By David G. Allan
[With apologies and thanks to EB White who did a better job then I will now in summing up the people and the spirit of this great city.]
My wife and I lived here just a week shy of 12 years, but I think anyone who puts in at least 12 consecutive months within the five boroughs should get to call themselves a “New Yorker.” The place is too transitory and the experience of living here is so much more intense than any other city in America, that it’s unfair to require a longer residency in order to claim, legitimately, that you are of the city.
If you make it longer, that is a bonus and proof of luck, chutzpah or a combination of both.
As all New Yorkers know, even if they haven’t thought about it in these terms, the algorithm for the city’s success lies in the number of people (8.4 million) crowded into its 300 or so square miles, a remarkable number of these residents — by the mere fact that they boldly chose to try to make it here in order to make it anywhere — are creative, entrepreneurial and seeking ways to make things work better.
This is a crowd-sourced city. I read in The Times (I proudly used to work there, so I still capitalize the ‘t’ in “The” out of deference), about a bar that only serves coffee-infused cocktails. Only in New York is this a business plan. You need enough people to be eager for whatever small, niche, specific thing you want to sell. And New York has the people.
When the scene you want to start has appeal to hundreds of thousands of people (a scale few other cities can reliably deliver) people make even cooler stuff than espresso-tinis. You get the High Line, Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island, Coney Island, a 24-hour subway and some of the greatest urban parks and museums in the country.
It’s simple supply-and-demand. This capitalist ethos makes sense for the only major American city that started as a business (Dutch East India Company) instead of some military strategy or the dumb luck of where newcomers landed.
Of course, sometimes too many people want something in short supply, such as the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 reenactment that kicks off every outdoor summer movie screening in Bryant Park. But that’s annoying until five other parks start an outdoor movie series the following summer.
But it’s more than supplying demand that keeps the great population density experiment from crumbling into chaos. The other part of the city’s success is its rules.
Like “code red” in the play/movie A Few Good Men, you won’t find these directives written in a weathered Knickerbocker manual, but New Yorkers know the unwritten laws by the time they reach their requisite 12-month residency.
There are too many rules to list here and I’ll give just a few examples, but it boils down to one cardinal rule: efficiency. Once you start gumming up the flow of life on this steel and glass archipelago, the pipes begin to burst.
Obey queues. Walk single file on crowded sidewalks. Stand to the right on the escalators. It’s acceptable to bump into one another if it’s by mistake or necessity; you don’t even need to apologize.
We also all have to help each other out (unless you’re crazy, then you’re on your own). If you’ve read nearly all Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, as I have to my older daughter, you know that the pioneer code was to help your neighbor, even if they live a day’s horse ride away, and even if you don’t like them. The reason is simple: there will likely be a time you need them to give you the life-saving food, water or shelter they are asking you for today.
New Yorkers are, in general, helpful and looking out for one another. Even if we like to think it’s just because people are inherently good, the reason is an economic equation of urban survival and sanity.
The only reason New Yorkers have the reputation of being rude is that they get annoyed at the inefficiency of outsiders who don’t know the rules. If you stand in any public space and stare at a map with a confused look on your face (and don’t look crazy), I guarantee four minutes will not pass before a New Yorker stops to ask if you need help getting where you need to go. But if you follow up their clear, efficient and accurate instructions with a series of inane questions and random observations, the New Yorker will shut that down quick because that’s the great sin of wasting another’s time — an insult to our chosen lifestyle.
The last of the great rules, and one of the things I’ll miss about the culture of New York now that I’m leaving, is the open dialogue that must exist when there are too many fish in the bowl. Strangers talking, sometimes yelling, at one another is required to make sure we’re following the rules and not inadvertently pissing each other off. This public conversation keeps us from getting in each other’s way as we pursue whatever we need to do (even if we don’t value what those things are for other people).
One of the many great quintessential New York City moments I’ve had in the last dozen years took place during our first summer here, not long before a multi-day blackout put all the city’s unwritten rules to a test that it easily passed.
It was a hot, muggy day and I was on a crowded subway car with broken air conditioning. More people crammed in at every stop and while no one was happy about that, no one complained because we’ve all been, at one time or another, that person who boldly squeezed in beyond capacity because we knew the subway conductor was lying when they said there was “another train directly behind this one.”
But of all those who benignly pushed their way on, one guy started grumbling about the heat, the crowd and the collective armpit stink. A couple of minutes into his soliloquy of annoyance, someone yelled, “We don’t want to hear that shit, man. We are all hot. We are all packed in here. We all stink. No one is happy. And we don’t need to hear your ass complaining on top of it. So you got to shut up or get off this train.”
He shut up.
His compliance made some of us smile and chuckle to ourselves because we sympathized with both of them. We were both of them. And the amusement of this perfect New York moment slowly spread until it seemed everyone was smiling, including the guy who started it with his complaining.
I’m going to miss those two, and the other 8.4 million like them (except for the subway preachers; they can go to hell).