Got your attention with that one. If I ever saw a title like that, I would laugh long and loud. Ironically, being born and raised in New York City, it took me moving away to another state for me to understand some very critical things about New York and what place it occupies in world culture.
There is no mistaking that, on a superficial level, New York is an impatient place. No one stops to smell the roses and no one tolerates certain kinds of behavior. Forcing someone to wait is not polite; it’s a scourge. Attracting negative attention to yourself is a sign of mental instability. Things that would be totally acceptable anywhere else, like be friendly to a stranger, is a sign of “oddity” in New York.
Here is the incident that put it in perspective for me. Years ago, I was leaving the subway, walking in the usual sardine line, up the stairs from to the platform to a gated exit leading directly to the street. For those not familiar with the city, all that is expected of you is that you climb the stairs and then simply push the gate and you are out. The polite thing to do is to get up the stairs quickly and push through the door so the other sardines can exit with the least fuss and, more importantly, the least amount of time. Simple.
On this particular day everything was going as expected. I hit the top of the stairs and the woman in front of me committed an act more rude than forgetting the hold the door for someone. She simply stopped and left the rest of us as a roiling mass behind her. In the split second allowed for a pause in the rhythm of New York, my anger grew. Before I knew what I was saying I was hissing, “Lady. What’s the problem”.
It was only after I got to turn around and watch as she scuttled off in panic that I realize she must have been near well over seventy and somewhat confused. Yes, even New Yorkers can feel like buttheads.
So where does the understanding come in?
Once, a number of years after leaving the City, I went to a restaurant. Our waiter was another New Yorker, living in Tennesee with the rest of us expatriates. I had had a certain idea rolling around in the back of my head for years and I posed a question to our waiter, a nice Italian boy from Hoboken, a bedroom community just over the river from Manhattan in New Jersey. I asked him if he thought that people were able to form relationships across ethnic and religious lines more easily in New York. I asked him if he thought that tolerance was part of the fabric of New York itself.
With the perspective of a decade, I realize that tolerance is a weak word, something that had become part of the basic structure of our politically correct society but really didn’t have any meaning. Tolerance, to me is the weak first step toward the high minded religious and political philosopy we are taught in our places of worship and our schools. Tolerances suggests the framework, the bare outlines, of what we should be as people and as citizens of the world. When our waiter answered me, he told me that he had been in love with a Jewish girl and his precious and beloved Noni (Grandmother) was horrified by the relationship. This Noni, like most grandmothers, held a place in his life and his heart. He had just told us that he hoped to open a restaurant where he could serve food he had had for years in his Noni’s kitchen. He was sad and a bit devastated that he had to speak of her as a villain in his failed relationship with his Jewish ex-girlfriend.
I had to smile even though it was an unpleasant story. When I was a teenager and for years after, the most common mixed marriage in New York was between Jews and Italians. In those days a mixed marriage was still crossing a line. But even then, the pressure of living as a sardine in New York pushed people so close together, so often and with such consistency, that people of “other” ethnicities ceased to be “others”. And that’s where New York leaves the weak tea of tolerance in the dust.
When I speak to friends and family from New York there is no discussions of having a ‘friend” who is Irish or Italian. In the old days it was common for people to say, “I have lots of black friends” as though that meant something. There are discussions, instead, of the time they went this wake, that bar mitzvah, that church wedding. Their contact with the ethnic groups in New York is not simply a strange trip into another culture, but part of a consistent fabric of contact with New Yorkers that make up a unique culture.
Where I live now, hundreds of miles away from my home, there is a group of New Yorkers who get together once a month. We don’t all love each other but we share something and, just for a few hours we feel like we are with family. The owner of the deli where we meet is the child of middle eastern immigrants. His wife is descended from Irish immigrants. They come from Long Island, a suburb of New York where I spent much of my misspent youth. The best part of the year for our New York meetup is when the owner makes corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s day. No, not for his Irish wife, but for the New Yorkers who are all just as excited by Saint Patrick’s day as any New Yorker of Irish descent.
In my generation and in generations that followed the lines between ethnic groups began to blur. If you are a third or fourth generation Irish New York immigrant, having a Jewish friend stirs the same level of excitement as changing your brand of shampoo. It is hardly an issue.
How can I explain this? We learn to identify with the world around us as children; that becomes our culture and sets the tone for our lives. Growing up with “others” in school, having to have the same experiences with teachers and other students makes you the same. As with someone from a small town who learns to see his friends and neighbors as “his people”, New Yorkers learn to see the children of a large list of immigrants as “his people”. My culture was built out of my desire, as a child to go down the street for a slice of Sicilian pizza or some of the Chinese food from our neighbors next door. Those were my neighbors, friends and “my people”. As any teenage male does, I lusted for girls who happened to be around me for years in school. Whether they were Italian, British Protestant, Puerto Rican, black or Armenian, a crush was as crush. It was not something that needed to be analyzed in terms of ethnic and national boundaries.
This is not to say that New York is “better” than other places in the United States; there are a long laundry list of greivances that any New Yorker has against the city. The phrase “we are all brothers under the skin” tells the story, but not quite. I prefer “we are all in the same sinking ship”. For me and my fellow New Yorkers, all of our parents and grandparents pulled themselves up from nothing and the journey wasn’t always pleasant. All of us fought their way through school, hating the school system and wondering what we would do with our lives. All of us looked to the same set of Universities and considered working toward the same careers.
My point is that, like children growing up in a town of five hundred people, we in New York learned to bond with those around us. In this case “those around us” were descended from a hundred cultures, cultures that we began to accept as part of our own. In this era, full of conflict and hatred, there is something to be gained by knowing that your little piece of turf isn’t all there is and there is nothing disturbing or frightening by looking beyond its borders. It is, after all, how we are taught to treat our fellow man.
Regards to all my friends back home. Someday I will go back and drink with the million “Irish for a day” New Yorkers. Italians, Germans, Estonians, Dominicans, Haitians, all celebrate on Saint Patrick’s day, the biggest ethnic holiday in the New York Year. It’s a day where everyone must wear green or they can be pinched. Not being Irish is not even remotely an excuse.
Thanks for listening.