How many movies have made comic hay out of a tough, no-nonsense New Yorker visiting Los Angeles and clashing with the laid back hippy-dippy West Coast lifestyle? Off the top of my head there’s Die Hard (“Fuckin’ California!”), Annie Hall ("They don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into TV shows.", and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang - all fish-out-of-water stories in one sense or another, where the water is the straightforward, no-bullshit city of New York.
I’m having a harder time thinking of movies where the LA-based protagonist struggles to adapt to New York life and culture. But that’s probably because those movies would just be two hours of, “What’s that smell? It’s so cold! My feet are tired! Why is that man masturbating on the subway platform? These apartments are all so small!” Life in LA is pretty laid back, whereas life in New York is like an eight million person Hunger Games with bagels.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I’d been to New York twice before – a week in middle school about six months before 9/11, and a week in high school just before graduation. Both trips were with my parents. We knocked out all kinds of must-see attractions like Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building, all of which were breathtaking in spite of my parents’ attempts to ruin it all by repeatedly belting out the opening number from “On The Town."
On this go around it was just me, my college roommate Jeff, and my other college roommate Josh, who’s finishing up at NYU Law and generously donated all 36 square inches of floor space in his dorm for Jeff and I to crash on. Having already seen most of the tourist attractions, we were able to spend this trip focusing on the truly important things, like red wine and unhealthy food from every world culture.
Josh has lived in New York for nearly a year now, which is apparently the length of time it takes to develop a full-blown death wish. As he led us around the city I lost count of the number of times he nonchalantly jaywalked across busy streets, inches away from getting pancaked by any number of delivery vans and Citibike-mounted yuppies. Fortunately, everyone else in the city seems to have the same death wish, and the streams of people threading their way across narrow streets keep traffic moving slow enough to prevent any hit and runs.
As I spent more time walking around the city I felt myself developing a death wish as well – not for myself, but for the 1500 or so people occupying my immediate personal space at all times. There were moments where the sidewalks were so choked with people walking in every direction, wayward strollers, umbrellas, and entire families stopping dead in the middle of it all to take a selfie that I found myself wishing I could do some sort of Mortal Kombat-style spinning kick maneuver to clear some space around me. A lot of the time Manhattan felt like living in a small house with several dozen cats, Chihuahuas, and toddlers – no matter where you’re going or what you’re trying to do, every time you turn around somebody’s going to be directly underfoot.
One night we ate dinner at Café Habana in Nolita, which according to various newspapers and the Internet has the best Cubano in the city. Our server was friendly and cheerful, the wine was on point, and the Cubanos were everything New York magazine said they would be – but the restaurant was so unbelievably tiny and packed with people that every movement was a carefully coordinated ballet. Our table (which was two inches away from the table full of Germans next to us) was so small that there was scarcely room for our sandwiches; as it was we had to stash our water glasses on the windowsill.
That moment sums up my experience in New York pretty well – at all times I was either jockeying for space and ducking selfie sticks or being completely blown away by the culture, spectacle, and scale of the city. There was a constant baseline of both crowd anxiety and awe for the entire trip. It was kind of exhausting.
Friday night our friend Shelli, an Oregon grad now living a bohemian actress lifestyle in Brooklyn, took us out for drinks in Crown Heights. This neighborhood was apparently pretty dicey a few years back but is now in transition – the street we were on was home to several wine bars and organic markets as well as a mobile NYPD guard tower and posted signs telling bodega customers not to wear hoodies in the store.
After stuffing our faces, Jeff and Josh and I headed for the subway. While waiting on the platform we played a rousing game of Spot The Rat (we spotted five, but Josh still holds the standing record with six) and then got on a crowded train back to Manhattan. One stop after we sat down, a young, drunk black guy got on and sat down next to a couple of girls opposite us.
“Yo, Bieber.” He said. “Bieber! Hey, Bieber!”
“I think he’s talking to you, Truman.” Josh murmured.
I looked up, and the guy was pointing to the two girls next to him. “Which of these two girls is prettier? C’mon, which one do you think?”
Both women seemed as mortified by this question as I was. “Sorry man,” I said. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.” (Yes, I’ll gladly pretend to be gay if it gets me out of a conversation with a drunk stranger. I used to use the same trick whenever I got approached by military recruiters in high school.)
He gave Jeff and Josh the same question and both of them demurred as well. At the next stop the girls got off and a bunch more people got on – several more black people took seats around us, and a gaggle of white college girls got on the other end of the train.
“Hey, hey, ‘scuse me…” The guy said, standing up, addressing everyone. “So why is it that all the black people are at this end of the train and all the white girls are over at that end of the train? I thought segregation was over, c’mon!”
The trainload of no-bullshit New Yorkers ignored him en masse. A black woman standing with her friends nearby glanced at us and murmured to her friend, “This is probably pretty awkward for those three guys.”
So there’s this famous bronze statue of a charging bull on Wall Street. And like most famous things in New York City, it’s ringed three-deep by tourists at all times, selfie sticks protruding from the mass at all angles. Unlike most famous things in New York City, this bull has a gigantic set of bronze testicles, and people of every race, nationality, gender, and age seem united by the desire to pose for a picture of themselves touching them.
That, to me, became the real tourist attraction – not the big anatomically correct bull, but the cross section of humanity on display, all jockeying to be photographed touching a bronze replica of a barnyard animal’s scrotum. I guess it makes sense. You’re standing at the heart of American economic power; you may as well cup its balls while you’re there.
I just hope the city has somebody wipe the nuts down every night with Purell. Bronze or not, thousands of hands from all over the world touching the same set of genitals is bound to spread some diseases.