How to Be a New Yorker

Terribly useful rules for life

<p>How to Be a New Yorker</p>
Ward Sutton

In 1964, Doubleday published "a terribly useful guide" called, terribly usefully, How to Be a New Yorker, by Joan and Leslie Rich. Joan was a Brooklyn-born native who ventured as far as Las Vegas before returning to the East Coast; Les was born and raised in Houston, where, after getting out of the Army, he became the arts and entertainment editor for the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle. Deciding that his future was in New York, he moved to the city and met Joan.

The two married, had a son, and were living on Third Avenue when the book was published, at first in installments that ran in Sunday supplements of the New York Herald Tribune. As their book flap promises, "Joan and Leslie Rich are a young and talented team, in which Joan supplies the ideas and Les supplies the first draft; then they fight bitterly until a final version emerges."

Alas, that battle goes on no longer. The Riches have passed on, but their son, Steve, now in his forties, is married and working as a lawyer in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. He still considers himself a New Yorker. "That's my hometown," he says. "Everything they write about in that book, they learned from living here."

Les and Joan Rich on their wedding day, in 1961. &ldquo;She was the most beautiful girl,&rdquo; wrote Les.
Courtesy Steve Rich
Les and Joan Rich on their wedding day, in 1961. “She was the most beautiful girl,” wrote Les.
Les Rich mugging for the camera with Joan in the early 1960s.
Courtesy Steve Rich
Les Rich mugging for the camera with Joan in the early 1960s.

How to Be a New Yorker sets out to counter the "most pernicious of Manhattan's myths" that keep "New Yorkers in spirit" from living in New York or cause them to flee all too soon: "You can't get a decent apartment here, can't keep a car, can't get a job without mysterious connections . . . the prices, people, and public transportation are all pure horror, and so on." There are 12 chapters, including "How to keep your dignity on the subway and other unlikely places," "How to happen to meet other charming, attractive people like you," and "How to love thy neighbor even when he's a New Yorker."

Despite its age, the book is relevant, hilarious, bloggy, and entirely New York. From Chapter 1, "Why all New Yorkers should live in New York":

A New Yorker, we assume, is someone who:

• Is boiling with ambition

• Is absorbed by high finance or high fashion, high artistry or high living

• Has an implacable hatred for all barbecue pits

• Recently gave away his bed to make room for another bookcase

• Seldom notices what nationality other people are

• Is addicted to the theater, concerts, and all other forms of entertainment except Championship Bowling

• Has never danced the Frug, and is indifferent to pop art, but likes to be in places where foolish trends like that get started

• And finally, in view of all this, really ought to be in New York.

I don't remember when I decided I was a New Yorker, but I do remember moving here, from Alabama, by way of Georgetown University, in 1998. My first apartment was a maybe-400-square-foot three-bedroom walk-up on the Upper East Side that I shared with two high school friends. We acquired it through the furtive handing of a wad of cash, as instructed by our broker, to our soon-to-be landlord when we arrived to view it for the first time. There was no quibbling. It cost $2,100 a month, divided three ways, leaving $700 from my paycheck after taxes. (I quickly learned the joys of off-brand mac and cheese, which was only 33 cents a box.) Finally on our own in the city of our dreams, the three of us moved in immediately despite the fact that we had no furniture and slept side by side on a pile of T-shirts. The floor murmured underneath us all night from trucks clanking up First Avenue.

Your first New York might not be your "best" New York, but it's one you'll never forget.

To me, moving to New York City was a promise to fulfill, even if only to myself. At the time, I didn't think about what it meant to be a New Yorker—I just wanted to get here. Getting here, though, turns out to be less than half the battle.

So, what is a New Yorker, and what does it take to be one? We can think of a few terribly useful rules to supplement what the Riches figured out 47 years ago.

Be undaunted. One desperate, hungover morning early in my New York tenure, I had the misfortune of needing to go from 72nd Street to 22nd Street, following what should have been an easy course down Second Avenue. I hailed a cab in the 70s, and when the driver asked me where to go, I had some sort of minor brain spasm that resulted in me repeating over and over again, more and more determinedly, "Secondy-Second and Second!" My driver turned around and asked if I was OK. Mustering all my strength, I raised two fingers and said, "Two, two, and two." He nodded, gamely fixed his eyes back on the road, and delivered me to my destination.

As the Riches say, it's hard to live here, whether that means getting an apartment, getting a job, commuting, having a social life, finding someone to date, or simply communicating. But instead of crawling into a manhole and expiring, we persevere. Steve Rich tells us his parents scored their rent-controlled Upper East Side place by being first in line when someone died, a handy tactic they write about in their book: "People have been known to read the obituaries, write down promising addresses, and turn up next morning to casually say to the superintendent, 'I understand you might have a vacancy here. I might be interested. Here are my references.'"

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