”Old New York City is a friendly old town, from Washington Heights to Harlem on down.” Bob Dylan
“My favorite thing about New York is the people, because I think they’re misunderstood. I don’t think people realize how kind New York people are.” Bill Murray
“Like the United Nations, there is something inspirational about New York as a great melting pot of different cultures and traditions.” Ban Ka-Moon
My daughters and I met in New York this weekend to plan Allison’s wedding. Allison lived in New York for a decade and considers it home, so this is where she will marry her Viking, Henrik-Olav Osvik. The October wedding will be an international affair, with guests from all over Norway and the United States.
Yesterday we were headed to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to see the venue, select flowers, and eat cake. We were in for a long taxi ride from our airbnb* apartment in Brooklyn. It was clear the minute we met our driver, Salim Shaya, that the journey was going to be as interesting as the destination..
Mr. Shaya has the wide open face of someone who just can’t wait ta meetcha. His silver gray hair is cut short and stands up in delight. Everything about him smiles, especially his twinkling eyes. He reminds me a little of Danny Thomas who was Lebanese like our new best friend, Salim.
Salim says, “I love my wife! I love my job! I sanks God, every day, I swear! I go home to Staten Island now, I’m happy! My boy, he’s sixteen, he’s a good boy! My daughter is a princess!” Salim speaks with an exclamation mark at the end of every sentence, like he just can’t imagine his good fortune. He shows us pictures of his family and his church. He urges us to google “Saint Charbel”—he writes it down for me so I don’t forget—to learn about his miracles.
Salim’s running commentary is interrupted by calls from friends. Sam and Mike call, then “anuzzer Lebanese,” and a “Polish guy more nice than me.” He regales us with taxi cab stories. How at one time he carried three mortgages, one for his house, one for his cab, and one for his $500,000 medallion, the license a NYC taxi driver must purchase. About the day that a jumper on the bridge made traffic so slow that it took one poor schmuck three hours and $133 to get from the airport to the city. “I swear to God!”
I tell Salim that I think New York is the friendliest city in the world. He agrees. He arrived in the U.S. in 1989. He has cousins all over the world, but he thinks he’s the luckiest to live in New York. He gives us the gift of one final philosophical nugget: “When you respect, you are king all the time!”
It’s not just Salim; most New Yorkers are friendly. Stop on a NYC sidewalk to consult a map, and three people will stop to point you in the right direction. Struggle to hold a baby, a diaper bag, and a lamp you just bought at a “stoop sale,” and a New Yorker will offer to help you. Wait in line for a taping of The Dr. Oz Show, and a woman from Brooklyn will say, “Hey, Miss Ohio, you gotta good hayercut.” Yesterday, I said goodbye to the cashier at the deli we frequented over the weekend. He asked how our wedding plans went and said, “Come see me again.” In order for a city this size to actually work, there has to be a fair measure of kindness holding the whole messy thing together.
What most people don’t realize is that there are neighborhoods in New York where people are more connected than in any suburban tract in America. On warm summer nights, tenants of apartment buildings sit together on stoops sipping cheap wine from Dixie cups. Neighbors have neighbors’ keys. Since 26,000 people live per square mile of New York, each neighborhood can support a variety of businesses. When Allison lived there, she referred to “my Starbucks,” “my newsstand,” and “my nail shop.” Every day she conversed in Spanish with the tiny old Mexican lady who handed out ads on the street. The waiter at the diner, the cashier at the bodega, the cobbler at the shoe repair store, the tailor at the dry cleaner–they all greeted my daughter by name. If she forgot her wallet, the guy at the newsstand said, “Bring it next time.” If she was expecting an out-of-town guest to arrive before she got home from work, she left a key at the diner for her guest to retrieve.
Allison summarizes the New York life style in one word: “Seinfeld.” If you’ve watched that sitcom, you have a pretty accurate picture of life in the Big Apple. Elaine, Jerry, George, and Kramer do what most New Yorkers do. They spend a lot of time out eating, shopping, and playing. They share cabs and eat sloppy sandwiches on subways. And they live in communities where they interact with a lot of the same people all the time: the Soup Nazi, the waitresses at the diner, the antique dealer, the greengrocer, and Newman. When my daughter lived in New York, her neighbor was like her Kramer. One day she came home from work and found “Kramer” sitting on her couch, eating her leftovers, and watching the television shows she had taped to watch that night.
You’d think in a city so big, you’d never run into anyone you know, but it happens all the time. Allison reasons that since apartments are so small and the city is so big, people spend most of their waking hours outside. They’re usually walking, rather than hiding behind tinted car windows as in the suburbs. It’s common to bump into neighbors miles from home and encounter childhood acquaintances you didn’t even know had moved to New York. Allison once passed a Starbucks and spotted her childhood Cincinnati neighbor nursing a cup of coffee. As she walked to her law school graduation, she ran into her sister’s Northwestern University friend who had recently moved from L.A.
Celebrity sightings are common, and it’s not unusual to see the same celebrities over and over if they live in your neighborhood. Peggy from Mad Men worked out at Allison’s gym. Allison has ridden the subway with Zach Galifianakis. Her best friend attends Overeaters Anonymous with a very famous actress whose name at least I won’t reveal. Matt Damon is “darn cute” (his kids went to school in her neighborhood), and Dustin Hoffman, she assures me, has a really great head of hair. The celebrities go about their business just like everyone else.
New York City is America’s most densely populated city and is the most linguistically diverse. There are 800 different languages spoken in New York City. You can sit on a bench in Central Park and hear, within five minutes, a dozen foreign languages. But, you know what? You can offer your seat to an elderly lady, and she will smile, crinkling her parchment skin, and thank you in Farsi. You can cram into a crowded subway and play peek-a-boo with babies in prams, no matter what language their parents speak. You can hold the door for a woman in a hijab. You can enjoy every imaginable Ethnic food, and cuisine fusions of unlikely combinations. Halal Chinese, for instance.
When people ask why I live in downtown Cincinnati, the short answer is, “Because I can’t live in New York.” I feel less alone in NYC than any other place in the world, and I feel completely safe. Those 19 million people don’t feel like strangers, but rather brothers and sisters. I feel like I am really alive, really living in this smallest big city. And I believe when I feel a little scared, a little homesick, or a little hopeless, I will run into an old friend, maybe Salim, or make a new one who will make things better. I will be there, too, if a New Yorker needs a little boost. “I swear to God!”
*airbnb is an online service that connects people who have apartments to rent with tourists who need lodging. It is often an inexpensive way to stay in a city, and it’s always an adventure (and not always in a good way). Next week’s post will be about my experiences staying in airbnb lodgings.
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