Life In The Big City: Reflections on Thirty-something Years in New York” or “Et tu, Woody Allen?”

June 06, 2011

by Andrew Frantz

“New York Notes” by Harvey Shapiro

 " Caught on a side street in heavy traffic, I said to the cabbie, I should have walked. He replied, I should have been a doctor."

 "When can I get on the 11:33? I ask the guy in the information booth at the Atlantic Avenue Station. When they open the doors, he says. I am home among my people."

This morning I would like to begin with a short tutorial entitled, “How To Speak Like A New Yorker.”

Now some of you might be wondering, Andy, you’re from the south. Your people say things like IN-surance and TEE-vee. What qualifies you to teach us how to speak like a New Yorker? And that’s true. I am from the south. I was born in Alabama, but it’s not like I just got off the bus yesterday. I did get off a bus, but that was thirty-one years ago this coming August. It was a Trailways, which left Montgomery bound for New York, and pretty near made it all the way before breaking down somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey – the Meadowlands, actually. We were close enough that we could see the New York City skyline as we sat on our luggage on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, waiting for a replacement bus to take us the last few miles into the city.

I am a classically trained actor. I minored in speech and drama in college. That’s the reason I moved to New York City. I had designs on becoming the world’s next Dustin Hoffman. As you can probably tell from where I am presently standing, the world decided one Dustin Hoffman was enough. I spent ten years as an actor here in New York, not so much on Broadway or off-Broadway or even off-off-Broadway. It was more like off-off-Sheepshead Bay. I did manage to get on television a few times, usually playing the guy at the end of the bar. Once on an old soap opera called One Life To Live, I played an angry rancher. I got to wear a cowboy hat and a scowl.

But that is not why I am qualified to teach you how to speak like a New Yorker. I proofread for a law firm during the week, my “day” job since my old acting days, and I work with a bunch of native New Yorkers, mostly women word processors from Staten Island, who love nothing more than teasing me relentlessly about anything and everything, from my hair to my taste in music, but most especially, my southern roots. There are many things I have learned as a proofreader over the years, most of which involve what I shouldn’t have told these women.

For one, I never should have given them the name of my ex-wife, especially when she shares that same name with a song from the fifties, which was featured in a Debbie Reynolds movie, and which all my co-workers seem to know and love to sing.

Second, I never should have shared what I thought was an amusing anecdote from my married days about the time I put my wife’s shoes in the freezer. It’s a long story. Let’s just say even a newlywed can trip over a pair of burgundy pumps once too often in a small New York City studio apartment. To the women I work with, there is nothing funny about freezing another woman’s shoes. I have come to understand this now, but in my defense, it’s not like my wife’s feet were still in the shoes at the time I put them in the freezer.

But the most important thing a southerner in particular should never ever tell his Yankee co-workers is that he once married his sister, which I admit I did, but, technically, she was my half-sister, and I was only acting in an officiating capacity. In other words, I was the presiding minister, but my co-workers do not seem to appreciate the distinction.

And so it is precisely this daily abuse, which I have had to endure from these women from Staten Island for more than twenty years, which serves as my bona fides.

Here’s all you need to know about how to speak like a New Yorker, and for any young actors in the audience this morning, listen up. People pay good money for this kind of learning.

Where there is an “R” in a word, just ignore it. Hence, wintuh, summuh, compuduh, numbuh, shock (shark), or huh, as in: Who, him? No, huh!

And where there isn’t an “R” in a word, just add one, as in: soder (soda), plazer (plaza), or pneumonier (pneumonia). One of my co-workers is named Maria, which, of course, she cannot pronounce because she is from New York. She calls herself Marier. Every time she answers the phone, she says, “Hello, this is Marier.” Another co-worker of mine, my good friend, Chris, named her daughter Jessica, which, naturally, she can’t pronounce either. Chris calls her Jessiker. I asked her, how do you give your daughter a name you can’t even pronounce? Her response? “Weuh from heyuh. Weyuh sposed to tawk like dis, you cuhly-headed bastuhd, you.”

I am a New Yorker, even though I may not talk like one. For more than thirty years, New York City has been my home, which is a bit strange in and of itself because when one thinks of the word home, New York City is not what comes to mind.

Traditionally, when we think of the word home, we picture certain stereotypical images: images such as Mom and apple pie, front porch swings and picket fences, gingham, old time religion and adjustable rate mortgages.

