How to Be a New Yorker


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.”

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.'”

That day in the cab, in a silly sort of way, I learned that I had resources to rely on when the usual methods failed me and that a New Yorker doesn’t give up, even if he or she is more than a bit mortified. Just as there’s always someone smarter, richer, better-looking, or more successful in this town, there’s also someone who has done something far more embarrassing. There’s a certain comfort in that.

Have a purpose. I didn’t come to New York to be a writer, though, happily, that happened. I came to New York to come to New York, and, in the long run, I came to stay. You, too, came here for a reason, whether the move to the city was initiated by you, your parents, a spouse or friend, or maybe a person you were dating and broke up with upon arrival, replacing that lost love with affection for your new town. Maybe ancestors you never knew immigrated here, leading eventually to you. Why are you here? In the words of Milton Glaser, 82-year New York resident and the creator of the “I Love New York” logo: “This is the place it happens. For the last 100 years, maybe more, it has been the place of greatest opportunity for those who want something deeply in their lives.”

If you don’t have a reason to stay in New York, you’d be well-advised to decamp for less challenging shores and leave your apartment to someone who really needs it. But for those who remain: On the terrible days that will happen, and to a greater degree than anywhere else—who hasn’t been pooped on by a pigeon while late to a meeting, and then spilled piping-hot coffee on her new white shirt to boot?—it’s helpful to remember that the New York City currently making a mockery of you will, perhaps as soon as 15 minutes from now, give in generous and unexpected quantities, especially when you know what you’re asking for. Also, dry cleaners are plentiful.

Be who you are. This is the place where the kooks and misfits we’ve been planning to grow up and become since we were youngsters can finally come to fruition. So wear a Russian ushanka in all seasons, dye your hair green, adopt a pet goat, and walk it down Broadway while reading aloud from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Or be a banker with a secret, scintillating sex life. Conquer the world you’ve decided to live in head-on, because you can.

Whatever your odd penchant, it does not mean you will be alone. “You will find companions, and you will have the possibility for finding an audience here that you couldn’t find elsewhere,” Glaser says. “Where you’d be just an eccentric in another town, here, you’re one of millions. However peculiar you are, you’re still normal by New York standards.”

Note: Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and Marathon Sunday are the bizarro-world holidays of New York City, when that which is appealingly unusual becomes completely and totally average, and you should really just hide out in your apartment, wear footie pajamas, and shout “Boo!” at the pizza delivery guy when he arrives with your pie.

Have the city’s back. You love New York, but it drives you crazy, and you wish it would hush up sometimes and leave you in peace. You have a conflicted relationship with New York: it never telling you that you were pretty, or smart, or that you could accomplish anything you set your mind to. New York spanked you when you were little. You think New York might have something to do with your issues with men. Honestly, all New York thinks about is itself! Speaking of families, the city is one of your own. Which means you can complain about it all you want, and frequently do, but if someone else starts talking shit about it, you’ll defend it with every resource in your arsenal. And when you go away, you’ll miss it like there’s a hole in your blackened, sooty, calloused old heart.

In “My Home Town,” an essay published in McCall’s Magazine in January 1928, Dorothy Parker writes: “It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, ‘Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.’ And I do — that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. . . . So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be . . .”

It is certain that at some, or many, times in your life here, someone who is not part of the family will helpfully point out: “It’s so dirty! It’s so hectic! Everything is so expensive!” and look at you wide-eyed and innocent and not a little bit self-righteous and query, “How can you live there?”

A New Yorker’s response: “How can you not?”

Parker continues: “Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of ‘Something’s going to happen.’ It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York.”

Dysfunctional families being what they are, this might be why most New Yorkers seem to be in therapy.

Be unflappable. The interests, behaviors, and banal possessions of the rest of the world do not interest you. Frankly, you’ve seen it all, and nothing is that shocking. This worldly affect must be employed in all cases, whether you are shopping for cheese next to Willem Dafoe; experiencing an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster; confronting a man in assless chaps who is wearing a rat that is wearing a baby rat for a hat; crossing heedlessly in front of a speeding Mack Truck; or being stopped on a subway train for a few minutes longer than expected. Celebrities and weirdos and the pedestrian dangers of life are not in the least bit interesting; you see them all the time. (Covers mouth to yawn.)

