How to Act Like a New Yorker
The 129th annual meeting will be held in New York City. This essay is excerpted from the supplement to the annual meeting program, which can be found online at historians.org/annual-meeting.
In August 1774, John Adams visited New York City and observed in his diary, “With all the opulence and splendor of this city, there is very little good breeding to be found.” New Yorkers, while respectful, simply were a tad uncouth. “At their entertainments there is no conversation that is agreeable; there is no modesty, no attention to one another,” the Bostonian sniffed. “They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again and talk away.”
Today’s New Yorkers should recognize something of themselves in these kindred spirits of the past. There is something arrogant and impatient in their DNA, a certain air of irreverence tempered by a pride in the city they call home. Indeed, in John Updike’s words, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
Not one to retreat from an argument, a native also will debate what exactly it means to be a “true” New Yorker. For the most part, the term applies to someone who was born and raised in one of the five boroughs, not somewhere else in New York state. Other “New Yorkers” who are merely transplants but have lived in the city long enough ultimately earn their bona fides not by knowing the names of little streets in the Village—“only NYU undergrads know such things”—but by knowing that the boutique at the corner was once a bodega that sold dime bags of pot from the stockroom in the back. (And they also know what the word “bodega” means.) Even though the metropolis is becoming less Manhattan-centric, if a New Yorker grabs a cab in an outer borough bound for midtown, he will say he is going to “the City”—never to “Manhattan.” And he will never, ever call it the Big Apple.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about what it takes to act like a New Yorker, but if annual meeting attendees want to give it a try, the following list might help.
Aleks Ivik, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aleksivic/
- Walk fast, with your head straight ahead or down. New Yorkers are always in a hurry, and they can get testy with those who get in their way. One is advised to “steer” on foot as one does behind the wheel of a car, staying to the right; everyone knows the left is the “passing” lane. (That goes for subway escalators as well.) Don’t look lost, even when you are, and if you happen to need to pull out a map or check your phone, do not halt foot traffic by stopping suddenly to consult it in the middle of a crowded street. For the same reason, do not slow down to look up at buildings or walk more than two abreast.
- Don’t gawk or make eye contact. New Yorkers assume the attitude of having seen it all, perhaps because they have. Thus, they never gawk—at people having a fight, at crazy people, at strangely dressed people, at celebrities. To a New Yorker, that would be rude, not to mention unnecessary.
- When crossing the street, don’t obediently wait on the curb for the light to change. Safely step off the curb and watch for the light directing crossing car traffic to change from yellow to red, then immediately begin to navigate the intersection before the white light begins to flash for pedestrians. (But if you are pushing a stroller, it is probably better not to step off the curb, unless you really do want your child to play in traffic.)
- Just raise your hand to hail a cab. No phoning ahead, no walking to designated intersections or taxi lines. But do not mindlessly flail at a yellow cab that doesn’t have its “taxi” light illuminated: if the light is not on, that means it’s not free. The exception is that off-duty taxis sometimes do stop for you, but don’t count on it. Avoid taking “gypsy cabs” at all costs, “cost” being the operative word, unless you’re in an area of the city where this is what the natives do. Drivers of these black cars will offer you a ride for a negotiated fee; if it seems reasonable and there are no other transportation alternatives, go for it, but proceed at your own risk. The new green(ish) cabs, licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, can pick up fares in northern Manhattan and the outer boroughs and take you anywhere, but cannot pick up below the Manhattan boundaries. Tips are de rigueur; 20 percent is becoming the norm. Always exit curbside to avoid getting hit by oncoming cars. And these days, watch for cyclists when you open the taxi door.
- Avenue of the Americas? If you’re staying at the Hilton, don’t direct a cab driver to 1335 Avenue of the Americas, even if that’s the address; it’s at “53rd and Sixth.” A New Yorker will know what you mean, and will never call Sixth Avenue the Avenue of the Americas. The rule of thumb is to describe an address by its cross street and avenue, in that order.
