I’m back in New York now, and I was out last night, trying to knock some of the rust off after two weeks with my family.
After my last mic of the night, I struck up a conversation with a comic that I was just meeting for the first time. It turned out he had just moved from Florida up to New York last week. We were headed to the same subway line to get home, so we continued the conversation - along with a couple other comics - while we waited for the subway.
When the G-train arrived, the five of us walked in together, and as we were sitting down, this new-to-town comic happened to kick the shoe of the guy sitting in the seat next to him.
And the guy, in a tone that was casual - but definitely scolding him - turned and said “You know, when you hit someone’s shoe, you really should apologize for it.”
The new comic was kind of thrown off for a second, but he recovered and quickly apologized.
It was no big deal, really. But it reminded me what it felt like when I first moved here. And especially what it felt like the couple times I’d visited here, years ago. I just hated the idea of people knowing I wasn’t from New York. I hated the idea of being the only person in the city that didn’t “know how to be a New Yorker.”
I felt like I was under a microscope. I kept screwing up which direction I had to insert my metro card when I got onto buses. I would go into a subway stop, only to realize I’d entered the “downtown” platform instead of the “uptown” one, and I’d have to pay again. I’d take the express train instead of the local, and we’d shoot 40 blocks past where I needed to be. I’d walk 5 blocks before I realized I was going north instead of south. I would spend roughly 6 minutes staring at the damn subway map, and still not know how to get to Astoria.
When someone else looked lost, I didn’t know whether to try and help, or to just ignore them. WWNYD? What Would a New Yorker Do?
I’m only a year into living here, but I understand a lot of it now. When that comic hit that dude’s foot, there was a moment in his head where he had to decide, “Do I say something, or don’t I?”
If you don’t say something, then maybe the guy scolds you for being rude. But if you do say something, then he could just as easily make fun of you for being too sensitive. Or worst of all, he could just barely raise his brow at you - because you’re not worth a full facial expression - with a dismissive look that says, “You don’t belong here, and it’s obvious.”
At first, New York feels like you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. There’s kind of a vibe in the air, like it’s a new school year, but you missed the first two days of school, so everyone else already knows where they’re going, and how to get there. And you’re just in everyone else’s way.
It’s funny - we all move here because we want to make ourselves stand out, in one way or another. We want to make it. But right when we get here, we want nothing more than to not stand out. We just want to feel like we belong here. Like we fit in.
So what does a new comic - or anyone, for that matter - have to do to not feel like the outsider? There’s no real magic trick to it. There’s no official “you’re a New Yorker now” card that you get. Honestly, I think it’s mostly just time. Or “time served,” if you want to be more sinister about it.
Time, and realizing that this city isn’t about you. That can break some people, when they realize how little this city cares about them. But it can set you free, too.
There are 12 million people here. Eventually, you’re gonna kick some people’s shoes. And whether they want you to say you’re sorry, or just keep looking forward and not bug them - has nothing to do with you. And has everything to do with them.
That guy on the train last night? He'd probably had a rough day at work, and at 1 in the morning, finally heading home, he got kicked, and he wanted someone to acknowledge his existence, and show him some respect. But the woman next to him might have just gotten done doing retail for 8 hours - and having to be “on” the whole time - and she wanted nothing more than to be left alone. But in both cases, you don’t matter.
When you first get here, you think New York cares about you. It doesn’t. It’s kind of up to us whether or not that’s a bad thing. Some people move here, then decide to move back. I used to think that represented weakness. It doesn’t. Weakness is not being willing to admit whether or not it feels right to be here.
When that comic got scolded on the subway last night, he was probably thinking “Man...I wonder if I’m cut out to be here with these New Yorkers.” But the guy who scolded him might move back to Cincinnati when his lease is up next month. There’s no right way to be a New Yorker. You just try to figure yourself out, but you do that while you’re around 12 million other people, trying to figure themselves out. You’re gonna kick some feet, and you’re gonna get your feet kicked.
New York isn’t a house of horrors. It’s different than other cities, and other places, in a lot of ways. But it’s similar in one very key way: all the people here are people. We’re all individuals. We’re all human.
We don’t live here because we're New Yorkers - we're New Yorkers because we live here. There’s no secret handshake I learned. It’s up to me, individually, whether I belong here or not. That answer comes from me, not from New York.
So if you’re moving here, don’t worry about feeling shitty. I mean, you will feel shitty. Oh boyyy, will you ever feel shitty. But try to feel shitty for your own reasons, not because you don’t “belong.” None of us belong. We’re all just people, living in New York.