And there are particular places that seem to suggest the word home as well, places with names like some of the small towns I grew up in as an Air Force brat: Breese, Illinois or Summerville, South Carolina. New York City? New York City is not home. New York City is the place we all escaped to in order to get away from home.

New York City is not home. Kansas is home. New York City is Oz. The place, as Dorothy described it, “far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain. Somewhere over the rainbow.” It is a land of song and bright, vibrant color standing in sharp contrast to our hushed and sepia-toned childhood. It’s the world we longed for in our misunderstood and underappreciated youth come to life; where, armed with hope, we choose to explore and mine our talents, and where the freedom to be who you choose to be is celebrated – or at least ignored.

No one is saying New York is perfect. It can be a little loud living in a land of song. And living in a land that allows you to celebrate your individuality – well, that’s a piece of cake. It’s living in a land that allows your neighbor to celebrate his individuality that’s the rub.

Let’s face it: New York is not the easiest place in which to live. In the very first issue of The New Yorker magazine, dated February 21, 1925, in a little lampoon called “From the Opinions of a New Yorker,” came this:

New York is noisy.
New York is overcrowded.
New York is ugly.
New York is unhealthy.
New York is outrageously expensive.
New York is bitterly cold in winter.
New York is steaming hot in summer.
I wouldn’t live outside New York for anything in the world.

So our definition of home changes. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Gingham is out; good Chinese take-out is in. Front porch swings give way to foreign films, museums, theater, or a million other passions. Provincialism closes shop. Diversity is embraced. And pretty soon we find ourselves identifying with the Edward Norton character, in his film, Keeping The Faith, when he said, “true New Yorkers understand that people living anywhere else must be, in some sense, kidding.”

But what does it truly mean to be a New Yorker? This is the question I have been asking myself lately, and to answer it, I thought perhaps I needed to go back in time to those first New Yorkers who settled here some 400 years ago.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Russell Shorto’s, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. As any grade school child could tell us, New York City was founded by the Dutch, who called it New Netherland, and it is Mr. Shorto’s contention that it is precisely our Dutch origins which lie at the heart of who we as New Yorkers are today and perhaps at whatever hopes we might have for the future of our city.

“[T]he Dutch Republic in the 1600s was the most progressive and culturally diverse society in Europe.” It was known as “the melting pot of Europe.” “The Dutch Republic’s policy of tolerance made it [an intellectual or religious] haven for everyone from Descartes and John Locke to … English Pilgrims [to] Baruch Spinoza.” However, it’s important to understand that for the Dutch of the 17th century, “the meaning of tolerance … had nothing to do with ‘celebrating diversity’ – a concept that,” as Mr. Shorto says, “would have been seen as sheer loopiness... ‘Putting up with’ was probably closer to the mark.”

And so to the shores of Mannahata, or “hilly island,” as it was known by some, or Manaactanienk, “place of general inebriation,” as it was known by others – you know which tribe you belong to – came the live-and-let-live Dutch, in all their diversity. The original colony consisted of “a Babel of peoples.” In addition to the Dutch, you had “Norwegians, Germans, Italians . . . Africans (slave and free), Walloons” – French-speaking exiles from what is today Belgium – “Bohemians, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and many others.” The Columbia historian, Kenneth Jackson, points out that by “the 1640s, there were eighteen languages being spoken on the streets.”

And there was a plurality of religions among the early settlers of New York as well, despite the best efforts of Peter Stuyvesant, “whose feelings were strongly antidiversity.” “Besides a Church of England presence, a Dutch Calvinist population, French Calvinists, Dutch Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, there were ‘Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Antisabbatarians; [s]ome Anabaptists[,] some Independants; [and] some Jews.’”

I don’t mean to romanticize these early settlers of New York. Tolerance waxed and waned among the Dutch, with certain nationalities, religious sects and races considered more equal than others. But as Mr. Shorto points out, “One has to keep in mind what an oddity the new city of New York was to people of the seventeenth century, with its variety of skin tones and languages and prayer styles coexisting side by side.” And for the English, who would take control of the colony, “[t]he thinking was that the inhabitants of the island should be allowed to maintain their way of life for the very good reason that the place worked.”