- On the topic of streets and avenues, New Yorkers don’t think “north” or “south”—they think “uptown” or “downtown.” And while there is a definite East Side and West Side, New Yorkers are just as likely to say they are headed “crosstown.”
- Say things a particular way. The act of mispronouncing “Houston Street” gets New Yorkers’ hackles up every time; it’s “How-ston”—no relation to Sam Houston. A New Yorker’s accent may bear the signs of what once was called a Brooklyn accent—the kind you’ve heard in the movies spoken by the actor playing the part of a cab driver, gangster, or “dumb blonde.” It is a dialect sometimes called “Noo Yawk,” and while some say it is dying, words once spoken only with a particular inflection have made it into the New Yorker’s lexicon—whatever the accent. Think “schlep,” “chutzpah,” or “klutz,” all borrowed from the Yiddish, or “moolah” and “joint” (as in a place or an establishment) from the Irish. And New Yorkers stand “on” line, not “in” line.
- New Yorkers have a multitude of food choices in their city, but the way someone eats pizza is a dead giveaway about whether she is or is not a local. Order a “slice”: that means a piece of pizza. (Unlike in some cities, in New York you don’t have to order the whole pie.) Some pizzerias even sell slices for $1 apiece. Fold it in half lengthwise and eat it with your hands, never with utensils, and often standing up. (Think John Travolta walking down the streets of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever.)
- Take public transportation. It’s the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get around, and the best way to get a feel for the city. New York is one place where it’s actually cool to take public transportation. While proportionately few people have cars, just about everyone has a Metrocard (for both subways and buses). Buy one and anticipate using it more than once. Purchase a card in subway stations at manned ticket booths or from easy-to-use vending machines; a fare is $2.50, and the minimum amount when you buy or refill the card is $5. Buses are good for short distances or traveling crosstown, subways for just about everything else. (Incidentally, you can transfer for free from bus to subway and vice versa or from bus to bus within two hours of paying your fare.)
- Observe subway etiquette. Wait for people to get off the train before getting on, and move all the way in. Have your Metrocard ready when approaching the turnstile, and observe how to swipe it correctly (and quickly). Wear your “subway face”—disinterested, tired, and a bit bored—and try to never look scared, particularly late at night.
- Crime? What crime? Don’t panic if you find yourself somewhere strange; some neighborhoods just look sketchy, but really aren’t. At the time of writing, New York City’s homicide rate was declining and on a track to break the new low set in 2013 (333 murders). But even though New York is by many accounts the safest large city in the nation, it still pays to be street-smart. Keep your eyes open!
- Drink tap water. Unless they are someplace where a tap is not readily handy, most New Yorkers drink water that comes out of their faucets, not out of a plastic bottle. The city’s drinking water is among the best in the country, if not the world. More than 1 billion gallons of pure, fresh water reach 9 million consumers daily, delivered by gravity from reservoirs located 125 miles away. The water supply is regularly monitored for bacteria. Fun (and weird) fact: the water that comes out of NYC taps and courses through its toilets is from the same water source.
- Avoid tourist traps. This is somewhat unfortunate if you are a tourist hoping to behave like a local: New Yorkers hate tourist traps, which they will visit only with out-of-town friends or family, or with their young children until they get jaded. Particularly around the holidays, New Yorkers will avoid Times Square (especially on New Year’s Eve), Radio City Music Hall, and Rockefeller Center.
- No matter what people say, New Yorkers can be nice. Naysayers often have sided with Thomas Jefferson (no friend to the urban landscape), who said, “New York, like London, seems to be a cloacina [cesspool] of all the depravities of human nature.” Not so. New Yorkers can be unexpectedly pleasant, civilized, and delighted to represent their city, and they will be happy to give you directions, often served up with a salty opinion.
Valerie Paley is the N-YHS historian and vice president for scholarly programs at the New-York Historical Society. She is cochair of the AHA’s Local Arrangements Committee.
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