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Monday, October 23, 2006

NYC Personality

No matter how many times I visit big cities, I still feel like a backwoods hillbilly gawking at civilization for the first time whenever I find myself surrounded by concrete canyons, honking traffic, and millions of people bustling along the sidewalks.

The awe started last night as our plane descended over New York City just after 3 a.m. (we were supposed to arrive at about 11 p.m., but mechanical delays kept us sitting in the SLC airport for a few hours). Peering out the window I studied patterns of orange and white lights and tried to piece together a map. As the East River bridges became unmistakable, I began to feel that excitement of arriving in a place where big things happen all the time. A Haitian taxi cab driver met us at baggage claim (we exchanged a few words in Creole, but his English was better than my Creole, so that exercise ended quickly) and drove like a crazy man through the west end of Long Island, across a very utilitarian Queensborough bridge (not nearly as cool as the lit up suspension lines of the Brooklyn Bridge), through a maze of narrow streets, past Central Park, and to our hotel.

Today (after we slept in) was filled with a magazine conference, and there was little time for the big city wonder—except for my hero worship as I heard three high-level folks at Time Inc. speak (the managing editor of Money, the editor of the new startup Cottage Living, and the research director for all of Time—they publish tons of major mags, from People to Sports Illustrated... and, of course, Time).

Then this evening, Peter (my coworker) and I headed downtown to meet his brother for dinner. The subway, actually, was the first thing that kindled my wide eyes and my tourist "hey, this is cool" smile. It's not like I've never ridden on a metropolitan transit train before. I lived in Chicago for nearly a year and the El took me everywhere. But the experience is just rare enough in my life now that when I do it there's that mixture of unfamiliarity and adventure that builds a certain giddiness. The whole complexity of the system is part of it—a network of lines tangled through the city map as if someone spilled a plate of multi-colored spaghetti and decided the mess would work for a transit system—and when you successfully navigate a noodle (or a couple of noodles) you emerge from the subterranean station with a bit of a confident swagger, feeling like an urban veteran not a just-off-the-plane hick.

But most of my childlike awe is derived from the parade of humanity displayed in a big city subway system. Colors, religions, cultures, occupations, ages, hair styles, clothing styles, body decoration, accents, vocabulary—you encounter so much of it in a brief 20 minute ride on a train. They come and they go and they squish in around you. They stand next to you and look at you across the train. They have loud conversations with friends on the train or on the phone. They read books or newspapers or stare out the window or close their eyes. And for a brief moment, we're all in it together. We're all in one train car, swaying to the same forces of shifting momentum, breathing the same air, steadying ourselves with the same bar, standing closer to each other than is acceptable for conversations with old friends when you meet by chance at the store. The colorful melding of diverse human beings is—to me—delightful, and I can't help but smile at the exhilaration of being joined in a casual, everyday communal practice with types of people I could go without seeing for months in my normal Utah existence.

When we ascended from the depths on the lower east side and met up with Ned, we embarked on what I now think must be a way of life for New Yorkers: We walked and walked and walked and walked—not unlike pioneer children—to find a restaurant. The walking wasn't a result of a scarcity of restaurants, but just a condition resulting from the distance to the desired restaurant from our point of embarkation. The same thing occurred on my first trip to New York when Christine's high school friend decided we should go to one of her favorite restaurants and we walked and walked and... you get the idea.

Walking and walking in New York is not necessarily bad. It's just not what we do in Utah County. In Utah County, we drive. But this is New York and when in New York, we do as New Yorkers. So we walked and walked and encountered some delightful aspects of life in the city that you would miss in the car.

For instance, as we walked down a fairly empty Orchard Street, engaged in pleasant conversation, we were taken aback by an old Jewish shopkeeper, standing in front of his store, who greeted us enthusiastically: "Three gentlemen all smiling. That's what I like to see." We paused for a moment to respond to his warm friendly smile, and he asked us where we were from. Though he is from New York, he said, his parents are from Europe—his mother from Romania, his father from England. He looked to be in his 50s or 60s, his hair and scraggly, sparse beard was mostly white blonde, with a bit of pale orange protruding from the back of his black yarmulke. Long curly sideburns hung down in front of his ears and had been tucked up behind his ears, so they made a loop around the bottom of the ears. He wore a white, slightly wrinkled dress shirt with no tie.

He and Ned spoke briefly of the neighborhood and soon the man—Sammy, as he told us later—was beckoning us inside where he wanted to show us something. It seemed he was making reference to their conversation about the neighborhood and I thought perhaps he was going to tell us about the building or show us something of historical significance.

As we entered the shop, he gestured in passing to an even older man, similar in dress and appearance, behind a counter and said, "This is my father." We all greeted the venerable old man as if we'd just been introduced to a good friend's grandfather and then followed Sammy who was moving further into the store. It was a men's clothing store and Sammy took us quickly to a rack of coats. I began to smile as I realized we had just been taken in—literally.

"Someday, this is you," he said to Ned as he held out a nice black zip-up coat that looked to be made of wool or fleece.

"I hope it's not me," Ned joked, but Sammy didn't get it, and Ned quickly recovered. "It would look great on me, but I hope I am not someday hanging on a rack to be sold."

Sammy either still didn't get it or he didn't want to bother with laughter. A skillful conversationalist, Ned turned the talk away from coats and Sammy humored him momentarily with friendly chat. Soon, however, he proved himself no less skillful as he employed a friendly nonsequiter that made us, again, believe at first he was going to show us something of personal or historical significance. "Speaking of that, I've got something to show you upstairs." Upstairs, however, were racks and racks of suits, one of which he quickly pulled out and again targetted at Ned.

Ned fended him off, and he turned on Peter, but we were able to successfully begin the transition out of the store. Before we left, though, he managed to get me to model a very nice black leather jacket. "Feel how soft that is," said Sammy.

"Wow, think of the hug you'll get when you get home to your wife," smiled Ned.

"Yeah," I returned, "until she sees the price tag." The price tag? $750.

By now we were moving steadily to the door, but not without various attempts to lure us back in. We left—each of us fingering one of Sammy's business cards—with Sammy's invitation to return and to send our friends . . . and with bigger smiles than those we had when we entered.

Well, Sammy was by far the most entertaining aspect of the evening. But we also traversed Chinatown, where the ethnicity of passersby suddenly changed and everything, from newspapers to official city signs, was in Chinese; we admired an old Jewish synagogue, in the middle of current Chinatown; we noted a large statue of Confucius; and we dined at Katz's Delicatessen, an establishment nearly 120 years old.

As Peter and I made our way back to the hotel later, Peter commented on the unplanned personality of the city. Someone didn't sit down and map out a great way to have a city filled with personality. The personality of New York City—the many personalities of New York City—grew naturally from the people who chose to inhabit it.

In the young cities of the west, it often seems that much of a municipality's personality is strategically selected and regulated, not to mention dominated by commercial chains like Wal-Mart and McDonalds. There often doesn't seem to be much room for the sort of organic natural growth that exists in a place like New York City. Of course, many western cities also lack the diversity to feed that natural growth, so we end up with fairly homogenous, commercialized, cookie cutter suburbia.

But then maybe, just maybe, my observations of the lack of vibrant personality in the Utah cities with which I am familiar is due less to the cities themselves and more to the fact that I never leave my car at home and walk to dinner.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jeff, for recording these memories. As I read this entry again today, I realized that I would have forgotten many of the details if not for your determination to write something in the wee hours of the morning after our adventures that day.