I have warned family and friends that for the next six months, most of my stories will begin, “Back when I lived in New York…” Their job is to resist rolling their eyes, bite their lower lip, and live with it. Seriously.
Nobody gets to say, “Jesus, Manning, you only lived there a month.”
Look, I slept on a mattress on the floor and I am not a young man. I put up with nightly garbage stacked high in the streets, shocking new urine smell distinctions I never knew existed, and a neighbor who hacked his lungs up into a cereal bowl every single morning. I decided he ate his lungs for dinner at night because every morning he did it again: coughed up painful, brown chunks on the other side of our shared bathroom wall.
I earned these story rights.
But as many stories as I could tell, the reality is, I was never a true New Yorker.
Oh, I had the New York experience. I explored the city daily via subway. I gave directions to tourists. When a car almost hid me in the cross walk one Tuesday, I pounded a fist on its hood and yelled, “What the fuck?” I jerked my my free hand at the WALK icon and screamed, “Watch the goddamn signs!”
Still, that didn’t make me a real New Yorker.
Read a book in central park.
Partied in Tribecca.
Partied at a street festival in the meat packing district.
Laid in trash bags somewhere on 7th Avenue. (These drinking and trash bag incidents are not connected.)
My college roommate came to town one weekend with his wife and kid. He and his business partner were taking public the company he co-founded many years ago when he was young and a dreamer. He started the day ringing the start bell on the New York Stock Exchange, and ended celebrating in a high-end Chelsea eatery, the kind where the chef prepares duck-flavored appetizers the size of a crouton.
Despite being 25 years older than when we ordered deep dish pizza and watched Twilight Zone marathons, we still giggled like kids over our naivete for fancy dinner etiquette. His beautiful wife was funny and a great conversationalist. Their kid is quirky and interesting.
New York City blessed all his big dreams. We toasted and laughed at how our lives turned out.
I don’t like to brag, but during the month I lived in New York, I myself picked up a few bucks on Wall Street.
Attended Broadway musicals.
Slogged through an ordinary downpour and grinned madly at all the other soaked Penn station subway patrons who dared to grin back.
Found the best chocolate chip cookie in all of New York.
None of it made me a New Yorker.
In preparation for my trip, I read a book of beautiful New York essays by Colson Whitehead. In it, he says, “Knowing facts about New York does not make you a New Yorker.” He gently argues that only realizing the city goes on without you makes you a true citizen. You’re a New Yorker when you walk a neighborhood and reflect on how everything changed from when you first saw it….that used to be a coin-operated laundromat. That used to be a bodega owned by the friend of a friend of your parents. Now, it’s a Duane Reede.
I find the idea beautiful, the soft insight that New Yorkers are there for the long haul. Short-timers like me can show up and love the city, sure, but New Yorkers are in it to win. This ever-evolving landscape is their home, and they feel about it the way we Midwesterners feel about our comfy recliners or grilling backyard steaks before sunset on Sunday.
I’m sure others would argue with Whitehead’s definition. Don’t ask for an easy resolution to the simple ‘who is a true New Yorker’ puzzle because New York doesn’t give a shit about answering your questions.Also, contradictions are welcome there.
Speaking of interesting contradictions, I met one, one Sunday night near midnight as I strolled around Midtown, irritated that all the doughnut shops were closed. I thought this was the city that never slept? A nearby show lounge had apparently emptied out, maybe a glam-o-rama type thing because in the course of a few minutes, thirty gaudily-decorated, muted-but-still-flamboyant gay men and loud women passed me on the sidewalk, laughing, screaming, giving me dirty looks.
A young guy strode calmly toward eternity (and me), eyes frozen forward. This wasn’t a casual glance at the block ahead, this was a military stare, usually only seen on the dictator’s national flag. His hair was coiffed into a 1950s pompadour, tons of product. Glitter gold eyeshadow (and matching lashes), ascot, leather jacket and screaming across his chest, a gleaming gold-plated gun, a recognizable Colt 45.
I was struck by his the bragging gold firearm, drag queen eyeshadow and bizarre Glamor Guy identity. Was this look something exotic he threw together the way one experiments in New York? Next week would he sport thick eyeglasses and cardigans?
Or was this real him, the true identity he self-accepted at age twelve? Perhaps he grew up in Idaho and impatiently waited to reach the physical age where he could move to the one city where he knew he’d be accepted. Maybe he spent his whole life surrounded by people who didn’t get him and now, now he was home.
Which was true for Gay Glamor Guy?
Never found out. New York does not offer answers.
Some nights I lay flat on my mattress eating chocolate Oreos, staring at the skyline through my window. I could always see the Empire State Building’s spire, that brilliant, glowing beacon of architectural achievement and grace. I would reflect how amazing it was that this day, the one now closing, millions of people agreed to share the same physical space and act decent to each other. They politely maneuvered around each other. Waited in line behind each other. Sometimes smiled at each others’ dogs. Maybe shared a cab.
New York is amazing.
Seriously, where else can you possibly find millions of people hellbent on being uniquely themselves while simultaneously agreeing to the invisible rules around entering a subway turn style and navigating a crowded sidewalk? Millions (think about that — millions) of people agree to the most basic kindnesses with each other, all done without discussion. It’s just what they do every single day. Sure, they fight. They can be terrible. Several gay man were victims of hate crimes while I was there. I’m not denying homelessness and sewage and rats. That’s true, too.
New York doesn’t mind contradictions.
But if you are desperate for hope in humanity, spend a Tuesday in New York. A Thursday works. (Monday in a pinch.) Every single day New York experiments with a concept called ‘civilization.’ They walk right past each other, not exactly ignoring each other, but not exactly interacting either. For millions of people, the flavor of this special love says, “Go live your life, Glamor Guy, or whoever you are at this moment. And I’ll go live mine.”
If New York is possible, then humanity can do fucking anything.
On my last night in down, I caroused from club to club with a new friend, a real New Yorker. I know he was a true New Yorker because within six seconds of our leaving the bar, he spotted a fat rat hustling across the street. I had been searching for a month.
“Right there,” he said, pointing. “Hey, we could get a taxi easier from 8th Street.”
The rat scurried into the meaty darkness and was gone.
Twelve minutes later, after a cab ride spent in hilarious cabbie political banter, we found ourselves a block from our drunken destination. We tipped our driver well and ambled down the sidewalks. Suddenly, my friend lifted his head and screamed. “EDMOND MANNING, EDMOND MANNING, EDMOND, MANNING.”
I was a mildly embarrassed and asked why he did that. He threw his arm around my neck and said, “Has anyone screamed your name in New York? Anyone screamed it three times?”
“No,” I said.
He said, “You’ve never really lived in New York until your name has been screamed three times in the city.”
This friend works as a Central Park tour guide when he isn’t making films and he confessed he sometimes embellished stories for tourists. So perhaps he was feeding me a line. But I did not care. I wanted to believe it was true, so I did.
I yelled my name aloud, right then, letting my voice hang in the inky night next to his, like shirts on a clothesline.
“No, no,” he said, scoffing. “You can’t do it yourself. It doesn’t mean anything unless someone else yells it.”
See? Even after a month, I still didn’t understand New York.
I may never be a true New Yorker, but now the city has my name.