When I lived in Midtown Manhattan, I had a favorite wine shop. It was a fancy place where the cheapest bottle of red cost twice as much as it should have and the owner once lost his temper when a customer referred to an ordinary sparkling wine as “Champagne.”
But that wasn’t why I liked it. I liked it because there was a dog involved: a hulking, wheezing English bulldog that usually parked itself right in front of the door, slobbering all over the teak floor and snoring away. Whenever I walked in, he would jump to his feet and follow me around like a pushy little salesclerk, head-butting me as I browsed the New Zealand whites and all but snarling at the shelves of rose. I swear, he had good taste.
One afternoon, a friend and I were in the shop and considering a South American red when the phone rang.
“Uh huh,” the clerk said into the receiver. “Uh huh. Uh huh. OK.”
He hung up the phone and turned in the direction of the stock room. “The lady’s coming to pick up Bongo!” he shouted.
My friend and I froze mid-stride. We looked at each other, then to the bulldog.
“Bongo?” I asked.
“I don’t think Bongo lives here,” my friend whispered.
Whenever people ask me what it’s like to live in New York City, I tell them that story. Because nothing sums up the sheer eccentricity and opulence of Manhattan quite like boarding a bulldog at a wine shop. The city is full of people with too much money and not enough time. People who wouldn’t be able to ask a favor of a neighbor, but are on a first name basis with the clerk at the liquor store. Also, people with drinking problems.
Some people can live in New York for decades and manage not turn into a Bongo lady. Good for them. I couldn’t though; most of us can’t. Just look around and you’ll see I’m right. There’s no shortage of psychopaths in New York. And I’m not talking about the person who threw a bag full of bugs into a subway car or the guy who once kept a 500-pound Bengal tiger in his Harlem apartment. I’m talking about the average, ordinary person who after years of wear and tear – of train delays and landlord disagreements and open-floor space office arguments – slowly starts to lose his humanity.
Looking back, the first time I realized it happened to me was when I was helping a friend move in Brooklyn. We couldn’t find a parking space near his building and we didn’t want to double park. So we decided to move all his belongings to the curb and simply hoped a spot freed up by the time we were done. I considered it a small miracle when that actually happened.
“Go move the van,” I said to my friend. “I’ll hold the spot.”
Of course, not twenty seconds later, a driver pulled alongside the space and motioned for me to step aside. When I refused, he rolled down the passenger window and leaned across the console.
“I want to park there,” he said, as though I didn’t know that.
“Sorry, I’m saving the spot,” I replied. “My friend is moving. He’s just pulling the van around.”
“You can’t save spaces,” the man said. He was right, but I was hoping he’d give me a pass considering the circumstances.
“I know,” I said. “But we’ve moving.”
“Well we’re late for brunch!” he argued.
Only a New Yorker would consider breakfast an emergency situation. And only another New Yorker would escalate the situation by daring a complete stranger to run her over on his way there.
Technically, he was right and I was wrong. We agreed on that. But we both also knew that if he decided to park in the space, there was a really good chance that he’d come back to find an old sectional sofa blocking him in. He moved on and we moved out.
That’s what New York does to you. Makes you unable to give an inch let alone an entire parking spot.
My favorite description of New York City is by a writer named Sarah Vowell. It goes like this:
One afternoon a friend and I are sitting in the lobby [of the Chelsea hotel]. A woman who lives in the hotel sits in a chair next to us. She proceeds to transport the contents of a cup of lemonade into a bottle, the reverse of the standard bottle-to-cup operating procedure. Of course lemonade and ice spill everywhere, all over the floor, all over the table next to us. When she catches us staring at her mess, she justifies it, harping, “You think this is a mess? New York is a mess! Why should it matter if I spill anything inside? The whole city is a dump! I’m not pretending the inside is any different from the outside anymore!
By the time I left, I felt exactly the same way – except replace “inside” and “outside” with “I” and “them.”
I’m not pretending I’m any different from them anymore!
Savages. All of us.
I write all this because Ice Bath has decided to spend Christmas in the States and we’ll be staying in New York for two weeks after that. I wanted to prepare him for what the city is like, especially since he’s coming from Helsinki, which is a place where people are, for the most part, reasonable. If, for example, you accidentally cut someone in line at Starbucks, the other person will simply say “Excuse me,” and that will be the end of it. Do that in New York, and it’s possible that someone will remove a croissant from the display case and then throw it at the back of your head. I’ve seen it happen.
I wanted to warn him that if there is a liquid on the subway floor, not to assume that it’s melted snow from the bough of a Finnish pine. Best case scenario, it’s soda – and even that’s not good. I want to tell him that when he goes to the grocery store, there’s no machine to weigh and price produce like in Europe. The clerk needs to do it at the register because Americans aren’t honest enough to code the items correctly and resist the urge to add vegetables to the bag afterwards. I want him to know that if he says ‘hi’ to someone and they only glare at him in return that he shouldn’t take it personally. They’re just having a bad day. Or maybe they were involved in the bug bag incident.
But there’s a good side to New York, of course. Eight and half million people wouldn’t live there if there wasn’t. Actually, it’s one of those cities that has everything to offer: world-class art, theater and dance; one of the best restaurant scenes in the world; amazing nightlife; sports, if you must. Even if you hate cities, there are beautiful beaches and mountains a short train ride away. If you can’t find something to like about New York, there might be something wrong with you.
Besides, New York is a place worth visiting simply because it’s New York. It may sound cliché but it’s true: there’s no place quite like it. There might be cities that are better, but there are none that compare. Even the ones that try to compete – like Melbourne or Berlin – aren’t fooling anyone. They’re like teenagers with a fake ID.
Normally, I’d feel pressure to make sure Ice Bath enjoys his time – to see to it that he comes to appreciate the city that shaped me into the person that I am – aggressive and unreasonable as I am. But instead I’m nervous. I’m worried that he might fall in love with it. Even worse, I’m afraid that I might too.