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I had dreamt of living in New York City ever since I saw the opening scene of Manhattan ten years ago. I could imagine myself wandering up and down the avenues to the tunes of George Gershwin and joining the joggers in their laps around Central Park.
As soon as I arrived, however, I realised that it was not, as Woody Allen might say, my city. This isn’t a criticism, nor is it a compliment. It is simply something of which I am glad, because for it to be mine would be to allow it to become familiar, and the excitement of New York City comes from what springs at you from nowhere. Or, rather, who springs at you.
There are, I’ve found, two types of people in this city more prominent than any other. There are those to whom New York is the centre of the universe, the be all and end all of existence. They holiday in New Jersey because, on a clear night, they can still see the Empire State Building’s brazen lightshow in the distance. And then there are those who are passing through. There is no shame in being either of these people. Those who see it as the universe itself join the ranks of the determined, street-smart creatures, known to us in the UK, and no doubt everywhere else, as ‘New Yorkers’. A phrase spoken as if the title itself qualifies its holder to some inner-strength of character not available to the rest of us. Those who are passers-through are, I suppose, people like me.
Passers-through walk around and allow the city to happen to them. And, however easy it is to quickly become an expert in the straight-lined streets which lead nowhere but water, they will be constantly reminded of the fact that their level of expertise falls significantly short to a real New Yorker’s. It seems suitable, then, to begin this column by describing some of the people I have come across who took great joy in reminding me of my foreignness.
I am writing this now in Bryant Park, only seven blocks north of where I found myself emerging on my first trip into the city. Back then, when I was living on Long Island, this journey required a forty-minute train ride. Not ideal for a boy from the English countryside with dreams of living amongst the tall towers and screams for taxi-cabs, but it did allow me to acclimatise, like a goldfish, and not become too overexcited. I decided to spend the day as I would any normal day in my hometown, browsing the shops and reading in cafés. If I was going to survive here, I thought, I would need to check my touristic impulses.
Rising from Penn Station at 34th Street and being caught immediately in the bustle of commuters and high-street-shoppers, I wandered east and ducked into a familiar shop to pick out a shirt. I happily reflected on how easy it was to feel at home.
“I’ll take this, please,” I said, handing over my purchase.
“Oh? Where are you from?”
“Oh, um, from the UK. England. Britain.” (It is difficult to know which one to say. I had never considered before whether I was English, British, or from the United Kingdom, and it suddenly seemed important.)
“Wow, so you’re from London!”
“Well,” I said, trying to work out whether lying that I was from London would be easier than explaining where I am actually from. “Yes. I am.”
“Well done you!” she said, putting my shirt into a bag.
“Thank you,” I meekly replied, before squeezing back out onto Herald Square, trying to find Broadway in order to head downtown.
Well done you. Those words echoed in my mind. Even though I suspected they might have been a result of a slip of the tongue, they couldn’t be forgotten. I felt that my foreign-ness had been irrevocably revealed. I had not noticed on my way in that everyone foolish enough to advertise their touristism with a bum bag or a map was stopped short at almost every junction by multiple purveyors of city tours and ‘I LOVE NY’ branded selfie-sticks. And, as I walked with my neck tilted to look at the buildings and street signs, I realised that I, too, was emitting some aroma of innocence and was subsequently being mobbed by incredibly friendly city tour-guides while the real New Yorkers glided past. Well done you, I thought.
It has taken me a while to work out the implications of that sentence, but as more people have reacted to my Britishness, I have found a certain pattern playing out.
Having made my way down Broadway and past Madison Square Park, I am now sat looking out over Union Square from the top of a Barnes & Noble bookshop. I have just been told that of course I wanted an English Breakfast teabag, because, well, you know. I can see over Union Square Park, over the crowds of locals and tourists alike enjoying the farmer’s market, to 14th Street, and it reminds me of another similar event in my first few weeks of being here.
In the wine shop, along said street, I had taken my bottle to the register only to be told that my driving licence couldn’t be accepted as real identification.
“Is there another ID that I can use next time?” I asked.
“Wait, where are you from?” came the reply.
“Oh, great. Don’t worry about it this time,” they said. “But only because I have a thing for British accents.”
Well done you, I heard again. Only this time I was actually benefiting from the situation. It seemed that with each well done you I found a more sincere joy being taken in my nationality. On my journey downtown, as well as through time, I found the enthusiasm had only grown.
From the bookshop it is a short walk to the 3rd Avenue L Train, and, to my equal dismay and pleasure, also requires one pass by the best pizza place in the city. I am waiting at the 14th and 3rd crossroads, with a cheap slice in my hand, looking like a real New Yorker. I’ve just been asked by a woman, a strong New York accent on her, whether the C Train is nearby and proudly, but casually, I tell her how she would go about getting to it. Before she has even managed to work out that I am foreign and yet familiar with the streets, I make sure I have eaten my folded pizza, woven through the traffic and complained at the people crossing my path in front of the subway entrance.
Sitting on the L, heading back to Brooklyn, I feel a smug sense of pride. That’ll show ‘em. This city is mine, I think. As I congratulate myself, however, my thoughts eventually whittle themselves down to those infamous words: well done you. With that, I realise my pride is misplaced. Even though in the past two years I have constantly been reminded that I am British – being told I sound like a Harry Potter extra, and that I’d be the perfect person to have a child with because then they would ‘get an accent’, for example, or being cheerfully reminded on a weekly basis that the British lost the Revolutionary War – I have finally realised that the well done you I have been honoured with is not an acknowledgement or celebration of my Britishness. It’s not about me at all. Rather, it is proof of something that is quintessential to the New Yorker: a friendly, I-will-find-something-to-compliment-you-on attitude that can guarantee anyone who is passing through this great city will be recognised and celebrated for who they are.
Well done you is nothing to feel smug about, but something to humbly appreciate. And so I find my ride through the grimy tunnels under the river a little more pleasant thinking about how next time I might congratulate them back.