I am terrified of New York City. There I said it.
This has nothing to do with the recent bedbug scourge; I have been afraid of The City for at least 20 years. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love watching movies about New York. I think the first film with scenes shot in New York was called The Thieiving Hand. I learned about it in a Film class in college where we also saw Citizen Kane and The Pawnbroker. None of these were particularly uplifting movies: to the contrary. But they made me feel that New York was the place where people could start revolutions, where broken people came to start new lives and reinvent themselves.
As a kid, I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and 42nd Street and who doesn’t love Miracle on 34th Street? At some point, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is when I think I started dreaming of going to New York one day and locating the store with those lovely blue boxes. I imagined myself a little like Dolly (in Hello Dolly!), always surrounded by friends, no matter what the circumstances. Later, I fell in love with “ethnic films” like Shaft and Super Fly, The Jazz Singer and everything ever produced by Spike Lee, especially Do the Right Thing. I was already in love with John Travolta, so put him in a movie about New York with the music of the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever), and I was in. I memorized the dance moves from The Wiz and All That Jazz and belted out Annie so people could hear me at the top of the Chrystler Building. I laughed at Tootsie and,more recently, I obsessed over the television series Sex in the City, living vicariously through the four friends who made their way in the Big Apple.
On film, New York always seems so romantic. Remember watching the child run from one parent to the other in Kramer vs. Kramer in the blindingly bright sunshine of Central Park. Seeing Harry meet Sally again and again and again… until they finally realize they really were meant to be together and kiss. Sigh. And I love Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan (aka: Annie) flies to New York to meet Tom Hanks (aka: Sam) where they finally meet on the top of the Empire State Building and kiss. Sigh. And I love when finally, finally, the cyberspace relationship between Meg Ryan (aka: “Shopgirl”) and Tom Hanks (aka: NY152″) from You’ve Got Mail turns real and they meet each other at Riverside Park and kiss. Sigh.
In the movies, New York totally works for me.
In real life, not so much.
In July of 1990, I went to New York for a friend’s wedding reception. It was a sloppy event as it was raining and muggy. My hair was a wreck. Everyone wore shiny, slinky dresses, and I felt like I’d worn the absolute most wrong thing – ever. I knew no-one other than the bride, and I had already suffered through hours of ostentatious name dropping, so I decided to leave.
Here is where the trauma starts. I got lost. Really lost. I found a subway station and planned to take a train back to my hotel which was about 40 blocks away. At that time, I felt fairly confident (less than 50%) that I had picked the right train. I sat down and watched the streets roll by. For a little while, I was heading in the right direction, but suddenly, to my horror – instead of stopping at the street I’d expected, the train just kept zooming on. I asked a woman where the train was headed and she said Connecticut, and that it was an Express train.
“No stops,” she said.
Somehow I’d gotten onto the completely wrong train and was forced to make peace with the fact that we would not stop until we “landed” in Connecticut. I felt like I was in that book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (You know, where the kids escape their home in Connecticut and go to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and discover the secret behind a mysterious sculpture?) Only I was going the wrong way.
Exhausted and scared, I cried. A man on the train took pity on me, got me turned around, and wrote out elaborate directions regarding where I needed to go and which stop I needed to be sure to get off at. He warned me to stay alert, watch for pick-pocketers, and avoid talking to strangers.
“Not everyone is as trustworthy as I am,” he told me as he pushed a $20 bill into my hand. “In case you get in trouble, use this for a cab.”
I don’t think I ever got past that whole train thing because in real life, everything about the New York City scares me. I am one of those people who was not born with any kind of built in GPS system, so no matter how many times people tell me that the Aveues run this way and the Streets run that way, I always smile and promptly forget. The information doesn’t stick; it simply evaporates like piss on the sidewalks.
Nevertheless, each summer I fly to the Big Apple to and force myself to try to conquer my weird phobia and to learn to negotiate the City by myself.
You know how psychotherapists make people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder touch doorknobs to prove to them that nothing bad will happen to them? That’s kind of what I’ve got going on when it comes to New York. I have to go there and try to push through my fear. My theory is that if I deal with my NYC phobia the way people deal with other phobias, perhaps things will eventually be easier for me.
The advent of technology has allowed me to go to New York alone. If I didn’t have a Smartphone, I wouldn’t even try; the Yelp app has helped me find everything from restaurants to public washrooms.
My friends in New York are very accommodating. They are patient when it comes to my fear and always tell me to call them from where I am and that they’ll come and get me.
“It’s faster,” they assure me, “and no trouble at all.”
When they find me, they take me to their favorite places – which is awesome because I’ve seen some places that are really off the beaten path.
Shortly before Person A has to go, I call Person B who asks me where I am and tells me to stay put. Can you imagine? So much delicious learned helplessness.
Maybe some day I’ll be brave like one of those cops from NYPD Blue, exploring the internal and external struggles of the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan. Or perhaps some day I’ll become a purple-haired assassin (like the costumed vigilante Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass), fearing nothing. Until then, I’ll live New York City mostly vicariously — through the movies.
But for real, just know that all of you City dwellers are endlessly fascinating to me. To me, you really do know everything: where to find the best gazpacho and the best sushi; you live in tiny apartments, stacked one on top of the other, paying crazy rent — but you know the nightlife makes it all worthwhile; you know where to go for tea and which laundromat has the best dryers. You know which car service is the best to get to the airport. You have survived terrorist attacks. And you know how to take underground transportation, daily, without ending up in Connecticut.
What scares you and how do you attempt to conquer it?