Friday, October 26, 2012

On New York: Notes to a First-Time Tourist (named Dad)

The thing about New York is…well, there are many things about New York.  There are the touristy things, which you’ll see soon enough.  There are the foodie things, which hopefully you’ll get to sample.  There are the special event and celebrity and glamorous and gritty and mysterious things.  There are the city stereotypes, the very rich and the very poor things.  There is the New York of history and the New York of the movies.  But amidst it all, there is the New York of the everyday.

My everyday consists of my apartment on Fulton Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.  I’m fairly certain that you will hate where I live.  You will see the trash, the dirt, the poverty.  You will hear the profanity on every block and feel the social threat of being the racial minority. You will see the shops after shops of cheap shoes and poorly organized trinkets, clusters of men sitting outside them at all times, sharing gossip in languages you cannot understand. You will see the racks of poorly made clothing for sale and peek inside of countless bodegas that smell like cat food, and you will wonder what shady business keeps them all open.

You’ll see the woman on the corner of Fulton and Nostrand, right at the entrance to the Manhattan-bound A train, who holds a crude cross fashioned out of cheap pipe and sings the handful of simplistic hymns that she knows, constant and loyal to her post despite being unable to carry any kind of tune and despite the people streaming past without a glance in her direction.  You will see the homeless man who sits in his wheelchair outside the McDonald’s every morning, boom box resting on the remaining stumps of his legs as he opens the door for everyone and rattles his plastic SuperSize cup of change (a relic now).

When we reach the door to my apartment, you will cringe, partly because you dislike my location and partly because the 24-hour halal restaurant contains a buffet of food that looks wholly unappetizing and smells even worse.  You’ll need to hold your breath as we enter the stairwell, and don’t look too closely at the layer of dirt in this hallway. You’ll feel a little better once we get to my room, once you see the personal effects of your little girl, once you see how even in this place that seems so foreign, so different from the places you’ve moved her into before, she’s managed to make it her own and to spread her personality throughout the room.  Of course, then you’ll get a whiff of the restaurant directly below you, and you’ll become aware of just how loud the street is and how pervasive the bass beat is from the passing cars.

But I urge you to consider the neighborhood and where I live.  Consider that it may not be my first choice, but this is what my salary permits – and barely that.  Rest assured that at least it’s a busy street, and there is almost always someone milling about, and the light is constant.  Consider that it’s probably good for you to experience being a minority, to get out of your comfort zone a bit.  Because what it really does is confront you, showing you what “comfortable” means to you and how your assumptions can sometimes be almost as dangerous as the perceived threat.  Consider also that this neighborhood does have a tumultuous history, but at least it has a history, a character, something identifiable and devoid of the blandness of suburbia. Consider also the beautiful brownstones and the unique architecture that peeks out from the corners, above empty lots filled with refuse, beyond the boarded up windows, and amidst disrepair.  Consider it.

Accept the fact that you can’t be a germophobe and be in New York.  You can’t think what substances might cling to the subway poles that you grip as you lose your balance, or you’ll never get anywhere.  Accept that nearly every block below Central Park will be filled with storefronts and bodegas and commercialism.  But don’t forget to look up. Take a step back and look above street level to see the city soaring above you, to feel awed by the incredible amount of possibility behind so many windows and so much unique architecture.  Enjoy how different each neighborhood of the city is, how you can move seamlessly from corporate to cultured America with just a few steps or a subway stop.

Above all, accept – and learn to enjoy – the fact that New York is a place of confrontation.  There will be a time when the train is running behind and the crowd around you grows, then moves as one mass toward the opening doors once the train finally comes.  You’ll be forced to pack in with these strangers, and all you can do is pray they don’t smell.

But some will.  Some will wear insane outfits, but more will look just like you.  Some will be fashionable, and others simply comfortable.  Some will talk loudly, brashly, offensively, but most will be silent, lost in their own worlds.  Some will beg, some will perform, some will leave you questioning their sanity, but most will ignore you.  Some are incredibly beautiful, some are frightfully disheveled and worn, but most are unremarkable at first glance.

You will see these people on the subway, on the street, on any path you take.  You will see men in perfectly tailored suits and women in heels so high they can barely walk. You will see youth on skateboards cutting you off, and you will see people crouched against walls, clutching a cardboard sign and begging for aid.  You will see gay couples, drag queens, PDA of all kinds.  You will see people young and in love, groups of friends going out for the weekend and laughing merrily, other tourists enjoying the city.  You will see homeless men and women sleeping on the train and on subway benches.  You will be confronted by mixed emotions with all of these – with fear or disgust fighting madly with compassion and the desire to give a few dollars.  And eventually you’ll realize that you’ve walked past a sleeping bundle of human without thinking anything at all. In this you will also be confronted.

Above all, the everyday of New York can confront who you are – who you thought you were and who you might be in such a vivid metropolitan context.  You may like it, and you very well may not.  But this is what I want you to realize about this urban everyday more than anything else: I want you to be amazed by both the good and the bad.  By the extremes of poverty and pain you might see and by the heights of culture and wealth that you’ll glimpse.  I want you to be amazed by the stories of New York, by the realization that behind whatever rich, poor, beautiful, haggard, joyous, pained, laughing, crying, black, white, clean, dirty, old, young, contemplative, confrontational face you see is a story, a life you know nothing about.  There are millions of them here, constantly bumping into each other and changing in imperceptible ways, always adapting to the other stories they encounter or the circumstances the city may throw at them.

The particulars of your trip here, the tourist spots and the good food you’ll encounter, will create a story of your own.  They’ll come as they may.  But I hope that you’ll take a second even to leave your eyes open wide, to try to see and love some of this everyday New York.

(But you can also like the Empire State Building, too.)