History may play a role in our obtaining a better understanding of what it means to be a New Yorker, but it is doubtful that New York history is what first attracted us to this town. In all the reading I did preparing for this speech, I can’t tell you the number of people I came across who said the films of Woody Allen played a role in their moving to New York City. Woody Allen has served as a kind of unofficial cultural ambassador-at-large for New York. Films such as Manhattan, Annie Hall, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, and many more, with their myriad city locations, the fancy restaurants, the stylish apartments, and the quintessential Woody Allen wit, all provide an insider’s view of New York – albeit as limited as it might be to a certain segment of society – which has enormous appeal. I know it did for me. Woody Allen is not the reason I moved to New York, but Woody Allen’s New York was where I wanted to live.

The writer David Rakoff, who moved to New York City in 1982, was similarly influenced by Woody Allen. In a terrific little collection of essays entitled, My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City, Rakoff talks about “an almost obliterating desire to ‘pass’ as a New Yorker, to authentically resemble one of the denizens of the movie Manhattan.” He writes:

[I]t was the city as embodied in Manhattan I ached for. The high-strung friends with terrible problems, the casual infidelities, the rarefied bohemianism – ERA fund-raisers in the garden at MoMA, gallery-hopping followed by filling one’s simple grocery list at Dean & DeLuca.

But then Mr. Rakoff says:

There was no one specific moment when the rigorous self-consciousness gave way to authenticity. It was more of a dim realization that the very act of playing the “Are we a New Yorker yet?” game means you aren’t one yet. But it eventually happens, dawning on you after the fact, tapping you on the shoulder after you’ve passed it. It comes from an accretion of shitty jobs, deeply felt friendships that last, deeply felt friendships that end, funerals, marriages, divorces, births, and betrayals, and you wake up one day to realize that you passed the eight-year mark decades prior; that you are older than all of the characters in Manhattan, with the possible exception of Bella Abzug; that you have been to a party in the garden at MoMA and watched the sun come up over Sutton Place and the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and decided that, in the end, you’d rather stay home; that only a rich moron would buy his groceries at Dean & DeLuca; and that, as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind. These are all realizations endemic to aging anywhere, I am sure. It must happen in other cities, but I’ve really only ever been a grown-up here.

You can imagine my surprise, and perhaps the surprise of David Rakoff and other New York Woody Allen fans, in reading a little blurb in The New York Times last month about Woody’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Woody was quoted as saying: “For me, Paris is more beautiful than New York.”

Thanks a lot, Woody, but I’m too old to move to France.

David Rakoff’s essay brings up an interesting aspect of what it means to be a New Yorker. New York City is personal, and by that I mean, we each create our own New York. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is not David Rakoff’s, nor is it mine. We each experience the city differently. If there are eight million New Yorkers, then there must be eight million New Yorks. That is one of the hidden wonders of living here: we can all share in this New York experience and yet each individual’s experience of New York is unique. My New York City is not the same as yours.

My New York is Yankee baseball, a little theater from time to time, an occasional opera, and a giant, heaping helping of the New York City Ballet, especially their performance of Jerome Robbin’s “The Concert,” which is so delicious, it’s like watching a Marx Brothers routine, but with tutus.

My New York is watching some obscure little film with perhaps a dozen other New Yorkers at tiny Cinema Village on 12th and University, or standing on line with a thousand of my closest friends to catch the latest blockbuster at New York’s movie palace, the Ziegfeld.

My New York is walking, walking, walking. I once read that “[a] city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.” “Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city.’” That may be over thinking things just a bit, but I do know New York City was made to be walked. Oh, and I brake for all golden retrievers.

My New York is sitting on a park bench in front of the Kerbs Memorial Boathouse in Central Park, reading The New York Times, while watching the model boats sailing on the Conservatory Water. And because I am a New Yorker, I know which park benches to avoid, lest the pigeons add their own op-ed to my newspaper.

My New York is music, whether it be catching Lunasa, the best Irish band in the world, playing the Highline Ballroom; the jazz piano of Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard; the big southern drawl of Lucinda Williams at SummerStage in Central Park; Richard Thompson tearing up the Beacon; Bruce Springsteen rockin’ the Garden; or maybe even God himself, Bob Dylan, warbling under the stars at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn.

And my New York is the community and causes of Judson Memorial Church, where I count so many of you as my friends; and in particular, Judson Sunday School, where week after week, we try to find a new way of telling an old story that won’t have your children running from the room wondering what kind of God would do that?, but instead, leaves them in wonder that perhaps there is a God, even in New York City.

That’s my New York. What’s yours?

