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Listening to New York

New York talks to you. It relentlessly chatters away in your ear.

Listening to New York


New York talks to you. It relentlessly chatters away in your ear. This is no droning mumble — NYC is clear and forthright. It doesn’t always scream and shout, but it definitely won’t shut up. And I was enthralled by what it had to say.

Oh no, you’re not going to spaz out on me now. Not on the good thing we got going. Not for that dumb-ass bitch from those pictures on Facebook, no way.
—Overheard on the stairs of the 77th Street subway station

A friend of mine who had come back to New York after a few years overseas put it to me that before she left, reality TV had yet to make an impact. On her return, New Yorkers had seen that being ordinary could make a person famous and the effect was that everyone has since become convinced that the minutiae of their everyday lives are now vitally important. Whatever the reason may be, it makes for entertainment far more engaging than any episode of America’s Got Talent that I’ve ever seen.

“I haven’t read her play. I read the novella. And the novella is what it is, you don’t see her on broadway. I’ll read her next one. After that, I don’t think I’ll be dedicating all that much time.”
—One Bryant Park girl to another during a brisk mid-morning walk

The name-droppers and appointment-makers are everywhere, but they’re just the first in a long list of delightful caricatures. The melting pot is alive and every culture you can think of is on the island of Manhattan:

“When I came to New York, I didn’t do English so good. But I only need two expression. In da morning, I say, I’m lookin for job. Den after da work at da bar with da otha guy, I say, ‘OH YEAH?’, not, ‘uh huh’. If you say ‘uh huh’, then they don’t like you. They tink you don’t listen. But if you say, ‘OH YEAH?’, they dink you care about every little ding. I don’t have no clue what dey say.”
—Yves, my Malian cab driver

Yves, satisfyingly, lives in Harlem. The yummy mummies walk their designer dogs in Greenwich, while their husbands take the kids to the playgrounds of the Meat Packing District. The springtime suits of Wall St are woollen and pressed beneath immaculate Mad Men partings. Meanwhile, the hipsters and their worldly musings have firmly taken up residence in Brooklyn.

Look at me, I'm head to toe fabulous and I'm a fierce shopper. This jacket is worth two hundred dollars but I paid eighty. Moving down this is a two hundred dollar shirt that I picked up for just one twenty. Pants? Sixty. Socks were twenty and the shoes, the shoes were sixty five.
Oh shut up. Those poor tourists don't give a shit about your fashion.
Sure they do. Where you folks from?
— Two of three friends, on a late night subway train

There’s no respite from the words. You won’t even find shelter beneath a pair of headphones, because New York talks to you, even if you aren’t using your ears. The streets are awash with plastered messages that compete with the sound. While the majority come from advertising hoardings, there are plenty with no obvious motivation. From chalk scrawling outside the city library to stickers on the reverse of “DON’T WALK” signs, the city tries over and over to inspire, amuse, and comfort.

The greatest advantage of living in New York is surely the ability to get the best of everything. Restaurants, clubs, bars, fashion retail, art galleries, and numerous publications all live and die by how they fare in New York. In a space that bustles with up to 20 million souls at any one time, it seems that the competition to make your message heard has produced a hum of noise. As a visitor, you are expected to filter your own content. Unless you too fall prey to the trappings of the city.

That’s why Dad always told you to engage your damn brain before you open your mouth. You ignorant moron.
— A out-of-towner to his brother as they stepped out the doors of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

I couldn’t help but notice the man’s failure to heed the very advice he was imparting. Thankfully, I don’t think the rest of the city heard him.