Fifty years ago I plucked myself from my roots in rural New York State and found a little culture in Boston before transplanting myself in Denver, still known as a cow town in 1968. Having quickly observed that the many New Yorkers who followed IBM from Poughkeepsie to Boulder were sometimes frowned upon as being cliquish and a bit too loud, I avoided saying I was from the Empire State. I didn’t possess the tell-tale accent.
That first summer in Colorado I recall shopping at the flagship Denver Dry Goods store on 16th Street and walking out because too many people offered to help me. People just didn’t do that where I came from. And for sure you never talked to strangers on the street. It threw me repeatedly when people I didn’t know were so friendly.
Volunteering I was from NY State was not something I did too often.
Years later, coaching my husband on what to expect on his first trip to NY, he became paranoid and refused to drive the rental car off the lot at JFK. My advice had been not to stop at the end of an on ramp but to keep moving, merging at nearly any cost. Likewise, I’d cautioned him not to ever get in the exact change lane at a toll booth if – heaven forbid – there was any doubt about having the right coins. “People will get out and beat you up,” I recall saying in both cases!
In the late '90s I’d commented to a friend in NY that people in the stores seemed friendlier than I’d remembered, and people at tollbooths did too. “Was it my imagination?” I asked. It wasn’t, she pointed out. When Filene’s expanded from New England into NY, they’d given employees training in how to be more customer-service oriented, and the other department stores followed suit. And Rudy Guilianni had imposed a rule to initiate a friendlier atmosphere, telling operators of tollbooths they needed to not only make eye contact with their customers but also greet them. What a novel idea!
Now, I must say New Yorkers have always been as friendly and hospitable and nice as the best people anywhere, but my experience having grown up there in the '50s and '60s is that they weren’t exactly outgoing in a welcoming way – generally waiting for an introduction or for the next person to initiate pleasantries. On guard. Cliquish. A bit suspicious. Loving their friends but being a bit reserved about opening their arms to newcomers.
My three years in the more reserved Boston atmosphere made for quite a contrast to the openness and friendliness of Coloradoans when I arrived. I soaked up the outgoing nature of people and blossomed here, adapting easily to the nutrient-rich soil in which I’d put down my roots in 1968.
So spending time in NYC this past weekend brought with it some enlightenment. Researching small, neighborhood restaurants in the Murray Hill district conjured up questions in my mind about who likely dined at the same places once or twice a week but never talked to others they saw routinely in the tiny eateries with just 8 or 10 tables. I longed momentarily to be a novelist inventing stories about where they lived, how they lived, what they were like.
A Colorado friend also formerly from NY had asked if I were going to live dangerously while on a girls’ weekend in the city with his wife, and I quickly responded, “Yes! I’m going to strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know at the next table in a restaurant!” He laughed and cautioned me to be careful.
My first official try was at Le Parisien on East 33rd Street. She was a 78-year-old retired professor of criminal justice dining with a male friend, who wasn’t quite as eager to be chatty. I apologized for asking so many questions as if I were interviewing her; but she was quite forthcoming, smiling broadly and often with a face full of expression, admitting that most people didn’t chat with strangers in restaurants. She did say she sometimes recognized people from the neighborhood and they even occasionally tasted one another’s food in the tiny French restaurant with just nine tables she visited a couple of times a month.
I automatically said “good morning” to someone on a side street in a residential area, like I would have while taking a walk on my street in Evergreen. It just slipped out without thinking when he dared to make eye contact. As I might have expected, he didn’t respond.
And then my friend, Ruth, and I engaged Sergey, the youthful bicycle driver pulling our cart after seeing “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” Friday night. He’d arrived from Belarus in August and was flattered that we had walked by five other drivers to single him out to transport us all the way to our hotel. We tried to convince him that his English was quite good and chatted at every stoplight, holding our breath and pulling in anything that might extend over the edge of the carriage as he squeezed between traffic with just an inch or two to spare. I would have invited him home for dinner…. It’s always been important to me to make foreigners feel welcome in this country.
Emboldened by the successes, we struck up a conversation with a woman on 30th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues headed to Easter Sunday services at the Marble Collegiate Church of Norman Vincent Peale fame and learned about the fabulous gospel choir they had there. She said she’d take the train from New Jersey most Sundays when she wasn’t traveling because the music was so good. She pointed out a well known Georgian restaurant – Pepela – in a townhouse we were passing, one that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in the residential area, and wished us a Happy Easter when we parted ways a block later.
Then there was the young lady across the table in the lunch area at Macy’s, who lived in Queens and worked selling expensive handbags in the department store already advertising just 274 more days until Santa arrived. She was originally from Australia where she’d met her American husband. They’re moving back to the world down under, she offered. She explained that, yes, indeed, first-floor sales were up due to the flower show, which had given us a reason to plan our theatre trip to NYC in late March.
And then there was the older lady on the bus who’d moved out of senior housing to live with her daughter and son-in-law 40 miles north of the city where she could get her hands in the dirt to plant a few flowers each spring. And the man originally from the Bronx who had spent enough vacations in Fort Meyers at his brother’s place. “After all, there’s only so much to see and do in Fort Meyers,” he’d said. The 30-some-year-old who shared a seat on the bus into the city stared straight ahead, showing no interest in anything more than a question about storage in the overhead bin. She was what I’d anticipated everyone to be like.
A couple from Montreal standing in the rear of the theatre initiated a conversation with me during intermission of “The Color Purple.” They were on their annual show trip to NYC. We exchanged notes on what we’d seen and what we’d not been able to secure tickets for, talked of the Shaw Theatre Festival in Niagara on the Lake, and how my introduction to Broadway plays had been seeing Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” the week it opened at the Winter Garden in March of 1964, exactly 52 years earlier.
From that vantage point at the back of the orchestra section I’d estimated that 75-80 percent of the audience was African-American, so it only seemed appropriate to strike up a conversation with the humongous black woman sitting next to me who spilled over the armrest and into my seat, towering at least 12 inches above my frame in a seated position as though she were atop a booster seat. I envied her obvious understanding of body swagger, ethnic humor, and the lingo I didn’t fully comprehend in the play.
Waiting in line at the same-day-discounted ticket kiosk in Times Square, a young man handing out pamphlets was chatty about various shows, saying he much preferred musicals to drama, wondering if we were going to “Book of Mormon” and asking if I’d read Agatha Christie books. He didn’t think he’d like the Forrest Whittaker performance in “Hughie,” which we opted to see the night before it was due to close.
Before departing for LaGuardia, we hiked uptown to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the Easter Parade was taking place. There weren’t any conversations there, just gestures of many people wanting to take pictures of friends posing with the more unusual bonnets. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the resemblance to a small-town street fair but on a much larger scale.
I found the sales clerks to be friendly and helpful, even cheerful. The young gal in line ahead of me in the deli was pleasantly responsive when I inquired about the process.
With the weekend drawing to a close, I decided my experiment in "living dangerously" in New York had made the entire experience much more fun than I would have imagined.
Had the city changed, or was I seeing it differently, I wondered. Had I lived long enough to actually witness change? Or was it that people everywhere are generally nicer to gray-haired old ladies….
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PS -- I decided seven out of eight people wear black clothing this time of year in NY. Other than Easter Sunday, I never saw anyone "dressed up" – even for the theatre! The streets seemed cleaner, and there were fewer panhandlers. I also met up with the first person I know who supports Donald Trump.