Exceptions must be made, however, for in-home washers and dryers, dishwashers, people who own cars, air conditioners managing to stay in windows (or not), zoo animals flying the coop, snow in October, and any and all YouTube videos featuring any of the above as well as subway fights. A real New Yorker stares and whispers in awed tones, “Only in New York!” only in the privacy of his own Internet connection. If you see something, say something—but keep it between you and people you don’t hang out with in real life. Or, as the Riches put it, have a personal panic-prevention program in case the subway does stop. (#1: “Whip out your Times and read, for the first time in your life, every word of Arthur Krock’s column.” #4: “Look around and try to guess which of your fellow passengers will be the first to panic.”)

In that first New York City apartment, not once but twice, cops came to bust brothels operating on our floor. When they attempted to batter down our door instead of our neighbors’, we opened up, pointed them in the right direction, and explained cheerily, “Oh, we’re not hookers!” To our great satisfaction, the mystery of why that man was always washing sheets in the shared laundry room had finally been solved.

Make your neighborhood your own small town. What separates the “real” New Yorkers from the tourists? You care, and in caring, your neighborhood becomes your own, with the familiarity of small-town living: There’s your coffee shop or bodega, where they adorably pretend never to know your order; your local bar, where a drink is on the house seeing as how you left your wallet there last week, and they confiscated the cash; your restaurants, where they will generously not grind the steak into the floor with their heel before serving it to you well-done; and the charming folks in your building who always want to socialize with delightful tales of yore: “Did you know that a man died in the elevator in the late ’70s? He was there for three days before they found him!”

The ultimate in putting down roots, of course, is to have your own family here and to share your hometown and all its idiosyncrasies with them. Charles Ardai, entrepreneur, writer, and lifetime New Yorker, says: “People told my parents they were crazy to raise two kids here. No one says that to me now that I’m raising my daughter here. I wish they would. I want to raise my child somewhere no sane person would raise a child. That’s how you make a New Yorker.”

The secret to raising a kid in the city, say the Riches: “Have a brilliant child. . . . He won’t mind spending long hours at home on your small terrace, because he’ll be busy out there taking samples and working on the city’s air pollution problem.”

Lament the way things change, even as you know it is inevitable. Despite our hard-edged reputation, we are, in fact, a bunch of nostalgic saps. Tough guys on the outside, pure mush in the middle. And we hate change, we really hate it, even though change has been a New York constant since before New York was born. In How to Be a New Yorker, the Riches write: “Long ago we realized that New York is the only place for heart-on-the-sleeve romantics like us, who shed tears over old monstrosities coming down, like Pennsylvania Station, and new ones going up, like the World Trade Center. Far from choosing Manhattan for its rigors and challenges, we live here because it’s the only place we’ve ever found that’s sentimental enough for us.”

To be a New Yorker is to complain about how things are not the same as they used to be, whether you’re Theodore Dreiser writing in the 1900s or Sandee Brawarsky writing about the Bowery in an essay titled, precisely, “Oh, It’s Not What It Used to Be” in The New York Times in 2000. (Now, in 2011, it is even further from what it used to be.) As Colson Whitehead puts it in “City Limits,” his intro to The Colossus of New York, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”

In my early years in the city, I would head to the East Village on weekends to bar-hop with friends. I remember cabbies questioning whether I really wanted to go to “Alphabet City”; that area wasn’t the safest, they’d explain. Of course, I went anyway. Later I moved downtown and lived on those same blocks, suddenly heavily populated with twentysomethings, small dogs, chain stores, and even the occasional high-end baby carriage. Cab drivers would laugh to themselves as they dropped me off: “You wouldn’t believe what it was like here 10 years ago,” they’d say. Oh, but I would.

Maybe we’re losing our edge, our character, our authenticity. Or maybe we’re just being New Yorkers. As Whitehead writes: “To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. . . . New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy.”

Do no harm. Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, expresses a frequent complaint: “Newcomers to New York want backyards, bicycles, and barbecues. They want Greenwich Village to be like their hometowns in Wisconsin,” he says. “Underneath this—and not very far underneath—there’s a seething hatred of urban life. They don’t like the dirt or the smells. They don’t like the kvetching and the neuroticism. They don’t like the layers of history. They want to tear it all down and make it clean and new.”

