to actually improve it.
New York City had changed many times in the past 40 some years. So I had many New Yorks. The New York of the mid 70s, when my Dad would walk me to a Nursery School on 122nd street. I remember him holding my hand as I walked on a railing belonging to Teachers’ College, and I could see the Manhattan Valley open up before me; so many buildings and people living their lives. It didn’t matter that this was not the New York that people travelled to see, this was where I was going, this was the world I entered; diverse, full of smells from all over, with an elevated subway that would rattle just loudly enough to cover all the arguments people were having. That New York smelled of pot, dashed dreams, and fresh bread from the store across the street. Why would we have been walking down what was, by the time we’d passed the hill, the WRONG side of Broadway? I don’t know, but I can still smell the freshly baked bread, and I think I remember seeing the store still there in the waning days of the 20th century. What was it called? Oh, yes, The Bread Store.
Then there was 57th street; which my father made us walk across every six weeks for 5 years, while I was having my teeth fixed. We would exit the 7th Avenue IRT stop at the southern end, on 57th street, and turn east, passing Carnegie Hall, the Plaza was a few blocks to the North, Tiffany’s was right there, and we would have seen Alexander’s, but I wasn’t paying attention to clothes yet, so I never noticed it. We saw people being driven in Hansom Cabs around those few tony blocks where the Upper East Side slipped into midtown. I had seen the Arena at Columbus Circle when there was a huge fair with Chinese arts and crafts there. It was the New York that promised “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere,” like Frank Sinatra sang, but it also decayed into a city that inspired fear in many. 57th street smelled like Daisy Buchanan’s voice, it smelled of money. Yes, my father remembered walking along 125th street and being greeted by Adam Clayton Powell. “How you doin, buddy?” Mr. Powell would say. Yes, the cultural mecca of New York remained, but it got gritty and hard. Reaganomics spread poverty over the city as mom spread cream cheese on her toasted bagel. Drugs hit our city hard, and the junkie who died on my school’s corner was just one victim of the Drug War. How did we survive?
We didn’t know any better. We didn’t talk to strangers. This was our normal, panhandlers on the corner, don’t go out after dark, call your father when you get to your friend’s house, look like you know where you’re going, particularly when you don’t.
But also, we had our corners, our little worlds: The bodega where the cashier knew us; The stationary store run by our next door neighbor; The little luncheonette across the street that got written up in the New York Times (not some local tabloid, the fucking Newspaper of Record), and the crazy people who sat on the park benches were part of our world, too. Many of these institutions would change, owners would retire or be bought out; stores would become local chains challenging the bigger supermarkets. Even the local crazies eventually died off, and we would notice, but know not to ask anyone what exactly had happened. My parents’ friends left Manhattan for Brooklyn, and we would see them a few times a year. Then the friends would move to New Jersey (technically closer to us than Brooklyn) and we would never see them again.
There is the Astoria of my early adulthood, where the bagel shop knew my order and would call it out when I entered the store. This Astoria is affordable, with cute little houses and illegal sublets. It smells of youthful exuberance and cigarette smoke. It is also SO 20th Century, because by the time I returned to New York City from Texas, Astoria was just another expensive neighborhood in a ridiculously expensive town.
There is the Brooklyn of now, which smells of young people starting families (you think fertility doesn't smell? Have you ever been to a playground?). This Brooklyn smells like a melting pot, of the new people, more new to New York City than new to the 'hood, but also new to America at all. It smells of the people who've lived there forever, and who glare at me for being an infiltrator, or, more likely, part of the gentrification. I'll bet this Brooklyn smells differently than the Brooklyn Heights of the 80s, which I went to....three times, perhaps? Twice to visit the people who later moved to New Jersey, and once for a class party in elementary school. That Brooklyn's smell has been drowned among other smells of childhood.
The New York of my youth has priced itself out. It doesn’t exist anymore, as people can’t afford to live anywhere on the salaries they get paid. But I know The Mill Korean Restaurant is a second generation immigrant spot. The owners I knew were Concentration Camp survivors who saw things I can’t imagine, but managed to come to The Big Apple and make a success story of their lives, eventually selling the shop and retiring to (where else?) Florida.
That didn’t mean that the neighborhood amenities were unpleasant. My experience has always been that the people who see you every day are nice to you, provided you are nice to them. The waitress will memorize your order, if you’re so dull as to order the same brunch every week. The employees of Rainbow Chicken, on 108th street and Broadway, would spot my father opening the door and call out, “One whole chicken. No cut!” because my father didn’t want them to hack his dinner into tiny pieces and they knew that.
My home town. New Yorkers don’t know you when you move there, but stay here long enough, and we’ll all recognize our own.