Am I Still A New Yorker

by

09/23/2020

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

One morning not long ago, from a bedroom in suburban Maryland, I called the Upper West Side. I sat, hunched down, knees up, on the area rug at the foot of the bed. I like being on the floor when I make calls that make me nervous. The phone rang, and I felt not only nervous, but also guilty. Tail between legs, I’d abandoned New York in the middle of March. Now, several months later, I was calling my doorman. I wanted to know: Is it safe there yet? Also, is the Upper West Side still there? Also, if it is, do I really want to go back?  

I was hoping Tony would answer. Tony is the weekday guy. He’s jovial, conscientious, and, I suspect, the only doorman who knows my name. I’m new – sort of. I moved in at the end of February on the same day the Westchester lawyer, COVID-19 “patient zero,” was hospitalized. Five days after the pandemic was declared, I bolted with my boyfriend and two cats in a rental car.

When Jonathan pulled up to my building to collect me, I scowled at the amount of crap he’d packed into the back seat. There were parts for his model car, bags of dried beans and cans of corn, his handheld back massager, swim trunks — it was March — and a stack of opera scores. (Even with the possibility of performing live eradicated, he clung to pre-rehearsal rituals like writing in libretto translations.). I’d packed enough cat food for ten days, some perishables, papers I needed to do my taxes, and five days’ worth of clothes. 

Which of us is being crazy? I wondered.,

Then Tony, without my asking, schlepped my bags to the curb for me, and I froze in OCD horror. He was only doing his job — beyond his job, since it’s not a white glove building — but I still had to conceal my outrage and fear. Was Jonathan right? Was it time to shift into pandemic thinking?

As we found places in the car for my stuff, Jonathan pointed out the double-parked cars on my block, other residents preparing to uproot. Jonathan’s friend, an Upper West Sider since the Needle Park days, came to say goodbye. He wasn’t leaving his rent-controlled apartment even temporarily. He sniffled – allergies – and I took a half-mile step back.

Considering how easily I’m spooked, it should be noted that it took me a week to decide to leave. Jonathan had pushed. I hadn’t wanted to move in with my parents and give up my privacy, my independence, my just-walk-there-if-the-trains-are-screwed-up freedom. That was the bulky baggage I brought with me in the car.  

We’ll stay with my parents for two, maybe three weeks, I thought.

Months later, giving myself a bedtime foot massage, I realized there were no aches or knots to work out. There’s no walking here in the suburbs. We pad in the cul-de-sac in the morning, around and around and around, debating immutable family psychodramas and musing on abstract possibilities for our future lives.

 ***

I moved to New York in 1999. In the past twenty-one years, no other place I visited or tried temporarily ever felt real enough. It’s not just the diversity and culture. It’s also the sense that, standing in line at a coffee shop, or milling around during intermission at an Off-Broadway play, you may be a short conversation away from a new friendship, or at least a frustrating encounter that you’ll chew on for days. New York, specifically the Upper West Side, was my truest possible home.

I know these aren’t the most pressing questions right now, but I know I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.

I present them to myself this way:  

Am I a real New Yorker if …

 … before I consider going back, I need reassurances from my doorman that the building has things under control – even as I recall that only half the washers and dryers were functioning before I left? A pre-pandemic conversation in the elevator might have included a chat about how hard it was to find the machines free. If the management unapologetically provides only three washing machines for over one hundred and fifty tenants, what are the chances they’ll step up and keep us germ-free during a pandemic?

 … I can’t imagine walking up Amsterdam Ave seeking life force in faces half-covered by protective masks? Surfaces are significant to me. I can barely handle it when Jonathan changes his facial hair; he’s pushing forty but is still able to step into the bathroom a rugged mountain man and come out barely legal. It’s disorienting. New York has a face. The face of New York, to me, is a constant and constantly shifting montage of fleeting expressions. I depend on the quietly muttered commentary or loudly asserted opinions of passersby. I’m open to eye contact and shared moments of irritation or joy with strangers. I’m pretty sure I have a surplus of mirror neurons. What will there be to mirror now?

 … I’m weighing my total ineptness at dealing with a credit card after it’s been handled by a retail person – how do I not spread the corona? – with the vaguely pastoral image of the truck (with my groceries in protective plastic bags) coming up the driveway under a boundless suburban sky. It brought me to tears recently. Not the truck, the sky. How high, how blue, how deeply silent can it possibly be?

… I’m measuring the kindness in the face of the guy at Joe, a few days before I left the city, offering to add milk for me since they’d removed the condiment station, against the world of stillness and birdsong just beyond the sliding glass doors of my parents’ kitchen as I stand on the brick steps holding a mug of drip coffee.

And the deer – I’m hushed every time they walk by.

