There is no denying that big cities have a special attraction to most people. And New York, being one of the biggest cities in the world, has many qualities that make it unique. Not so for me at the beginning.
I came to New York in 1971 with my wife and daughter to do research in microbial genetics, a new field of research for me. Despite my having lived previously in Buenos Aires, another big city, for five years, the culture shock was tremendous for me (my wife had been here before). And it didn’t help that when we arrived we were sent to the wrong place.
The hotel our hosts –lovely people- had reserved for us had two different wings that couldn’t have been more different: one new, the other old and unattractive, full of sour, strange characters. Our hosts were unaware of this disparity and we ended up in the old wing. Not only was our room old but it was foul-smelling to boot, inhabited by roaches and other insects that terrified my daughter and unnerved my wife and me.
My English was extremely poor. I could manage at reading and writing it but had almost no experience speaking it. My wife, on the other hand, was an English professor who had spoken the language since childhood. These difficulties with the language, together with an unwelcoming and strange environment made me want to take a plane back home soon after I arrived in the city.
Fortunately, my wife’s common sense prevailed and we stayed. After some time I felt more used to our new situation and soon some friends of friends lent us an apartment before we finally were able to rent our own. From then on we felt totally at ease with the city. New York, so harsh for me at the beginning, has become our home for more than 40 years.
The possibility to meet unusual people is one of the great attractions of a cosmopolitan city like New York which I particularly treasure. I recently had brunch with a friend at an old, wood-paneled restaurant located in the basement of a Greenwich Village hotel. The place at one time had probably seen the likes of Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsberg, and Edmund Wilson.
As we talked about what makes New York such an interesting place I told my companion an anecdote about the city. I was returning home from dinner at a friend’s house on a frigid winter evening. There were only two people in my subway car sitting close to each other and near an end of the car: an older woman and myself.
We were both silent. She was reading a magazine and I was lost in my own thoughts when we heard a loud, repetitive noise coming from the other end of the car. Suddenly, we saw a young man coming through the door. Despite the extremely cold weather he was only dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and a huge Mexican sombrero with small hanging trinkets in it playing with a basketball as he walked from car to car. My fellow passenger and I looked at each other. Then, she said quietly “Only in New York, only in New York.”
Not to be outdone, my friend told me his favorite subway incident. After shopping the whole afternoon, he and his wife took the subway home. In front of them sat a rather disheveled man, which in itself is not an unusual sight in New York. What caught my friend’s attention, however, was that the man was reading a book intently and completely oblivious to his surroundings, without bothering to lift his gaze even for a second, so enthralled was he by his book. What also surprised my friend was this man’s hostile and angry expression, which caused unease in both his wife and himself.
What could that man be reading, my friend wondered, that made him fix his attention on the book in front of him? No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t read its title. Finally, my friend’s curiosity was rewarded. Just before getting off, he was able to look at the man’s source of attention. Disheveled and angry-looking as he was, the man was reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.
“Colectividad que no sabe pensar, no puede vivir.” - Concepción Arenal