New York City, NY

Opinion: New York City is not an American City

Remington Write

Which is why it's my home
The Empire State Building from helicopter ride in 2010Photo byTammy Remington

Spalding Gray said it before I thought it: “I knew I couldn’t live in America and I wasn’t ready to move to Europe so I moved to an island off the coast of America — New York City

I was born and grew up right smack dab in the middle of America. Ohio. The town I grew up in was a real Mayberry kind of place where everyone knew your business and loved talking about it. I fled to the safety of Cleveland when I was 18 and it was better but it was still America.

What do I mean by that?

It was still a place where a whole lot of people unquestioningly bought the spoon-fed line about American exceptionalism. Land of the Free. Home of the Brave. Support our Troops. Many people didn’t have a passport and, for the most part, only those from other countries spoke anything but English and there weren’t many of them left (ask how many Eastern Europeans are left in the East Side's Slavic Village). People lined up for the latest Hollywood product, regularly ate at Appleby’s or Olive Gardens, and viewed foreigners with distrust.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and a hundred other Rust Belt cities all around the Great Lakes and beyond have been struggling mightily to regain traction. As manufacturing got sent to countries without unions and men with high school educations could no longer raise a family, buy a house, and keep a decent car on the road, these places got more and more resentful and fearful. This after decades of waving the ol’ red, white, and blue in patriotic fervor.
Seen in an affluent lake-side neighborhood in Cleveland in 2016Photo byTammy Remington

Scapegoats had to be found. The politicians, always most interested in reelection, pointed to the easiest: brown people from other countries. They are the problem. They took our jobs. They’re having too many babies. They’re going to erase us!

The rising fear and resentment that blamed immigrants was just a variation on a long-played out theme in rural areas and smaller cities. Anyone who was different, who didn’t fit in, who wasn’t ready to settle down and start popping out babies every two years; those people were suspect. When I got old enough to realize I had no interest in marrying and making babies I realized that I, too, was among the suspect people.

I was 42 when I made my escape from America after being lectured by the old guy who railed about communists in the grocery store. My crime? I had shaved my head because I had always wanted to see how it felt (fantastic). Everywhere I went with my shiny pink head I created a ridiculous stir. People stopped talking to stare and then quickly avert their gaze if I looked in their direction. Cars literally rolled onto the sidewalk because the driver was so incredibly shocked to see a bald, female head. Clearly, I had to get out of America.

It was my good luck that there is an island off the coast of America where the weirdos can still walk freely and be ignored. Here are some of the reasons I’ve found New York City not to be an American city and thus the place I feel most at home:

We don’t expect everyone to speak English.

Remember the kerfuffle that happened in Philadelphia when some smart guy put a sign on his cheese steak emporium instructing customers to place their orders in English? Yeah, no. That’s not going to happen here.

Some French tourists were having trouble understanding why they couldn’t pay the bus fare with their dollar bills (crazy throwback to the 60’s I guess but the buses here only take coins or Metrocards or the long-delayed OMNY). I wasn’t at all surprised when several passengers who spoke French went up to help.

51 percent of New Yorkers speak only English at home and it’s estimated that up to 800 different languages are spoken in the five boroughs (1). And we all just roll with that. And I’m not talking about only those of us poor boneheads who only speak English; for the most part on a daily basis people manage to communicate with each other and get stuff done regardless of what language each brings to the table.

Oh, and another thing: we mind our business.

I fled to Cleveland shortly after having a “friend” take it upon herself to go to the Ford dealership where my Dad worked as a mechanic to let him know that exactly what his daughter had been up to since leaving the family nest two months earlier. Suffice to say she got the important details wrong.

Here no one cares who you’re keeping company with. We don’t care about how many, what gender, or where you’re doing whatever it is that you're doing (as long as it’s not on the subway platform).

Let's take a look at some of the other things we don’t care about: We don’t care if you’re crying in public, fighting in public, making out in public, asking for money in public, practicing your scales in public, or posing for your latest Instagram masterpiece in public. Just don’t get in our way. We’re in a hurry.

We move fast.

We’re not unfriendly and, if we have the time, we’re happy to direct confused tourists to the right train. But speak up quick and be clear. And don't be surprised when four people surround you to give four different sets of directions. All of which will get you to where you're going.

The energy here is intoxicating and infectious. Even when I’m not in a hurry here I’m in a hurry. Generally, however, I’m in a hurry. So are you and so is everyone else who, by God, is going to fit into this subway car. We get that and most of us remember to pass on the left and that the right lane is for the slower folks or those with walking casts (it happens).

We don’t expect anyone to do it the way we do it.
Stylin'!Photo byTammy Remington

Radical self-expression rules in New York City. Lay that ride out just the way you like it and drive with pride, baby.

It does take a certain authority to pull it off, but people can and do wear whatever the hell they feel like wearing…for the most part. Unfortunately homophobia, misogyny, and plain old stick-in-the-mud-ness aren’t exclusively American traits. Wearing that thigh-length purple number in certain neighborhoods even in New York City can be a tricky thing to pull off.

However, this ability to transcend societal expectations in the matter of dress, while certainly pioneered by transgender people, is seen on every street in the city at least daily. Cisgendered men in pretty sundresses, people of any or no discernible gender in mini-skirts and the guy wearing the mink stole with a dashing lapel pin holding it on the shoulder. Goth, total fashion plate, ethnic of every description, prints-with-plaid (I don’t understand either), tuxedos in the afternoon, and a coat made out of shredded white garbage bags which float most becomingly. We wear it all and wear it well.

We define what success means to each of us.

While it’s true that I’m currently a paid up member of the rat race, I have the luxury of working my part time "day job" from home. I

That’s a drag but here I know I can also make a living in a hundred different ways that don’t include a HR department and corporate compliance learning modules. While it’s true that remote work and independent contracting are becoming the norm across more and more of the country here it’s been the norm for so long that no one bats an eye.

In the years I cobbled together my living with two part time on site jobs and another remote position no one ever asked me when I was going to get a real job (see above for how we mind our own business here).

While the investment banker or the toast of Broadway may not consider my success to be really all that successful, who cares?

The Take Away

If New York City isn’t America then it should be. I mean that the daily virtues of acceptance, tolerance, and making room for everyone would seem to be in the general direction of what Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Property Owners had in mind and, ideally, those should still be in play throughout the country.

That would make America exceptional.

I’m not holding my breath. We’ve gotten real comfortable over here where no one’s invading army has ever clobbered us. Four centuries of relative peace and prosperity has skewed our thinking. Europe took a devastating pounding in the last century and learned some hard lessons.

It is my sincere hope that this country can learn from those lessons without having to go through the carnage that tore Europe apart in the 20th century.

My partner’s mother was born in Poland and, apparently, if you can prove a parent was born there you can go to the Embassy, fill out some paperwork, pay a fee, and claim Polish citizenship. If I wanted to pay to dig up the documentation that could possibly prove that my Italian great grandfather was not a naturalized citizen when my grandfather was born, I might be able to claim dual U.S/Italian citizenship. When I come to my senses about the low odds of America growing up and behaving like a truly civilized country, these are the strategies I come up with at 3 AM.

That's when those European Union passports sure do look tempting but as long as we’ve got this island to call home this is where we’ll stay.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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