My husband and I took our boys, 10 and 12, to New York this fall. My kids like to visit big cities, having spent a lot of time in Paris, Chicago, and Munich (OK not so big). After arriving in Penn Station at 9:30 p.m. my youngest did stride confidently and alone toward a men’s restroom until I caught up with him to say that, here in New York City, he had to be accompanied by a parent to public bathrooms at night. He wasn’t being so much naïve about safety as he was sure he could deal with whatever might arise. So I told him he was wrong. I lived in New York City when I was a young child (ages 3-5), and I was taught otherwise.
It was a great week. The kids loved seeing the Lion King, they loved the water taxi that took us around the Statue of Liberty and then up to Midtown and back down to the Battery on the Hudson; they loved Times Square at night (and wanted to go again and again); and they loved Korean barbeque in Korea Way. They were wowed by Grand Central Station. They liked taking cabs and the subway (which, annoyingly, all other members of my family kept calling the Métro). Being sensitive to and interested in accents, they finally heard someone order “cawfee” and receive a cup of “coffee” for their coins.
Both boys wore Green Bay Packers hoodies around the city and they drew out hundreds of conversations that I would never had had without them. A young man behind the counter at a pizza parlor held up his own customers while he discussed the Packers’ schedule with Sebastian. On the water taxi the heavily Brooklyn-accented tour guide, who was fascinated with Aaron Rogers, the Green Bay quarterback, held forth about the Packers over the microphone and asked the kids to perform the “Discount Double Check,” (an Aaron Rogers move from an insurance company commercial). We had to remind people that we could be from Wisconsin without ever having been to Green Bay, but whatever, they all thought that Wisconsin seemed exotic and far away. (And since then we did go to Green Bay, to Lambeau Field for a game; an experience that was worth every penny.)
I love New York City, and don’t buy into simple clichés about it. I don’t find New Yorkers pushy or unpleasant, for instance. Pushy is just an empty word for “surviving in a dense urban space located on an island.” Another trait word or combination of words would also do just fine. Like “frank” or “direct” or “efficient.” I also disagree that New York City “isn’t really American.” Europeans in particular love to say this.
To me, New York City is completely and truly American. New York City is the gateway through which immigrants arrived in the United States. All of my relatives did. New York City accents are for me the very sound of America. The direct style of friendliness is also American. And most of all, in New York City, the people you meet (and I met so many from the Midwest in just four days), well, they are just so curious. Truly curious about life and about you and about what is going on around them. An American characteristic (according to data on culture) is the desire and ability to make emergent social groups out of whatever feature or experience could possible bind you together and be discussed and cherished (like loving the Green Bay Packers, for instance, or – if you like the Packers and I like the Giants – just the fact that we follow football will do). And in New York City, people do this. This American characteristic, as I mentioned in my post “Getting to Know You,” is viewed by those outside the culture to cause superficial relationships. But I believe it is an honest sign of interest in others and a motive to connect.
I was at a conference in midtown Manhattan a number of years ago. The conference was the meetings of the American Psychological Association and it involved so many people that we had to move around continuously from one convention location to another. In moving around midtown, very few of us remembered to remove our nametags (which of course labeled us as members of APA). As if in a Woody Allen film, we drew New Yorkers into discussion like flies to a carcass. Everyone wanted to discuss the fact that we were psychologists and that we were all in town at once, as if creating a therapist buffet. No one was concerned about the fact that ¾ of us were not therapists at all. The curiosity was almost suffocating. But it was also exhilarating and sometimes hilarious.
The final cliché with which I take issue is the belief, mostly of non-Americans, that New York City is the only place to live in the United States. The city is a wonderful place. But as my parents later told me, when they moved to Manhattan with two very young children for two years, one of the factors that made them most excited to embrace everything about the Big Apple, was the knowledge that they were not living there forever. Some people want to come and live in the city just for a while. And that’s OK too.