New Yorkers have a lot to dislike. For one thing, they have to work very long hours in order to afford substandard living conditions. For another thing, New York is crowded. And why shouldn’t it be? New York is, after all, The Greatest City in the World©. It didn’t get this jammed with pedestrians by being mundane, no New York is a pretty exciting place to live. I don’t know another city in the world where you can look at the most beautiful work of art one minute, and then literally the very next minute see a homeless guy shitting into a coffee can. Maybe San Francisco, and there the beautiful art and shit in a coffee can will actually be the same thing.
Because New York City is so fucking special, New Yorkers are pretty defensive about it. Annoyingly offensive, in fact, as we roll our eyes at tourists and chortle at routine city spectacles like the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. The implication is that one can never really “know” New York unless they’ve lived here, and even at that it must be for an unknown and variable number of years. Until you stop jumping at the sight of a scurrying rat, when you negotiate a transfer from the C train to the R train at Times Square successfully, when your wardrobe consists of black clothing and over-sized sunglasses, then you can consider yourself a Real New Yorker. This smug tendency is therefore most pronounced in homegrown New York residents.
I technically grew up in New York City, about as far east as you can go in Queens without actually leaving the five boroughs. To visit Manhattan was to go to “the city,” and most of my friends lived in one- or two-family houses with backyards and garages. Still, I carry with me the experience of having grown up in New York. When people move to New York as adults, even as young adults, they never see the side of New York that an eleven year-old sees. Though my neighborhood was largely suburban, I still had to keep an eye out for criminals and stick-up kids, roving gangs and toothless crackheads. Growing up in New York is a dangerous prospect, and everyone that comes out of the other side shares a camaraderie that transplants can’t appreciate.
As a kid, New York is the kind of place that constantly tests you. You learn the rules pretty quickly through trial and error: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact, except with the guy behind you. Keep your ears open. Stay close to the corners. Act like you know where you’re going. Don’t flash your money. It was some years before I discovered that this most kids do not have the same experience. Taking the subway as a kid is a whole different visceral experience, where faint graffiti tags take on heavy layers of meaning and which car you choose could be the difference between an uneventful ride and getting vicked. This is a New York few new residents and almost no tourists ever comprehend.
It’s really nothing special. Having the experience of growing up in New York isn’t any better or worse than the experience of having grown up in Denver, or Taos, or anywhere else, really. We’ve all got to grow up somewhere. The difference is that waves of people aren’t descending upon Denver or Taos every day to tax its already overburdened municipal systems. So if I seem a little callous about your enthusiasm for some dinky coffee shop in Park Slope, please forgive me.