If you’re blocking a sidewalk or subway entrance and don’t notice because you are fiddling with your phone or iPod, I’ll politely ask you to move a few times. Everyone gets distracted, I grok that. But if you don’t come correct after that, I’ll just shove past you and whatever indignation you subsequently express. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve forfeited your right to be heard and I’ve already moved on. And, no: New York didn’t make me this way. Rather, I’ve made it here for 20 years because I already was like this. I come from a long line of people who wouldn’t have survived if they’d swallowed other people’s shit. I’m convinced all the real New Yorkers—not those on the five-year post-university plan; not those who drift on money they didn’t earn themselves—do. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel compassion and affection and respect for each other. It just means we rely upon a social contract in which no one matters more than anyone else. If we didn’t, 8 million people from all walks of life would never successfully coexist in such a small geographical area. So come correct or don’t come at all. New York is a city of tough lovers–and it’s one of the many reasons that, even in this Hades weather, I love it so.
After I’d been living in my current apartment for six years, a cute couple moved in across the hall. I was going through a phase in which I detested cute couples, and I’d never been a fan of neighbors. Part of why I’d moved to New York in the first place was to claim the voluptuous anonymity the city promised. My clan had never been big on boundaries and on top of that there’d always been Old Lady MacNamara. Hanging over the fence between our two houses, she’d spent her days passing judgment on my half-Jewish family’s goings-on as she smoked the cigarettes that eventually killed her.
I defined a good neighbor the same way I defined good weather: an entity that never made its presence known.
But T and G were different. The day they moved in, I was scrubbing my apartment with the doors and windows flung wide open, blasting the air with Aretha Franklin’s Soul 69 and hippie cleansers. They grinned at me over the boxes they were toting but made no idle chitchat. A few days later, T came by looking for a needle. While I fetched her one, she eyed the coathook precariously hanging from my wall. “I’m bad at boy things,” I told her. “And my boyfriend and I just broke up.”
She didn’t say anything, but returned a day later with a toolbox and reattached the hook. No processing first or “I’ll do it later, baby.” Just a girl with a drill. I began to grasp the advantage of good neighbors over mediocre boyfriends.
Slowly we all became friends. I dropped off copies of the lurid gossip magazine where I was working and leftovers from my Sunday dinners. They helped me hang all my pictures and brought over leftovers as well. All of us, it turned out, liked to cook, though T didn’t love meat as much as G and I did, and I tended to cook with more butter and salt than both of them put together. As the nights grew colder and longer, we’d sip wine and make meals together. Afterward, we’d watch The Wire, which they’d never seen and at whose altar I worshipped in an annual ritual of strict sequence and even stricter silence. (First rule of The Wire: You are not smarter than The Wire so you do not interrupt The Wire.) One night, as we noiselessly took in back-to-back episodes of Season 2 on their tweedy couch, I realized I’d come to love my neighbors. Continue Reading →