In some ways, New York is the Madonna (Ciccone, not the Virgin) of cities, constantly re-envisioning itself—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and always in a way that draws a crowd of people who follow their city’s lead and reimagine themselves as well. “What’s new,” says NYU professor of English Bryan Waterman, “is the rate at which the old is being wiped away and replaced with this homogenized reality with a really high entry point.”

Progress is varied and debatable, as is what we have to lose through change, and the two will be in conflict until the end of time. Until then, it’s up to us to defend the stories and histories we see as integral to our future, whether that means standing up for art, architecture, businesses, neighborhoods, culture, people, politics, and ways of life, or simply not doing anything to hurt them. Let the layers of history exist. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the most anti–New York behavior of all would be stagnation.

“The thing about New York is it’s based on the idea of change,” Glaser says. “It doesn’t cling to its own history and has been free to invent new ones. Some changes are horrible, others lead us somewhere. They’re discomfiting because no one likes change, but eventually, you end up somewhere else, and you discover you like that place. You may hate Starbucks, but it’s done something, and eventually it, too, will disappear. This endless capacity for reinventing itself defines the city and also the opportunity that exists here.”

Have no other choice. Perhaps you think of someday owning a cottage in Maine or a flat in Paris overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or of going back to rule your suburban town with an iron fist and a ranch house. In fact, those are options. You could move. But while you might think or talk about it, just to test the waters, even getting out of town for a weekend is a rarity that can send you into an emotional tailspin. Where will you find a 24-hour bodega to buy whatever you need, whenever you need it, should whatever need it be happens to arise? What if you require an escape and, gulp, there are no cabs or subways or buses? What if it is too quiet to sleep? After all, the country is where scary Children of the Corn–type shit happens. In the city, if you scream, someone will surely hear you and call 311 to complain. (Note: The Riches recommend developing “the proper mental attitude” toward thin walls.)

For a New Yorker, our urban landscape becomes the norm, and anything else is bewildering and foreign. Ardai says: “I literally can’t imagine living anywhere else. I view concrete the way other people view soil, buildings the way other people view mountains. New York is humankind’s greatest triumph over the natural world, a testament to human resourcefulness and persistence and sacrifice and desire. . . . That I get to live inside it is one of my greatest pleasures in life.”

Write the Riches: “We’re hooked. We’re New Yorkers. We’d move to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Louisville, but we know we’d never be able to stand all the rude people.”

Disagree at will. A New Yorker will immediately claim the prerogative to argue with any and all of these rules, “I’m a New Yorker” being an intensely metropolitan brand of fighting words. As Waterman says, “When you hear someone say they’re a New Yorker, you kind of get suspicious of them.”

But the multiplicity of ways in which you can exist as a New Yorker is sort of the whole point. Glaser says: “I almost believe there is no New York; there is only a set of projections, and it can be anything you want. It has the worst people, it has the best; it’s the worst, it’s the best. It is the acceptance of the contradictions and illusions. In any relationship, you can alternately love and hate somebody every day. New York is so mutable and surprising. Even if you don’t love it, it is always compelling, always interesting, and never boring. I do love New York.”

Being a New Yorker is something we’re all in together. At the same time, we refuse to believe we are anything but unique and uniquely driven, despite 8 million competitors fighting for a foothold of their own. This singularity amid a teeming community that’s constantly swarming closer (as much as we try to ignore it) is certainly part of what makes us New Yorkers. But there’s more. There’s always more. It’s New York.

It has been 13 years since I spent the night on the floor of that walk-up on 64th Street and slept on a pile of T-shirts. There have been six apartments, several more roommates, countless jobs (and a few careers), and countless boyfriends since; countless new experiences, or experiences made new by looking at them again in a different way as I myself have changed. A year’s “sabbatical” in Boston during which I counted the days till my return in lines marked on a calendar only made me love the city more. New York has always been there, reliable yet ever-changing, ever New York.

In October, I moved again, into a tiny Brooklyn apartment with a 30-year mortgage. I am here for the duration; this is the place I call home. Am I a New Yorker?

I don’t want to be anything else.


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