Teetering in five-inch heels I got from a discount Dillard’s store in North Carolina, I waited patiently for my friend N on the corner of 50th and 9th, nervous about spending the evening with strangers. But when you’re fresh to the city you love and dying to make friends, you grin and bear it, and if you’re smart, garnish yourself with tawdry jewelry and a push-up bra since you’re hanging out with an ensemble of fabulously gay men.
As he always does, N greeted me with his gracious Southern smile, admired my womanly-curves and hooked my arm as he led the way. A few hours — and a pitcher of mojitos — later, I found myself far from nervous and close to falling madly in love my new-found posse of gorgeous men who will never want to have sex with me. After they grew bored of the first joint, we stumbled North to find our next place and the inevitable question was asked: how long have you been in New York?
Even through the haze of alcohol and cheesy-goodness, I knew this was the determining factor that I brought upon myself — because I had done something that wasn’t characteristically city like. Perhaps it was the brightly colored dress I was wearing or the way my speech becomes lazier as the night continues, making my North Carolina vernacular no longer disguisable. Or maybe it was the cheerful attitude that made me starry-eyed over the Empire State building, or rather, my willingness to admit my splendor for Manhattan instead of an empathetic defiance.
Three months, I replied cautiously, sure of the criticism that would follow, or worse, tips for success that I’ve heard countless times. Or warnings of how I may fail if the city rejects me – just what I want to hear when my savings account is dry. To my surprise though, this tall, dark-haired man with eyes lined with liquid ash didn’t do anything but nod knowingly and say, Ah, I remember that time. If you’re lucky, you’ll never lose that love for the city. I haven’t and it’s been ten years. So, I’m a New Yorker now.
Curious to why a decade determined your status as a Yankee, I asked about his time frame. He didn’t offer much of an explanation, other than that’s just the way it is, that if you can hang out in this place for that long, you must be dedicated or ready to move cross-country. Since he was the former, he considered himself part of the crowd that avoided the rolling crowds, who knew how to order a proper bagel, who could catch the train right on time and has permission to shed judgment on, well, anything that’s not New York.
If I go by his standards, I still have eight years until I’m officially a New Yorker. But I disagreed with him then, and I still do today — on the anniversary of the day I moved here.
What it means to be a New Yorker changes depending on who you talk to. One of my editors, E, says it’s when you walk down any given street and say I remember when that coffee shop used to be there, but now it’s down on fifth. If you can comment on the ever-changing storefronts that scatter the terrain — only a handful making their mark and staying put — then you’ve been here long enough to recall some sort of New York history. If the fact that I still mourn the first place I discovered large iced lattes for only $1.50 (I know!) and curse the laundry mat that there’s now, then I’m a New Yorker.
My friend B says it’s when you pass by the constant barrage of interestingly-dressed individuals (to put it politely), street performers and arguments without pausing because it seems normal. After you observe the city and its people for even a short while, you see how every character has its place and how we all create the brilliant tapestry that makes it such a one-of-a-kind destination. Everyone has a place here, and if you come prepared to make it here, you’re probably an artist of some sort, so those who are just trying to express themselves in their own way, don’t seem odd to you – they are actually, inspiring. If B’s theory is accurate, then I’ve been a New Yorker since day one.
J – a London native with an adorable accent – says it’s when you stop needing to look up directions because you can navigate the train system. Or more importantly, you know exactly where to stand so you always get off closest to the exit you need. While I’ve mastered the art of knowing where the doors open and close, and which cart is designed for my stop – I still have to Google how to get from point A to point B when I’m off the grid system and into the scary streets of the Villages and boroughs, where numbers stop and actual street names return. So, this way, I’m not a New Yorker.
Originally from Seaford, NY, but now a born-again North Carolinian who never lost her Northern ties, A says you’re a New Yorker when seeing a rat doesn’t faze you. Ironically enough, when I interned in New York, I didn’t see one rodent the entire three months I was here. And then, when I bought my Metrocard the day I moved here and caught my first train, a family of little monsters scurried on the tracks. It didn’t bother me then because I had been waiting to actually see one, instead, I smiled in delight that they actually existed. In this sense, I suppose I’m a New Yorker – a tad crazy and all.
If I want to be approved by the How I Met Your Mother crew, I’d have to steal a cab from someone else, cry on the subway and kill a cockroach with my bare hands. I admittedly have been that girl sobbing on the train – both sober and not, but I haven’t stolen a taxi from anyone (I’ve given mine up before, though) and I refuse to ever get that close to a cockroach – gross! So maybe I’m not worthy to be a New Yorker on television (though I’d really love to meet Jason Segel.)
Then there are others, like my friend R says you’ve made the official transition when you realize how fast you walk, or as N says, when you notice your own voice sounding different because the nasal tones have rubbed off on you. Since I pride myself on my pace — even in heels — and the fact that you wouldn’t know I was from North Carolina unless you asked (or I was tipsy), I get a few more points toward being a New Yorker by these standards.
But just like they each had those I’m part of the city, now epiphanies- which I like to call Louie Armstrong moments — I had my own not too long ago.
Next to my gym, there’s a Dunkin Donuts coffee that I always go to after my morning run. Not for a doughnut, but for my favorite iced coffee, ever. I consider it a treat for dragging myself out of bed on Saturday and Sunday, hangover or no hangover. When I walked in this particular afternoon, there was a long line that I patiently waited through, not one to give up on something as precious as the best coffee in the world. As I approached the counter, I saw my iced coffee waiting on me – complete with a dash of skim milk and three Splendas, just as I like it. I giggled at how predictable I was as the lady I always chat with after my runs asks about my weekend and slides over my made-to-order java. After I paid, I grabbed a straw to head out and the man behind the counter said sweetly, “Have a nice day…in New York.” He smiled his toothless grin and I returned the gesture, knowing full well that now, my day will be pretty great.
And that was it – I realized I was a regular.
When you first move to the city, you’re so enthralled with this story you’re creating: The girl who moved to New York to make it big! The girl who could make it in NYC, so she could make it anywhere! But after a while, not only does the story become your reality, you stop writing the pages because you realize it’s not just about you anymore. And you’re not just part of your own story – you’re a piece of everyone’s life around you, regardless if you call them friend, neighbor, co-worker, ex-boyfriend, editor or stranger.
To those at that Dunkin Donuts, I’m the girl who comes on the weekends for iced coffee, no matter the weather. To the woman I ride the elevator with in the mornings, I’m the young lady who kneels down to pet her dog, Domino. To my friends, I’m not the gal who moved to be a writer, I am a writer, but also someone they can talk to, someone who makes at least a small part of their life in New York better because I’m here.
My friend K says anyone who pays New York City taxes is a New Yorker – you don’t have to be here a certain amount a time or experience anything, because the beauty of this city is that it’s different for everyone. My version of New York, the story that I create and the chronicles that I’m part of, will never be the same for anyone but me. And though I may be a tad biased, I think it’s a love story…for anyone. Even the New Yorkers who have lived here their whole lives, especially if they stay on the island or its boroughs.
The pages, the characters, the chapters, the settings and the plot change depending on who you’re talking to –like with any love story. Some romances are short lived and feverish, others are those complicated tales that end up changing your life and your perspective. For others, it’s all about the passion and for most; it’s mainly about the timing. But it’s a love story, all the same.
And when you finally see how your story and all the stories around you connect in such a subtly powerful way, that’s when you’re a New Yorker. That’s when you know you’ve made it here. That how you know you’re home.
Happy Anniversary New York, I love you more than I ever have before!
My top 10 favorite pictures from this year in the city…