And the plump groundhog sitting up on his hind legs. I feel jiggly and goofy inside every time I get a glimpse of him.

My sudden-onset bumpkin-ness may be even more acute. After picking something up at a shop in a strip mall down here, I found myself dazzled by a sundress in a store window next door. I didn’t go in. Why risk it, first of all, but also, having sheltered for three months, I’m now suspicious of all forms of in-person stimulation. I don’t even want to be tempted. I only make basic purchases. I’ve bought spelt flour and oat bran and recently made a Spanish tortilla for the first time in my life. Why blow so much cash at noisy, crowded tapas bars? The tortilla is a little tricky, but sangria is not hard to make.

Not even simple New York moments are calling to me now. To my dismay, when I chatted on the phone the other day with a friend who was sitting on a bench in Central Park eating watermelon, I felt nothing. Months ago, I would have longed for that sweet early spring New York moment. 

To be a New Yorker is to stick, through thick and thin.

Was I ever one?  

I handled the disappearance of salsa clubs and champagne lounges over a decade ago. I barely coped with the loss of Tower Records. I still haven’t processed the fact that Barnes and Noble turned into a Century 21. And now I read that Century 21 is going out of business. I’m aware that many landmark bars and restaurants are now permanently closed.

The city will renew itself. New York Tough, as Cuomo reminded us day after day for months, is urgently real. New Yorkers really are, “Smart, United, Disciplined and Loving.” 

And yet, weeks into my suburban exile, I stopped watching the daily briefings and instead watched a season of the Great British Baking Show.

Maybe I was never a real New Yorker.

I came, like so many do, to get something. It wasn’t fame, money, or success. I set those mirror neurons on maximum and went out every day into a city that supplies clues to any mystery you seek to solve. One long, crowded interborough ride on the Q train is enough to answer all your questions about anger, fatigue, fear, loneliness, self-sufficiency, illness and neglect, and just about every variation of human folly or fortitude. On those rides,  you can learn where you lie along the spectrum, how you fit in, or don’t.

 ***

During the week that Jonathan tried to convince me to leave the city, a typical hour went something like this: me listening to a podcast about the virus while heating up soup from Fairway in my micro-kitchen; me watching Vaseline-lensed eighties movies like Tootsie to try to relax; me seizing up in hysterical anticipation of a lockdown and pre-hurricane-like exodus of bumper to bumper traffic. Faceless helmeted soldiers with machine guns manning checkpoints.

The nervous tension didn’t vanish till we were through the Lincoln Tunnel.  

***

It wasn’t Tony who answered my call. The guy who answered – a porter? – assured me no one had gotten sick in the building, although I hadn’t asked. He also said that most tenants were installed in their apartments again, safe and sound. I asked him if my friend could stay there while I was away. I’d felt awful for not thinking of it earlier. She lives nearby in a one-bedroom with her husband and had been talking for months about seeking space and time alone. The porter and I were having trouble communicating in fine detail.

 “I’ll get Tony,” he said. “One minute, he’s on his lunch break.”

Tony remembered me and wished me well. Voice full of heart and pride, he told me my friend could come, he’d give her the key. The only new rule in the building was that tenants were required to wear masks in the common areas, and that the staff was disinfecting the building every 20 minutes. I thought he was joking.

“The doorknobs, the elevators, everything,” Tony said. “It’s a lot of work but we’re doing it.”

Jesus. I’d read about a doorman who invented an aerosol disinfectant tent for the building staff. I knew those guys were working day and night to keep apartment life tethered and secure. I admire that level of obsessive commitment – that kind of obsession may be, ultimately, the thing that kept me bound to the city for so long.

I wonder now: What happens if I embrace my tentative, newfound, stillness and quiet? Cultivate it? If I stop obsessing? What happens if I seek something different, more slow and easeful, under a high, blue sky? And when better to find out than right now?

***

Nina Camp‘s humor and personal essays have been featured at HuffPost, Goodhousekeeping.com, Cosmo.com and Mogul Magazine

 

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§ 3 Responses to “Am I Still A New Yorker”

  • Jane deeken says:

    Is this woman reading my mind? Funny and interesting all at the same time.
    Hard to know what a real New Yorker is…….
    Loved it…congratulations Nina.

  • Jason Steinberg says:

    Great stuff!!!

  • Max Shuppert says:

    The concert pianist who lives across the way from me, playing a modern piece of subdued and poignant simplicity, provided the soundscape as I sat in my Sugar Hill apartment finishing this, Tranquility surrounding me. And I thought, nowhere but New York.

    Couldn’t but help thinking of your premise and remembering my own temptation to escape back last spring and, though I didn’t, your piece brought back very clearly some of those moments, made fun by your insightful thoughts. It’s a gift. Thank you.

§ Leave a Reply

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