Making Friends in the Smallest Big Town, NYC

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”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

Cake tasting: Key Lime cake, chai tea icing, gluten-free options

My daughter, Allison, at the cake tasting. Her sister, Stacey, gave a thumbs up to Key Lime cake and a thumbs down to the chai tea icing

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.

bedroom

My bedroom in my airbnb apartment

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 salimgray 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“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. church 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!”

street sale

A stoop sale

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, stoop saleyou 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. sitting on stoopNeighbors 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.

seinfeldAllison 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.

Trader Joe's

Trader Joe’s

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 halal chinesepeek-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!”

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*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.

girls

New friends in NYC: (left to right) Bridgid, Katie, Stacey (my older daughter), Sandy, Jennie, Allison (the bride-to-be), Lucy (flower girl), Katherine

 

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH GOSPEL IN HARLEM

Copyright © 2015 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved.

 

26 Comments

  1. Sandy, I love this post (well, I love them all!) and was particularly taken by your description of Salim, the taxi driver. Making me homesick for my brief time living in NYC back in the mid-70s. It is indeed a unique and exciting place to be, and it’s true–the focus really is on the people!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Mary, and thanks for following my blog. I love, love, love New York and fantasize about living there some day. (Wrote a poem about it, even.) My daughter admits, though, that the pace, the crowds, the cars get exhausting after a while.

  2. The New Yorkers in New York (that I have met) are very nice. But…the ones living in South Florida, not so nice. Maybe it’s the heat and humidity.

    • Cincinnatians are friendly, but I have to say New Yorkers are even more friendly and outgoing. Cab drivers are the most interesting and diverse group. If I had taken good notes over the years, I could write an entire piece on just cab drivers. I remember once an Ethiopian taxi cab driver advised my daughter where to get the best Ethiopian food. Another was a doctor in his home country. You so rarely meet native New Yorkers. Truly a melting pot. Thank you so much, Millie, for reading my post and for taking the time to comment.

  3. Another great story! It drew me in from the first. I felt like I was with you on the streets of NYC.

    • Thank you for reading, Ned. You are a loyal fan. It’s especially thrilling when a fellow writer reads my posts.

  4. Right on sistuh! From a naytiv! (sp)
    DG

    • In the original draft of this piece, there was a paragraph about how I saw you at the museum that time in New York. I couldn’t figure out how to make it clear our relationship and the fact that I had been at rehearsal with you a couple days before. That is a favorite memory, and so exemplifies the way these random encounters happen in this huge city. Thank you for reading. Hope you and your daughter are well.

  5. Great read. Wants me to go back to NYC to absorb the experiences you have described.

    • Thanks for reading my post, Kathy. When you go back, let me know. Allison has created this amazing document for tourists. You have to go to Harlem to listen to gospel.

  6. Sandy, I’m beginning to repeat myself but I love this essay. However, I think that you are the common denominator that creates such easy friendships. I’ve only met you once and I think of you as a friend (at least on FB.).
    Kathy

    • That is likely the nicest thing anyone is going to say to me this month! Thank you so much, and thank you for reading my writing.

  7. It really was a wonderful weekend!

  8. This was great! I’ve only visited NYC once. It was long ago, so I should really go back! You make it sound like I NEED to go back!
    Thanks for the wonderful story!
    Jan

    • Thanks, Jan, for reading. You must go back!! I am so in love with the Big Apple!

  9. I love this…you are quite an ambassador for the Big Apple. I am sending it to all my nyc friends! Please don’t move to New York…what would I do???
    Thanks for this blog..look forward to it!

    • You would move with me, of course!!

  10. What a terrific read! You should send this to the NY Times OpEd editor. I have encountered many friendly denizens of New York, including a cab driver who pulled over and bought me a newspaper while he was driving me to La Guardia. I hadn’t ask him to and he refused to accept payment for the paper. He told me I looked like I had had a long day and maybe having sonething to read would help me relax. How did he know?

    • What a wonderful story! I mean it–who does that? Maybe not even your best friend. Thanks for reading.

  11. It’s the golden rule–nice gets nice, and no one is nicer than you. You make people comfortable with you smile and laugh and of course your humor.

    • Fran, you make me blush! You are such a sweet and loving friend. You mean so much to me. Thanks for reading my blog!

  12. Love this, Sandy! I want to move to there, in fact. They should hire you for the tourism bureau. :) The strata I made for Easter was amazing, btw. I wound up doing julienne ham, dill cheese and mushrooms and using your technique as indicated. YUM.

  13. The story is great! I haven’t been to NYC in years and after this, I really need to go back. Do you do tours?

    • Thanks for your feedback on my draft. I hope you like the changes I made.

  14. Sandy, I’m always surprised to hear you talk about how wonderful you find New York, as I don’t like big cities though its been years since I’ve been to New York. You’ve given me a new perspective to consider. Salim sounds like such a joyful, delightful person. What lovely photo of you and your girls (and friends).

    • Thank you, loyal fan. Read Claudia’s comment to enjoy another taxi driver story.

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Sandy Lingo

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