9/22/11

Mayberry Manhattan

It was one of those hot, humid evenings when you are so happy to get home to your apartment that you think you may never leave it again.  I had just peeled off my sweaty clothes and had started running a bath, preparing to settle in for the night, when I suddenly remembered I had completely run out of cat food.  Now, I realize to a non-pet owner this may not seem like a dire situation, but I really had nothing whatsoever to feed my hungry cat, not even a can of tuna.  And at that moment, the prospect of getting dressed again and going back outside into the inferno felt about the same as facing root canal.

Feeling half desperate, half sheepish, I dialed my neighborhood pet store, Petqua (on 98th and Broadway).  I can’t recall if it was Ed or Sam who answered the phone; they are interchangeably nice.  Whoever it was said, “No problem, Jeanne, we’ll send some food right over.”  They even knew what brand and flavor I needed.  There was no charge for delivery, even though I was not ordering very much.  As I had no cash, I started to ask if my credit card was on file in their computer.  “Forget it, don’t worry about it.  Just pay us next time you come in,” was the response.

It wasn’t that big a deal, really, but I suddenly felt as if I were living in some made-up small town on a TV show.  The whole thing was so easy, so stress-free--just like calling a next-door neighbor for a cup of sugar.  Of course, it’s really not such an unusual scenario, to be treated this way in your own neighborhood.  These small conveniences, this sense of being known and liked by local merchants, is one of the things that makes New York New York.  Still, this kind of informality and mutual trust is something that people somehow never expect is going to occur in a big city.  But within our own personal New York communities, the storekeepers know us--they know our habits, our tastes, and to some extent, we know theirs. Most people look forward each day to seeing the person from whom they buy their morning coffee, their lunch taco, their newspapers.  To freelancers these neighborhood exchanges can set the tenor of their whole day. 

New York is in essence a collection of many small villages.  Each one has it’s own flavor, its own separate personality.  This is one of the reasons people always want to know where you live when they first meet you; if it turns out you live in their neighborhood, it is like the fun of finding someone else from their home town.  But these “villages” can be very small in size.  Friends of mine who moved a mere block and a half from where they lived before in the West Village said it felt as if they were in a whole new area; even though they were living so close to where they had been living before, their route to and from the subway was different, and they went to different stores.  Years ago when I moved from Little Italy to the Upper West Side, I remember feeling as if I were in another city entirely.  I experienced the same disorientation, initial loneliness, and excitement about discovering new things that I felt when I moved from Baltimore to Chicago, or from Chicago to New York.  When the man who had done my laundry in Little Italy showed up as the new manager of the restaurant on my corner on the Upper West Side, I greeted him like a long lost friend.

It’s not that people in New York are nicer than people are in other areas of the country; it’s that they are the same as every where else.  People create their own small-town communities wherever they live.  It’s just that people who do NOT live in New York often do not understand just what a small town (or a whole bunch of small towns) the Big Apple can be.

There’s an old saying: “New York is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  In fact the reverse is true.  New York can be a very difficult place to visit—given its size, the vast number of choices to make, the constant swarm of strangers with which the visitor must contend.  But for us New Yorkers, each living in our own friendly little Mayberry RFD’s, it’s actually a great place to live.

(Originally published in The West Side Spirit, August 10, 2011)

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