Whatever it is, I bet it’s changed over the years. That’s because to be a New Yorker is to recognize that New York is a city continually in process, a city constantly in transition, and it has always been so.

That Starbucks used to be a Chock full o’Nuts. That Häagen-Dazs store used to sell Cookie Puss. That Kindle you’re holding in your hand? People used to read books – actual books – that they bought – get this – in bookstores! I know, it sounds crazy!

The old Yankee Stadium becomes the new Yankee Stadium; the old Shea becomes the new Citi Field; the old Fifty-ninth Street Bridge that Simon and Garfunkel memorialized in their song “Feelin’ Groovy,” becomes the new Ed Koch Bridge, which leads one to hope no one ever writes a song called “Feelin’ Ed Koch.”

Somewhere along the line, New York has become a city of nail and eyebrow threading salons, with a drug store and a bank on every corner. Do we really have that much money? And I don’t mean to sound like an old crank, but when did Greenwich Village become NYU-ville?

The city changes, and the city changes us as well. In his book, The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead writes, the streets of New York “are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next,” and he invites us to imagine “what all your old apartments would say if they got together to swap stories.”

They could piece together the starts and finishes of your relationships, complain about your wardrobe and musical tastes, gossip about who you are after midnight. 7J says, So that’s what happened to Lucy – I knew it would never work out. You picked up yoga, you put down yoga, you tried various cures. You tried on selves and got rid of them, and this makes your old rooms wistful: why must things change? 3R goes, Saxophone, you say – I knew him when he played guitar. Cherish your old apartments and pause for a moment when you pass them. Pay tribute, for they are the caretakers of your reinventions.

As for our crankiness, Mr. Whitehead admonishes:

Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us. To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. The kid on the uptown No. 1 train, the new arrival stepping out of Grand Central, the jerk at the intersection who doesn’t know east from west: those people don’t exist anymore, ceased to be a couple of apartments ago, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy.

New York City has been my life for more than thirty years now, and what I have come to understand is that while it may not have given me everything I came here for – and life seldom does – what New York has given me is so much more than I would ever have thought to ask for.

On Sunday morning, May 22nd of this year, the day after that knucklehead from California predicted the end of the world, the headline on the front page of the New York Post read: “WORLD ENDS! Heaven looks exactly like New York City.” My first thought upon reading this was, are they kidding? This is New York. It’s not Field of Dreams, with its “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

No one would ever mistake heaven for New York City. For one thing, as any New Yorker could tell you, heaven is a larger apartment. I presently live in a railroad flat that is so skinny, it’s like living in a zipper. My living room is only 7 ½ feet wide. The joke is, it doesn’t matter how big your television is, if your sofa is only four feet away, you have a widescreen TV. Or TEE-vee.

Also, in heaven, no one plays a favorite little game I like to play when I’m walking around New York, called “What’s That Smell: Crap or Death?” Sometimes it’s both!

And surely in heaven they don’t use the F-word as much as we New Yorkers do. If New York City has an official word, it’s the F-word. It’s like New York State having an official tree, the sugar maple, or an official bird, the bluebird. New York City has an official bird all right, which we constantly let fly, but it ain’t got no wings.

A week after that headline, I found myself walking the bridal path around the reservoir in Central Park, as I like to do. I was about halfway through my walk when I came to the southwest entrance to the path, and there in the clearing stood a tableau like something out of a painting by George Seurat: Sunday in the Park with Andy. In the background, runners of all persuasion circled the reservoir, with the Fifth Avenue skyline in the distance. And in the foreground, two little Hispanic girls were playing with a Dora the Explorer kickball at the feet of a Hasidic man who stood talking on his cell phone, while a Japanese family rested on a nearby park bench. As three teenage girls wearing the hijab, the traditional scarf worn by Muslim women, passed by, about a dozen African women, who may have been coming from a wedding, entered the picture, dressed in what appeared to be traditional Gambian clothing – bright shiny hats and the most colorful floral print dresses you’ve ever seen. They were absolutely beautiful, like a walking botanical garden. I felt positively underdressed standing there in my shorts and Yankee t-shirt.

In many ways, there’s nothing unusual about this scene. It’s something we experience every day in this town. And I don’t mean to romanticize it any more than I did the image of those early settlers of New York, but I couldn’t help but think to myself, the place still works. How blessed are we to live in a city which doesn’t require us to lose our identity? It only asks that we tolerate one another’s.

That’s New York City.

It feels like heaven to me.

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