How to make it in New York
For the last few weeks I have forsaken the balmy, calm shores of Lake Geneva for the windy, chilled streets of New York.* I have always had a slight obsession with New York, which may explain some of my overly harsh criticisms of Geneva, which could never but pale in comparison to what has always seemed to me to be the centre of the world. But what exactly is it about the Big Apple that so gets my heart racing and prevents me from achieving any truly relaxing sleep while I’m there? It’s not as physically beautiful as the Geneva surrounds, its certainly not as convenient to get around (although the taxis are cheaper), and the water out of the taps is no match for the Evian-esque drops which quench my thirst in Switzerland. And yet, New York seems to thrill and challenge and satisfy like no other city. John Steinbeck felt the same way, it seems; he said: “It is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal. Its politics are used to frighten children. Its traffic is madness. Its competition is murderous. But there is one funny thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no other place is good enough.”
Now, I’ve never lived in the city,** but having been there with embarrassing frequency over the last few years, I totally understand what old J.S. was talking about. The city gets under your skin the way few others – including Geneva – ever could.
Unsurprisingly, New York has its own rules and quirks that are just as dominant as Geneva’s. New Yorkers may have a headstart over us Genevois (even just by virtue of the oversupply of good restaurants, the amazingly low (in comparison) prices, and the fact that, not only can you USE your washing machine after 10pm, you can BUY a washing machine at 3am if you want! ) but “making it” in NYC seems to nevertheless be just as exhausting as making it in Geneva.
So if, like me, you’ve got your eye on the Big Apple, educate yourself with a few of the tips I’ve derived from my brief sojourns there over the years…
1. Get your chat on
One thing that never ceases to amaze me about New Yorkers is the speed, volume and quantity of their speech. Everywhere you go in New York you’re participating in someone’s conversation – sometimes actively (god, New York taxi drivers can talk, right? And are not afraid to ask you for your email address so you can continue the conversation virtually) but more often as a passive observer, whether you want to or not. I used to think that many of the supposedly ‘overheard’ quotes on Overheard in New York were made up, but after only ten days of walking around that city I’m sure I have gained enough material myself to keep the site going for another year. Highlights include a conversation which included the line “So I called Ali, and I was like ‘Oh my god! My Grandma is probably going to die today!’, and she was like, ‘Oh my god! My grandma is on Facebook.’” Not only would most people never have such a conversation, they would certainly not recount it at the top of their lungs walking up Fifth Avenue. But such is the wonders of New York. No matter how loud you talk or crazily you dress or hard you play, it is never too much.
2. Be aggressive, be be aggressive
I don’t mean aggressive in the shoving-your-way-past-commuters-to-get-on-the-subway,-bowling-down-people-on-the-street,-pushing-in-at-the-front-of-the-line-for/sushi aggressive. That’s just part and parcel of living in any big city. I mean make-yourself-heard,-get-what-you-want kind of aggressive. The type of aggressiveness that propels people to spend a good five minutes stipulating their lunch order, ensuring that their wholewheat grain bagel with cream cheese has no sunflower seeds but extra poppy seeds, the onion and celery flavoured cream cheese (oh, flavoured cream cheese, another element that gives New York the one up on Geneva) is chilled, the bun is toasted but not burnt, cut in quarters, no pickle but with fries, etc. etc., you get the message. And if you DON’T get the message, let me explain it again! Because that’s what they do. Coffee orders take an hour to recite, Mexican food can be ordered without any trace of cheese but with chocolate sauce on the side if you like, cabs can be directed to ONLY take Avenues 4 or 8 and to park exactly 33cm away from the curve. Everything is customisable and debatable, but you’ve got to get in quick and you’ve got to say it with authority. It’s like every person in New York just spends their lives ordering each other around. But in a nice way.
3. Money talks
I know I’m not revealing any astonishing news to you – after all, if there is anywhere that money talks, it’s Geneva – but in New York it’s a little more nuanced. First, there’s tipping. A few dollars goes a long way and I am happy – nay, ECSTATIC – to pay it if it means that the waiter refrains from scowling at me, brings me neverending glasses of tap water, and says ‘no problem’ when I ask for more ketchup. It’s a real departure from, say, every single restaurant in Western Europe and Great Britain.
Also, though money may talk, what it says really differs depending on where in New York you are. Your money has to learn to talk the language of the Upper East Side, of Tribeca, of Williamsburg. It seems to me that even going from uptown to downtown requires a whole new wardrobe, set of skills, elocution lessons and four-week emersion course in order to speak the right language.
4. Your EVERY DAY best
Finally, the most bizarrely unique characteristic of New York and New Yorkers: the culture of the superlative. I am certain that most conversations I have had with friends and acquaintances in New York during my trips over the years have at some stage come around to “the best” of something or other – the “best” slice of pizza, the “best” cupcake, the “best” steakhouse, the “best” coffee, the “best” new restaurant, the “best” brunch, “the “best” rooftop bar that serves only drinks which start with the letter ‘z’, etc. “Best” holds a place of pride in the New York lexicon, and any discussion with a local New Yorker (or one who has adopted the city as their home) will inevitably come around to their views on all manner of things that are the “best” – the “best” combination of subways to go from downtown to uptown during rush hour with the minimum amount of body contact with other commuters; the “best” table at the “best” early 20th Century French bistro in Soho; the “best” part of the Hamptons to stay in on July 4th weekend. It is a never-ending and often frustrating past-time which you nevertheless quickly buy into as soon as you step off the plan at JFK and which you will spend the rest of your time perpetuating, by saying things like “now, I really don’t buy into the whole ‘the best cupcake in town’ thing but THESE REALLY ARE THE BEST CUPCAKES IN TOWN.”
How to demystify this strange cultural practice? My only explanation is that an inherent part of the American psyche is the unremitting quest for betterment. It is a continuation of the frontier spirit that engulfed America during the 19th Century, was encapsulated by JFK’s challenge to his own people to put a man on the moon (part of his policy that was aptly entitled the “New Frontier”), and which today lives on in the minds of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt, people who are leading the guard across new frontiers.
This spirit, this indestructible determination, this undying loyalty to a noble cause, this is the answer. THIS is what drives New Yorkers’ ceaseless search for the perfect frosting on the perfect cupcake. I’ll drink to that.
Now, where is the “best” place in New York for a post blog-rant drink?
*That’s not exactly true. Actually, I’ve been back in Geneva 10 days now, but its taken me that long to recover from the whirlwind holiday/family reunion/shopping trip/drinking and eating fest.
**And am thus probably the least qualified person to be writing this post. Nevertheless, here I go…