(TJAGS weekly column)
"How is New York?" This, coming from my mother, is a very loaded question. To say she was not entirely supportive of my decision to move from the Midwest to New York City five years ago would be a bit of an understatement. To her, it would be like any reasonable adult explaining they have decided to move to the planet Neptune.
Forgoing any attempt at a substantial answer--which might as well involve me trying to explain the challenges of sustaining life on what is primarily a gas planet--I sheepishly, as always, respond, "Umm… good?"
What exactly does that question mean in the first place? I am under the assumption she is not concerned about the city's budget or economy. On another level, perhaps she is looking for some sort of answer that would create a window into a city that many only see play out on a television screen; like I did.
People often do ask: Why did you move to New York City? I often stumble for a reasonable answer, but, in reality, the answer is quite simple. I saw it on TV. In fact, as an only child (whose parents moved around quite a bit) growing up in the Midwest, some of my closest friends lived in New York City. There was Mr. Kotter and the Sweathogs; Alex and Elaine driving taxis for Louie while putting up with the antics of Latka; there was Arnold and Willis Jackson who lived with their adoptive father, Mr. Drummond. Later came Jerry, George, Elaine and Cosmo; followed by Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Monica. This was the New York I loved, but it wasn't real, or was it?
It certainly seemed more real than the memories my Midwestern friends would return with; friends who would visit and come back with pictures from the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Though I had never been there, this was not the New York City I knew. Theo Huxtable was not hanging out at the Empire State Building, George and Weezie Jefferson did not stop to wave at the cameras on The Today Show
while moving on up to the east side. My friends all agreed, though exciting, they would never want to live there.
How could they not see the New York City that I saw? How come, still today, tourists travel from all over the world to come to this wonderful city and not truly experience it. I needed to know. I decided the only way to find out was to talk to fellow Midwesterners that were experiencing New York City for the first time. People that were, at one point, just like me. Where would I find them? There was only one place I could think to go: T.G.I. Friday's in Times Square.
In full disclosure, Times Square is the area of Manhattan that most people that actually live in New York try to avoid. Regardless, I saddled up to the bar at T.G.I. Friday's and accepted the bartender's suggestion of a frosty libation. Within minutes I was already engaged in a conversation with the man sitting to my left at the bar, Eric Aunan from Des Moines, IA, who is in town for the weekend with his daughter, Holly. Eric was shocked at the ease of our conversation--until he learned that I, too, was a native Midwesterner--considering the difficulties he had starting up a conversation with anyone up to this point. Even, at one point, being stereotyped for his friendly demeanor, accurately it turns out, of "being from the Midwest."
I took this as my opportunity to ask, as my mother would: So, how is New York? "It's been great, it sucks you in with everything happening, it can be overwhelming," Eric answered while checking his upside-down tourist map, "though, I admit I am completely turned around right now." I asked him if they had ventured away from the Times Square area. He admitted, "no we haven't, this is her first time here and my fifth, but I have always stayed in this area and have never left it, "It's a great city but I wouldn't want to live here." Ah yes, there it was; I pressed further and had to ask the question that has been burning in me since the day I moved here. I asked, with access to any type of restaurant one's mind could possibly imagine, why would he choose one that he could eat at back in Des Moines? At a greatly inflated price, I must add. "This is what I know, I know what to expect. Plus I know it is something she will eat," as he motions at his daughter, Holly, who shrugged and nodded in half-hearted agreement.
I asked what Holly thought of her trip so far. "It's very exciting, I really love it here," even mentioning she was considering going to college here after she finishes high school next year, a statement that quickly leads her father to start listing off the accolades of Iowa State University as an option. (As a graduate of a Big XII school, myself, I could offer no comment.) I asked her about the stereotype that New Yorkers are, by nature, rude. Before I could barely finish my sentence she asserted, "They are! People here just seem to keep to themselves, but it really is great."
Eventually, Eric and Holly had to leave T.G.I. Friday's; they had tickets to see Wicked
. Eric, obviously, was just visiting. He saw nothing here that drew him in deeper, which is fine. I saw it in Holly though, I saw a microcosm of all the fictional characters I used to love; I saw a microcosim of myself. Those character, though, never existed and don't matter anyway; what matters is that all of those characters were based on real people; real people who came from all over the world to live in, arguably, the greatest city there is. People just like me and, possibly, someday, just like Holly.
I spoke to my mother again. She sounds tired--she has been taking care of her mother who has been in and out of the hospital the last few weeks after suffering a stroke. Like always, she asks me the question I dread, "So, how is New York?" There was something different, this time, about the way it was asked. There was an essence about her voice that I could truly tell that she wanted to hear I was happy. This time, I give the same answer, but it was not the same at all: New York is good, it really is.
"Truth, Justice and Gordon Shumway
" (yes, that is ALF) is a weekly column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan
which appears Wednesdays, focusing on pop-culture current events. For any comments or complaints, you may contact Mike directly at firstname.lastname@example.org