Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

New York City: finding home in a city of 8.25 million

My first thought after stepping off the plane was, “Is my wallet safe?”   Taking my dad’s advice, I shipped off from Boise, Idaho with some $500 in my wallet for New York, where, he threatened, credit cards don’t work and there are pickpockets lurking on every corner.   I was largely unfazed by his advice: he hadn’t been in the city since the early ’90s, and, being far more worldly than I, it seemed likely that he was joking.   Regardless, I took an excessively thick wad of cash with me.   When I got off the plane at Laguardia, my Spidey-sense started to tingle, and had I sufficient medical equipment, I would have duct taped my money to the internal organ that I thought would be most likely to be overlooked by a thief.

New York is nowhere near as hostile a place as my imagination had made it out to be, but the people there aren’t friendly, either: in fact, most people I saw seemed too focused on some destination or goal to be socially cognizant at all.   The people standing at crosswalks, in line at restaurants, on their ways to work all seemed driven to the point that auxiliary concerns like the people around them were not only ignored, but impossibly far away.

I got a sense of this when my hostess, a student at NYU, had a long shift at the Apple Store in SoHo, and told me to take care of myself for a day.   “Go down 6th Ave.,” she said.   “Hang a right.”   I was terrified.   For one thing, I was unaccustomed to New York’s pace (one doesn’t simply stroll), but after a few hours of hanging my right I got the hang of keeping pace with pedestrian traffic, ignoring the gibbering homeless hopelessly begging for change, and steering clear of Little Italy.

All this was very exciting, and New York made a tiny home inside me.   I learned the city’s geography and gained a sense of direction.   I learned how to queue, and how to have my money ready when I got to a cash register.   I ate delicious sushi and cheesecake.   I felt very urbane, and then something happened.

I don’t mean to generalize, but New Yorkers have a thing for dogs, which still strikes me as unnatural.   In a place where the only thing that is not left to its own devices is nature, dogs seem to rule.   The sun was setting behind me as I walked through a charming SoHo neighborhood, and just-off-work New Yorkers were out walking their absurd dogs, minding their own business like everybody else.

One of these dogs, an ageing black lab with white around its mouth sniffed up to me and suddenly licked my hand.   The owner of the dog: a dark-haired woman of about 40, dressed tidily but casually: seemed appalled, tugged on the leash, and looking into my eyes, said, “Sorry, he has a mind of his own.”   I’m accustomed to dogs, and frequently pet them on the street, but there on that street, in that city, there is something intimate about touching somebody else’s dog, and the dog’s owner knew it.

I wish I could have responded to what she said with something more expressive than “uh huh.”   Never before in my life have I felt it so necessary to be understood: to employ my diplomatic skills: and shamefully, I feel like I failed utterly.   Of course, nothing more was expected of me.   What was I supposed to say?   “Your dog moves me?”   “I’m homesick?”   These things sound ridiculous, now that I articulate them, but I felt the need to say them because suddenly, I felt that I was moved and homesick keenly.

After spending a day ignoring people, or being lost in my own thoughts, or pretending to have a destination, I felt appallingly hollow and out of place.   The smallest courtesy, the smallest familiarity brought me to my knees, and that urbanity I’d thought I’d acquired was all Ego.
The thought of the woman and her dog haunted me that night as I looked out my 14th story window.   I wondered about the neighborhood I saw her in, and about the other people who live there.   The trajectory of their lives seemed comparable to mine: they own dogs; pursue work, friends and love; enjoy good food: and yet have chosen to live in this place I’d begun to unconsciously assume was socially sterile.

And so I reevaluated my opinion of New York City.   Which is to say, I no longer have one.   It’s too simplistic for me to say that a place is what you make of it.   The woman and her dog were counterpoints to a xenophobia I didn’t know existed.   Liberal institutions, like the one we happen to attend, encourage us to face our prejudices and combat feelings that close us off from experience, but these feelings have a backhanded route into our lives, and even the most orthodox social liberals have their prejudices.

The next day, as I walked past the Ukrainian National Congress, I was inspired by the enormous pendant of Taras Shevchenko hanging precariously over the door.   Born into Serfdom, Shevchenko is the Ukrainian national artist, and is reputedly revered by Ukrainians for his vindication of their language and his disgust for social injustice.   During the Soviet era, the nationalism of his work was downplayed, and instead he was read as opposing bourgeois economic structures through his hatred of serfdom.

One hopes that they are not misread.

After some consideration, I concluded that I had no opinion of New York.   Certainly, things are done differently, but I’m not a rugged or rootless “internationalist,” nor do I feel that the point of my writing this is to say that I confronted my latent fear of New York City: to be more accurate, it confronted me.   It looked me in the eye, it spoke a few words, its dog licked my hand.

No, the point I’d like to make about my experience is that I had neglected the human element.   Some part of me, blooming from the mythos of that enormous metropolis, forgot that all 8.25 million of its residents have at least that much in common with me.   It’s easy to forget when you don’t make eye contact with anybody for a few hours, and I think there are a lot of New Yorkers who do forget, probably for days or weeks at a time.   It can make a person hard, living like that, and what amazes me is how something so off the cuff as a few words broke my straight-ahead gaze.

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    peter franklinApr 24, 2008 at 6:36 am

    harrison berry has a father who is a real jerk. what a stupid thing to say to his kid.

    as far as friendly goes, i have been in boise idaho and you all must be related to each other in nastiness.

    harrison, stay away from nyc and go move your steers or whatever you yokels do when you are watching people getting haircuts at the local barber shop.

    if you come back to nyc, i will have my own wonderful dog piss on your shoes.