“So you’re a New Yorker?” asks a new acquaintance under the California sun.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. Aside from the born and bred, at what point during a journey does one become a New Yorker?
It happens when you try to quantify it. Is it in a matter of minutes or years? Or is it when the number of subway stairs you’ve stomped over exceeds the number of flash bulbs that swallowed the Empire State Building that night? It happens when you try to approximate how heavy a subway car is on top of the 85,000 pounds of steel. A couple more thousand pounds of body mass plus the weight of tension and hunger — some for clout, some for coins.
It happens when your outstretched hand on the promenade can trace the entire skyline with memories. Underneath your pointer is that street where you felt your heart shatter, but only because thousands of hearts trudged onto shore from that street and into tenements to build the life you complain about. You connect the dots.
It happens while you are a universe apart from the comfortable country smells and welcome mats and couches you sink into while experiencing this thing called life in the company of thousands of passing people. People you would, under proper circumstances, stop to look into their eyes and hear their breath and see their story. People you would love to love, love to kill, have a drink with in their hometown in Laos, or help walk to the market and back.
It happens when you’re walking rigorously toward somewhere you needed to be ten minutes ago and see ten moments of your past whizzing by. You scan a Chelsea block and pick up the bar that was home when you were completely lost –- it looks like a penny now in the shadow of the barbecue that you bolted out of. Your best friends’ parents were in town, giving you a little piece of the fishing community you once summered at and clinched so tightly.
It happened the time you were walking through a park that’s named for a thinker no one here would recognize, with the beautifully compassionate native New Yorker who hates when out-of-towners call themselves New Yorkers. All your pedestrian time spent desperately avoiding passing glimpses into souls gives you to the time to start a fictional count of how many soles that cost a thousand times more than yours have crossed this sidewalk. ??It happens when you lose track of the number of times your life felt like it should be on a screen – sometimes in the taste of a saccharine director, others in any style that captures the sheets of rain escaping from taxi tire bottoms to perfectly cover you head to toe.
It happens when you pass the school and see animals made of cotton and watercolor and toilet paper tube and wonder about the imagination a child’s mind can create. You then contemplate how your own imagination’s changed – how you’ve learned to see shadows. You once ran after them, but now exhale and enjoy their very existence as is. Lovers and coworkers and strangers pouring lessons and laughter into your soul and transiently fading behind the curtain forever when their lines are through.
It happens when you observe the historian who has waited a decade to stand in the tavern where colonel Washington bid goodbye to the Revolutionary War troops, while the drunk next to him simultaneously waits for his finance director to summon his “team” with his card to drown in scotch in a place where he doesn’t even know history exists. When you observe the woman covered in $5000 in slaughtered fur being judged by the woman next to her who just finished a meal that traveled 5000 miles to get here.
These moments and yours – let’s sit together and quietly reflect when we step away from our respective New York nights and ride home together.