New York City is everything people say it is, and everything they persist in believing it is not. It’s passersby who look locked in a Lucite box of indifference, and those who will snap out of it in a second if you really seem to need help. It’s a city of faceless glass-and-steel monoliths and a village of single-family houses and volunteer school safety patrols.
It’s places to eat where the tab defies belief, and corner falafel stands with a line down the street at lunchtime. It’s tough and it’s friendly and it’s terrifying and it’s homey. From the shores of Staten Island to the northernmost reaches of the Bronx, it’s more or less everything, sometimes all on the same block.
And because of That it can be the easiest city in the world in which to be a reporter and writer. For three years I wrote a column for the New York Times called About New York, which is perhaps the best gig in daily journalism two columns a week about anything you want, anywhere in the five boroughs. When, occasionally, the ideas evaporated, when there was no firehouse closing or hot dog-eating contest to investigate, I knew exactly what to do. I rode the subway to a random stop Rockaway Boulevard, Parkchester and began to walk
Trust me: within a 15-minute walk of any subway stop in New York there is a beauty salon with a proprietor who has stories to tell, or a community garden with volunteers who can’t wait to have someone notice their urban zucchini, or a playground with moms who have a bone to pick about the school system, or simply a bus stop with a sampling of New Yorkers.
The benches along the boardwalk in Coney Island were my lodestone, filled with elderly men who knew the story of the city better than some historians; I had only to take a notebook and a pen from my bag, and the world, or at least a detailed and richly remembered part of it, was mine.
The pitfall for reporters is that there are as many clichés in the city as there are bodegas. Those elderly retirees, with their jaded view of the changing neighborhood and their mahjongg-playing wives, have long been a staple of sitcoms and movies. Neon signs, crusty waiters, extravagant graffiti it’s all been done. Luckily the city itself provides a fresh perspective because of its never-ending metamorphosis.
The bench sitters of my youth have been replaced in some areas by a new incarnation black instead of white, Baptist instead of Jewish, former bus drivers instead of print shop owners. New Yorkers are always remaking themselves, and New York, too.
The elegant and iconic main building of the New York Public Library, with the pair of stone lions guarding the entrance, looks as though it has always been there. But in fact, it was built on what was once a reservoir, the park behind it a battle site in 1776 and a Potter’s Field 50 years later. When I was a neophyte reporter that park was known mainly for drug deals and monster rats; today it is a beautifully manicured place to have a cup of coffee or a meal al fresco.