Monday, April 27, 2009

The sound of the city...and too much Manhattan...

A long conversation at a party this weekend prompted me to question: what is my blog about? My blog is about the perspective of a native New Yorker, 28 years old, female, from a neighborhood called Yorkville in Manhattan, who currently lives in the neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. Since people always say they haven’t met many native New Yorkers, especially young ones from Manhattan, I thought I might share some things.

Being from Manhattan, for me, was like being from a country other than America, or perhaps from the most extreme, condensed and wild example of America. The short story, “The Sound of The City,” is a profound meditation with a touch of lightness that only O. Henry--genius and ex-con, loved and understood among Russians--could construct and convey. New York is so many things, endlessly changing yet endlessly staying the same. When my uncle visits from Scotland, he says ruefully, “It hasn’t changed. It still feels the same.”

I went to a public school on Madison Avenue and East 81st Street with children of famous opera singers, flutists, biologists. I was poor, and odd, and I didn’t fit in, to put it mildly. So I spent as much time as I could hanging out with immigrant kids. Kids from Myanmar, kids from what was then Yugoslavia, from Hungary, families from Turkey, from Ecuador, and China. Real immigrants, people who didn’t hate me because I was different. And there was never any shortage of foreign kids to kick it with.

There is a part of me that feels ashamed for living in far-off neighborhoods that might as well be foreign countries: Kings Highway, Flushing. I start to think, “I should live in a young artsy neighborhood.” But I have done that, and what is fun at 23 is not as fun at 28. I love the anonymity of neighborhoods where no one speaks English and no one sums you up to judge you in the specific way that only your own kind can.

An Orthodox Jewish neighborhood like Kensington is too close to home for me, where I would have to face the questions, who are Jew? how are Jew? what are Jew? Another person might not be presented with the matrix of possibility, the choices of what seem to be non-choices. In the hours-long conversation, yelled over drum n’ bass and 90s house music, that subject also came up.

Josh: “…some of them wear wigs, and some of them [gesturing around top of head] wear the thing …”
Toby [gesturing around circumference of head]: “And some of them wear the thing. Yes. Sheytl, tikhl, shpitzl.”

To me, New York is about so much more than the requisite accessories of the moment, the visual cues of New Yorker-ness. There always seem to be a sea of lemmings in New York, keeping themselves going with that line that they are “having a great time in New York,” doing the “New York thing.” In 2000 this meant wearing messenger bags and going to see the Dalai Lama en masse; in 2003 it meant carrying a Starbucks while idly chatting at a protest. And it always means rushing, shoving, shooting angry looks and asking people how much they pay for rent.
I don’t think those things are New York.

I was in a cab with an acquaintance, and the driver was listening to a CD, a Sikh lecture. Zach leaned over to the partition and said, “My friend. What is that you’re listening to?” And we began to discuss Sikhism. “Everywhere you go,” said the driver, “Sikh temple take you in. Give you nice food.” I told him I love the Sikh holy books, the liturgical writing listing the qualities of divinity, the words of Guru Nanak…

The guy I was with is a hip-hop artist, mind-bendingly unique. He was rocking an Indian metalasse scarf with a North Face jacket. “You’re a native New Yorker, aren’t you,” I said. “Yeah,” he replied. “I’m from the Upper West Side. How did you know?” “’Cause you called the taxi driver ‘my friend.’” That’s a thing. Saying “my friend,” when communicating with South Asian immigrants. He’s spit rhymes onstage at the Apollo Theatre and he’s an Ivy League graduate. That is a real native New Yorker.

And we who are real New Yorkers, are from more than the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side. We know that a geographic location is more than a geographic location.

Said a New Yorker from rural Maryland: “There’s something missing from Native New Yorkers. They’re cool and all, but there’s something missing.”

I think he’s right. What we lack is a kind of space, and I’m not sure how to articulate it better than that. We didn’t grow up with space—we grew up in one-bedroom, two-bedroom apartments. And our parents’ and our lifetimes’ possessions filled those spaces, carved-out, dug-in, our frontier homesteads that, rent-controlled, we could not leave. Rent control: controlled by rents that stabilized in the 1970s when the neighborhoods were shitholes falling down around our weed-smoking parents who now, in their later years, fight for sidewalk space with an army of cell-phone-toting young professionals. Or some of us grew up on Park Avenue.

“Whose father owns a vineyard?!” I exclaimed in rhetorical exasperation, when I spent one summer working with Vassar students. It was a non-question, but my manager answered me. And I deserved it. “Hers does,” he said, and he was referring to our coworker, who wore dreadlocks and expensive sandals. (That was the summer Lizzie Grubman backed into locals in the Hamptons.) But the Vassar kids—even they didn’t have the space. America is about space, isn’t it?

Space is a psychological space. Cultural turnover, a sensory barrage, destroys this space. We grew up, rich and poor, in a destination, breathing the air of millions of hopes, the fumes of competing egos. Every native New York kid I know got over 9-11 fast. We moved on with disturbing rapidity. I think this is because we saw crazy things, saw too many New Yorks.

The party I went to this weekend was in Jersey, in Union City. I got off the bus and saw the skyline. Holy shit! It was beautiful. New York is just the water in my fishbowl, too often. Sometimes it's not. That's what I'm thinking about, when it is and when it's not. When the Beastie Boy rolls up to the corner in his SUV, with a look that says, "Oh shit I'm at a crosswalk and I'm gonna get bothered," and you look the other way to show him--what? Or sample sales, I love sample sales. I'm here, and too many days, I'm somewhere else, in my head, planning to be somewhere else. I think that was what the Mary Tyler Moore show was about. They had that character, Rhoda Morgenstern...the native New Yorker...wry as she was, wasn't she missing the space?

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