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An Indiana Alien Tests Survival Along the Sidewalks of New York

July 02, 1989|James Nuechterlein | James Nuechterlein's impressions of urban life are adapted from the summer issue of "This World," published by the Rockford Institute

NEW YORK — "So how do you like New York?" is the inevitable question for someone who left the bucolic world of small-town Indiana for the everything-that-is-not-bucolic world of Manhattan. Not just to work there but to live in. Norman Podhoretz once wrote that the longest journey in the world was from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He obviously never moved from Valparaiso (hard by Kouts and Boone Grove) to Manhattan.

The problem with the question is that, posed in its usual fashion, it's quite unanswerable. Does anybody like New York? People love it, they hate it--often simultaneously--but when one is groping for words to describe the city, likable is not the first--or 47th--that leaps to mind. (Perhaps the only less likely term would be gracious .)

There is much about Manhattan that offends both the senses and elementary notions of common decency. It is incessantly noisy, unspeakably filthy. Because there are too many people in too close contact with each other, the most common attitude New Yorkers adopt toward their fellow citizens involves an admixture of distracted indifference, incipient hostility and impersonal rudeness. Most people most of the time do not even look at each other. To make eye contact in a public place is to risk sending an inadvertent message: a proposition, if one is female; a challenge or threat, if one is male. Perpetually overwhelmed by the presence of uncountable others, one constructs an invisible refuge of psychic isolation. As one of the characters in Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" puts it, the essential need for the New Yorker is to "insulate" himself from and against the existence of all those other people.

We are speaking, of course, of life in public. There is no reason to suppose that New Yorkers act any differently in private among people they know than people anywhere else. And one does find exceptions to the public behavior described here--an open and friendly smile, a gesture of personal concern, a supererogatory act of courtesy--but those encounters are notable precisely for their singularity.

For a great many residents the daily descent into public life begins with the degradation ceremony otherwise known as the subway. It is said that as many people ride the New York subway during rush hour as live in the city of Chicago, and riders know that statistic to be, if anything, understated. New Yorkers on a daily basis achieve the most intimate familiarity with their neighbors; for those inclined to cheap thrills, the subway experience cannot be improved on.

Non-thrill-seekers cope as they can. Many read. Some sleep. Others retire into their headsets. Still others stare blankly into middle distance, apparently willing themselves into Zen nothingness. Some even pray. An acquaintance--not Roman Catholic--has taken to closing his eyes and reciting the rosary. (He finds the appeal to Mary to "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death" peculiarly compatible to the subway experience.)

If the subway itself won't get you, the getting there will. There's the crime factor, of course, though in fact fear for one's personal safety isn't nearly so pervasive a factor of daily life here as non-New Yorkers universally suppose (Relatives in Indiana report that the most common question asked concerning me is, "How's Jim? Has he been mugged yet?"). City life anywhere in America has its risks, but one does not walk the streets of Manhattan in perpetual fear. Common-sense wariness, yes, but not fear and trembling.

The assaults on the streets aren't so much physical as aesthetic and moral. Anything and everything of human experience or behavior routinely awaits the walker-- walker , not stroller ; to stroll in New York is to risk being trampled. Street scenes encompass the sublime and the horrific, including Hogarthian rawness. Wandering about the city, tasting its life, one feels fascination, excitement, loathing--everything but boredom, a sensation which, like serenity, is difficult to imagine in Manhattan. If New Yorkers typically exhibit the demeanor of those who have seen it all, it is because they have.

There are crazies everywhere. Not as in eccentric, but as in--to employ one of Mayor Edward I. Koch's favorite terms--wacko. The unhinged rant on street corners, scream obscenities in crowded subway trains, carry on extended conversations with unseen partners (perhaps because they are so leery of speaking to each other, New Yorkers have a striking propensity for conducting audible discussions with themselves). People regularly fall asleep--pass out--in full view: in parks and playgrounds, on subway platforms, propped in doorways, sprawled on sidewalks.

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