The City of Contradictions

New York city inspires extreme emotions. You either love it, or loathe it, but you can never be indifferent about it. Everyone has an opinion of the city, and the city itself flaunts its  obnoxious self-assurance at a new arrival,  “I am, larger than life, I am the center of the universe, consider yourself lucky to be here”.

The city known as the Big Apple figures it has the right to turn your life upside down and mold its details to her whims, then has the audacity to re-define these details for you. You can still have leisure time, lunch-breaks, traffic jams, coffee breaks, or take walks in the park. But you quickly find out that New York city has taken over these concepts, creating its own unique version. It completes the insult to the stranger by keeping the vocabulary intact while stripping it of familiar meaning.

On arrival, people generally react in two different ways. The first set of people are those who fall under the city’s spell or surrender to its power. This group includes those who were always fascinated by the fame of the city, from the movies, the sitcoms, the books, and its marketing machine, as a city like no other. In the words of Frank Sinatra, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. The second set of people show resistance to the city. Those are as varied and diverse in their motivation as the first group, some miss the familiar and resent the ways of this mega-metropolis, others begrudge it is affluence and commercial focus, another group still hates the waste, the crowds, the rush, the bustle.  Strangely enough, every characteristic pointed out as a vice by the city’s opponents could be construed as a virtue by its loyal proponents. It has always been a highly divisive place.

I have made no secret of my sentiment in the past few months. I started out extremely critical and antagonistic of the city. However, like all powerful entities it has started to garner my respect. Never mind how obnoxious it is. Never mind its paved parks, its incomprehensibly ugly architecture and equally baffling modern art. Never mind its packed subways and its never ending rush. Amazingly, this city still works.

Consider first its sprawling size, with over ten million residents, give or take a few hundred thousands daytime commuters. I go to Midtown on Sunday, and it is a different place. I walk at leisure chatting to my son, while during the week I have to keep a brisk pace, if I don’t want to bump into people, and I can only hear him if he shouts. Then consider the city’s diversity, the number of people who live ans survive here without speaking one work of English. One has to admit that things break down sometimes, but I have no experience of any other city of this size, and running it efficiently must be a tremendous challenge. I think what I appreciate now most, is that this monster of a city, made out of so many disparate elements and people, a city you would think that no glue in the world can hold together, amazingly sticks together very well. And this discovery makes this place more precious in the eyes of those who never expected it to pull through.

Last year, I met a South African woman who introduced herself as a proud American. She had won the green card lottery some years back and found a niche for herself teaching computer literacy. At the time I profiled her immediately in my mind, she is a disgruntled white person, I thought, running away from a South Africa that has embraced a majority rule, and from the perception of losing privilege. I have revisited my thoughts about her since then. I remember her saying that she became fiercely American after 9/11, and I thought that was an incongruous romantic rubbish coming from someone as hard-boiled as that middle-aged woman.  Now I think I understand her feeling. New York city may look tough and heartless but if you look deep enough she has a soul.

As late as six months ago, I was quite sure that New York was pretentious and soul-less. I even remember sending an email to my American friend Peter telling him how I despised this place. He said that America had a soul, but it was so well-hidden, that you can only find it when you are not really looking. I think he was on to something.

I think I started warming to New York sometime between soccer practice with Robert and lining up costume-less for the Halloween Parade on Roosevelt Island.  When Sandy came it taught me something more about the New York soul. I saw regular people buying groceries for the stricken and volunteering their time. I saw the city pull together and make alternative plans. I found it quite remarkable. This in the city where people walk past a disabled beggar pretending he is not there. There is a sense of community that defies you not to be part of it. Everyone I know has contributed even in a small way.  If 9/11 forged the American patriotism of my South African acquaintance, then Sandy taught me about New York the community, away from the excess and ruin of wall-street, the lobbying and petty politics of the UN-headquarters, the concrete and the real estate.

It can be many contradicting things – cruel, kind, surprising, hot, cold, exasperating, embarrassing, tragic, funny, and entertaining,  but it can never be boring.  There are  always little nuggets of gold, moments that are there to savour amid the rush, the noise and the stress.

Yesterday Robert and I boarded the local bus on 3rd avenue. The driver was announcing the station then saying : “look to left, smile at your neighbour. Look to your right say hi, make a friend”. It was Friday night, so it was perhaps not surprising that the passengers humored him, but I noted that there conversation on this bus was more animated than usual. Before we got out at our stop, Robert had a chance of singing a refrain of the Wheels on the Bus, started again by the driver. That bus driver may have been acting against MTA rules, but he made many people happy.  Welcome to New York. One day you encounter a happy bus driver, another day you come close to getting run over on a crosswalk. Never a dull moment.

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