Happy four-month anniversary, New York. My relationship with you has been measured out in MetroCards—which is to say, “Happy $416!”
Speaking of your subway system: it hasn’t always been easy. Trying to get anywhere here sometimes feels like trying to push a rusty shopping cart with one funky wheel up a mountain while being pursued by snakes; it’s a frenzied claustrophobic feeling that makes you want to scream and hit things with sticks—especially on the R-train, a behemoth that rumbles along so jankily that four miles takes an hour and you’re perpetually falling over into some old woman’s lap. But I’m starting to get used to it. And after having visited The High Line and the polar bears, living in Queens and then Brooklyn, I think it’s time to talk more about my feelings toward you.
This isn’t exactly a love letter, believe me.
What is it about New York that makes you want to scream at people? I have always been impatient and impulsive and a little bit crazy, but, until now, I have never shuffled behind people on a subway platform and started screaming in my head because they’re slower than me. Who knew that I was capable of ire like this—that so much temper could sit coiled in one tiny hurt locker?
Before moving here, I was effusive and sensitive, a walking fear grin. I’d visit New York and see Midwestern tourists (MY BRETHREN!) and think, “THIS PLACE IS AWESOME RIGHT (albeit a little bit dirty)?? I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE ENJOYING THE STREET MUSICIANS—WOW YEAH THAT $20 CHARCOAL PORTRAIT LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU!” Nowadays I watch them block approaching subway doors and feel even more claustrophobic than when I was stuck behind them on the stairs—because I know they’ll just giggle or stand there confused with their backpacks on backward until some skinny bitch with a dog on her arm tries to get off the train and sends them scattering with, “YO FATSOS, FUCKING MOVE.”
Out here, no one stops for anything. The other day I saw an SUV almost slam a bicyclist—and when the cyclist gave a palms out “WTF?” gesture , the driver screamed out the window to get the fuck out of her way because she was taking her daughter to acting class. On the same day, I saw somebody walking while dressing a wound.
In New York, every single person is that person, who, after a four-hour-or-some bus ride—at the first faraway sighting of the final destination—stands with his or her back bent underneath those overhead jets, bags clutched, prepared to jump into the aisle so that they might get off the bus one second sooner.
In Wisconsin, no one honks their horn, not even in traffic, not ever—civility is mandatory, even in subzero weather—a fact of life that did not exactly prepare me for my first real New York City confrontation.
It happened in the checkout line at K-Mart. Things had started off nicely enough with Gloria, the cashier—by which I mean I approached her with a typically forced and probably obnoxious (but at that point, knee jerk) Midwestern mojo: “I finally got a place!” I blurted to her, gesturing at the sheets and pillows on the conveyor belt, folding my exhausted face into a big, fake smile.
Gloria didn’t care. She squinted at me, then started yelling about not pressing enter on the credit card slide thing before she told me to. When I said it was not my fault, she called me a moron. I demanded to see her manager, and while other customers stood in line looking angry or bored, or embarrassed for me, she and I stomped over to her superior. “Her highness is having a tantrum,” Gloria mumbled as we walked. “Nice fake teeth,” I blurted. I don’t know why I said this, as Gloria had nice teeth, but she quickly shot back, “Nice fake tits.” I stood there for a moment, shocked, looking down at my egg-sized bosoms, feeling vaguely delighted.
Between the shouting there’s crying. The New York Street Cry is apparently something people know about. Maybe there’s just never enough space at home—with all the roommates and Ikea furniture—to get a proper wail in.
I indulged in a few street cries my first month here. When my boyfriend was still considering moving to Qatar instead of to New York, I staggered into Union Square and spent $90 on beauty projects and then walked around bawling my eyes out, smelling like a perfume called “Lust.”
Midwestern tourists stopped and clucked softly at me, eyes agape—and at first I thought it was some kind of inherent ESP bond based on shared homelands. But then I remembered that I was basically naked that day, wearing shorts that looked like black underpants and a crop top, and big sunglasses—“Lolita-esque,” said the friend who eventually rescued me. Given my sometimes prepubescent-looking body, these tourists probably thought that I was a child prostitute.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m as infatuated with this place in the same clichéd way of any twenty-something, though not necessarily in the clichéd way of poems and literature that try to tote the “bright lights big city” as something romantic; I love New York like you love an interesting or provocative friend who isn’t necessarily very nice and desperately needs to shower. Ultimately, it isn’t the bright lights that get to me. But I like how sometimes when the train whizzes by, garbage on the tracks catches fire.
And maybe, in a way, I like what New York is doing to me. Because before settling in here, I could be passive to the point of infuriating. Back when I first lived here, I remember walking through Chinatown to get a “manicure five dollar,” and when the manicurist asked me if I wanted my fingernails “rounded” or “square,” I responded unhelpfully, but earnestly, “WHATEVER’S EASIEST!”
At least now I know how to say what I want. Whether it’s a free drink because the busboy threw away my meal before I was finished, or for someone to “go straight to hell” because they nearly football-tackled me trying to get off the train.
I guess in the end there’s something sort of great about fighting and weeping with strangers. Maybe there’s something romantic, even, about being on the warpath. Because in New York, screaming in someone’s face can be a form of much needed connectivity—a release from the scuttling of crowds.
It’s like with Gloria and me: we raised our voices and said mean things; her voice wavered and my pulse raced. And even though in the moment I couldn’t shake the embarrassed feeling of being one of those awful and entitled customers, in retrospect I think we probably both really needed someone to yell at. My only regret is that we didn’t end the sparring session by crying together—our bodies coming together in a warm embrace as K-Mart customers stumbled by unfeelingly.
My boyfriend lived in Minnesota for a while and says that Midwestern niceties are more fake, and that New York kindness, when it appears, is more sincere. I think that out here, you’re just so hungry for what you can get that when you do get it, you’re that much more grateful. And because of that there is something more beautiful about New York kindness, when it does appear. With so many reference points for coldness, suspicion, and rage, simple niceties feel profound and charged with kinship.
Like, the other day I sat next to this woman, who warned me about rapists in the area and told me how, when her kids were younger and she had more energy, she’d sew them little pants. And even though we eventually ran out of things to talk about—because it was the R train, which, as I’ve insinuated, shuffles along at the pace of a blind woolly mammoth—it was nice. Or rather, she was nice, and because of that, I thought about her all day.
There’s other things I like: like those homeless women who are always yelling at my boyfriend for no reason to appreciate me more. I like those crazy homeless women.
I like the Chinese grocer-woman near my apartment, who, the minute I step through the door, begins screaming about the greed of her competitors and about how her cilantro only costs 50 cents, and then gives me a jar of free salsa because, “YOU MAKING FROM SCRATCH SALSA, THAT STUPID, EVERY TIME YOU COME HERE I GIVE YOU A PRESENT, YOU REMEMBER!”
I like the irrelevance of traffic laws in New York—and how, when I’m riding my bike, I’m usually breaking many of them, but no one arrests me. In Wisconsin, with nothing else happening really (except the regular ticketing of black people), sloppy biking would be grounds enough for sirens, a talking to, a written warning. In New York, the other cyclists might be uppity, but the police officers have murderers to catch.
So there it is, New York: I guess you’ve changed me. It’s not true love, exactly. It’s more of an arranged marriage—a growing familiarity and bond forged from struggles. I’m slowly adjusting to everything from the screaming baristas to the constant motion—the never stoppingness. These days, when the R train lurches under me I stay upright.