Oh, New York, New York. So nice they named it twice. It never sleeps. It’s New York or nowhere, they say. And also — start spreading the news — it’s a people pleaser’s hell.
I’ve written for this magazine before about the absurd hurdles I’ve encountered as a British-sounding expat trying to come to grips with the salespeople and baristas of the Five Boroughs. I’ve described the well-meaning individuals who can’t — for love nor money — figure out what I want when I order a “water.” “Oooh wah-der!” they’ll eventually exclaim in a voice laced with pity for the poor foreigner, presumably just off the boat.
But over the last few months I’ve become painfully aware of an even more inhibiting feature of this city. New York is a psychological assault course, an emotional minefield, for people like me who are chronically apologetic.
The thing about New Yorkers is that they are not that. Sure, they’re as polite as they need to be. They’re courteous and often abide by social conventions — don’t jump the line, give up your subway seat to the elderly, greet waitstaff, even if only cursorily — but they’re not effusive. They are principled and, for the most part, they are law-abiding. Within the parameters of that, though, they also have the grit and gumption to do whatever on earth they like.
If, for example, a middle-aged lady from Queens desires to spend twenty minutes in a doctor’s office waiting room giving you an unsolicited account of the drama that’s likely to unfold over the holiday season when her ailing mother hosts lunch for the whole family, she will do exactly that.
And she will do so enthusiastically. She won’t look for social cues in your body language — in your desperate, desperate eyes — that might indicate your name’s been called three times, or that your bladder’s about to explode, or that you’ve just missed the bus and are now very late for a critical appointment on the other side of town. No, she’ll carry right on, until she’s satisfied that she’s reached the crowning crescendo of her un-concludable tale.
If, for example, you happen to commit the seemingly innocuous act of gently smiling at a Labrador for more than a nanosecond, and the dog’s owner interprets your deed as implicit permission to tell you why his hound — like the late David Bowie — has two different-colored eyes, he will, before you know it, have launched into a history of 1970s rock music. He’ll feel, or at least feign, utter obliviousness to the fact that you’ve now lost your place in line and that your desire for coffee has faded, and that it’s now dark outside, a… wait, has autumn turned to winter?… and that you’re hungry and tired and on the verge of fainting. He’s New York tough. He’s always persisted and he’s not about to stop now. And of course, he loves his dog.
The domineering people pleaser inside of you will keep your feet rooted to the sticky linoleum floor. Your head will nod and you’ll smile, while an oppressed part of your brain frantically tries to scrawl a mental note to yourself — a reminder never ever to set foot inside this place again.
Of course, you will, though. The guy behind the counter knows you. It would be rude not to. And yes, you’ll pay that 20 percent tip on top of an already extortionate $5 beverage. After all, it’s the default on the card machine.
In March I’ll have lived in Manhattan four whole years. It’s about damn time I develop a backbone befitting my ZIP code. I want to be honest in the way New Yorkers are, complaining about the food when it’s subpar, telling tourists — politely but extremely firmly — to move out of the way when they stop dead at the top of a subway escalator to gawk at a map.
I want to lean out into the street (not fall into the curb) and, in a honking voice, hail a taxi with the boldness of a Bronx native, not with the insecurity of a coy European looking over her shoulder to check whether someone might have been waiting on the curb before her.
I don’t want to feel bulldozed when a stranger — as so often seems to be the case — wants to share their life story, or gripe, or a funny thing that just happened, with me. With the same ruthless confidence and swagger — the art of being New York-tough but New York-fair — I want to out-New York them all. Then I’ll apply for a green card.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2024 World edition.