Where everybody knows your name
It was one of those hot, humid evenings when you are so happy to get home to your apartment that you think you may never leave it again. I had just peeled off my sweaty clothes and had started running a bath, preparing to settle in for the night, when I suddenly remembered I had run out of cat food. Now, I realize that to a non-pet owner this may not seem like a dire situation, but I had nothing whatsoever to feed my hungry cat’s not even a can of tuna. And at that moment, the prospect of getting dressed again and going back outside into the inferno felt about the same as facing a root canal.
Feeling half desperate, half sheepish, I dialed my neighborhood pet store, Petqua (on Broadway at 98th Street). I can’t recall if it was Ed or Sam who answered the phone; they are interchangeably nice. Whoever it was said, No problem, Jeanne, we”ll send some food right over. They even knew what brand and flavor I needed. There was no charge for delivery even though I was not ordering very much. As I had no cash on hand, I started to ask if my credit card was on file in their computer. Forget it, don”t worry about it. Just pay us next time you come in, was the response.
It wasn’t that big a deal, really, but I suddenly felt as if I were living in some made-up small town on a TV show. The whole thing was so easy, so stress-free just like calling a next-door neighbor for a cup of sugar. Of course, it’s not such an unusual scenario to be treated in this way in your own neighborhood. These small conveniences, this sense of being known and liked by local merchants, are some of the things that make New York New York. Still, this kind of informality and mutual trust is something that people never expect to have occur in a big city.
Within our own personal New York communities, storekeepers know us’s they know our habits, our tastes and, to some extent, we know theirs. Most people look forward every day to seeing the person from whom they buy their morning coffee, their lunch taco, their newspapers. To freelancers, these neighborhood exchanges can set the tenor of their whole day.
New York is, in essence, a collection of many small villages. Each one has its own flavor, its own separate personality. This is one of the reasons people always want to know where you live when they first meet you; if it turns out you live in their neighborhood, it is the fun of finding someone else from their hometown.
But these villages can be very small indeed; friends of mine who moved a mere block and a half away from where they had been living in the West Village said it felt as if they were in a whole new area’s even though they were so close to where they had been living before, their route to and from the subway was different, and they went to different stores. Years ago, when I moved from Little Italy to the Upper West Side, I remember feeling as if I were in another city entirely. I experienced the same disorientation, initial loneliness and excitement about discovering new things that I had felt when I moved from Baltimore to Chicago, or from Chicago to New York. When the man who had done my laundry in Little Italy showed up as the new manager of a restaurant on my corner on the Upper West Side, I greeted him like a long lost friend.
It”s not that people in New York are nicer than people are in other parts of the country, it’s that they are the same as everywhere else. People create their own small-town communities wherever they live. It”s the people who do not live in New York who don”t understand just what a small town (or whole bunch of small towns) the Big Apple can be.
There’s an old saying: New York is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, the reverse is true. New York can be a very difficult place to visit’s with its size, the vast number of choices to be made, the constant swarm of strangers with which a visitor must contend. But for us New Yorkers, each living in our own friendly little Mayberry RFDs, it’s actually a great place to live.
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