As a native, born-and-bred New Yorker—as well as a somewhat ancient one—I've had the opportunity to witness a lot of changes in our fair city. I remember subway tokens. They were beautiful: solid brass discs stamped with "NYC," with the "Y" elegantly cut out. That was our bus and subway fare. I remember the smell of H&H bagels that would waft up and down Broadway from their tiny 81st Street corner shop as those heavenly creations emerged from the ovens each morning. I remember a city peopled with real New Yorkers—cab drivers, waitresses, teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, aspiring artists of all stripes, and immigrants from all over the world who all quickly became true New Yorkers. Yes, it was filthy. Yes, it was dangerous. But it was a place where real people lived, mostly working hard toward some type of aspiration. And there was always the characteristic New York way of looking at things: a charming sarcasm, a thick layer of dry and blunt over a truly noble sense of kindness and community. We'll help you, but we're not gonna get all gooey about it. That was New York, the truest example of the fabled melting pot, a place where Puerto Ricans regularly used Yiddish, where Jews watched Soul Train, and where real folks (people without trust funds, hedge funds, or sometimes any funds at all) were able to live.
This is my town.
Walking around these days, I'm still baffled by the disappearance of Woolworth's and Howard Johnson's and the magical Chock full o'Nuts billboard on which a coffee pot regularly tipped to pour steaming "coffee" into a cup. And Horn & Hardart's—a New York perennial where you'd get your food by putting coins into slots next to compartments with little sliding doors. And I'm stumped to see the homeless on nearly every block, and New York's finest checking email on their phones while on duty, and a constant influx of people with money (but lacking the sufficient pluck and character to be what I'd call real New Yorkers) snatching up neighborhoods one by one. I never imagined that the city, its stores, its apartments, its legendary theatre district, and even its cabs would no longer be affordable to most real, working-class New Yorkers.
I also never imagined that my famously crowded Manhattan could possibly become even more crowded, and then even more crowded. . . to the extent that part of Times Square had to be converted from streets to pedestrian walkways. And even that wasn't enough. On any day of the week, midtown sidewalks are all but impassible as tourists gawk, hawkers hawk, and young people get lost in their phone screens.
For old-time New Yorkers like me, navigating midtown avenues always strains our patience. And New Yorkers aren't known for their patience.
More than the crowds, and the traffic, and the families of European tourists who hold hands as they stroll, five across, blithely and ignorantly delaying hundreds of New Yorkers behind them . . . even more than that, the Curmudgeon detests . . . detests . . . the endless attempts at interaction. No, I don't want to take a bus tour from one of nineteen Jamaican dispatchers sharing the same corner, loudly arguing with each other between pitches. No, I do not want to discuss reproductive rights . . . not right now, in public, when I have an appointment and you're blocking pedestrian traffic. No, I don't want a discount pass to a strip club. No, I don't like comedy. No, I do not want to support your hip-hop career. No, I do not want you to dance into my path to entice me to see Chicago. No, I don't want to sign a petition. No, I do not want to accept a gold coin from a fake Tibetan monk. (I was born here, buddy. I know your scam from a mile away.) No, I do not want my picture taken with a Naked Cowboy, or with a broad in a filthy knock-off of a Disney character costume who I just saw around the corner with her Minnie head off, smoking a cigarette and counting her tips. No, I do not want to discuss my religion with a wildly aggressive Hassidic proselytizer.
NO. The answer is no. Is there a "no" lane? Can I just walk without being accosted? I live here. I have places to be.
I strongly believe that those of us who can prove we're authentic New Yorkers should receive government-issued buttons that simply say "NO," and I think it should be instant death penalty for anyone talking to us while we're walking displaying such identification. They've taken away my bagels. They've taken away my tokens, and my food in little compartments with sliding doors. But this is still a walking city. And damn it, I'm busy walking. Get the fuck out of my way.