My Weird New York State of Mind

Photo from Skyline Park in NYC

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.

So pretty!

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.

Central Park is divine!

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?

22 thoughts on “My Weird New York State of Mind

  1. Good morning, R!

    I am soooo resonating with so much of what you have written here! My 13 year-old is dying to go to NYC and I am terrified to take her. It would be one thing for me to go and get lost or whatever…but with my kid? And it’s not fear of looking foolish, I am very skilled at that and very comfortable looking foolish. I am actually afraid I will end up in danger.

    So my fears…sure, big city and deep and unmarked woods(and i love the woods), as well as others. Many others…when I have the opportunity – I will purposely place my self in situations that make me uncomfortable or afraid but only if I still feel that I will come out of it with body and soul in tact – I guess I try to balance my fear between the rational and the not-so-rational.

    1. Ginny, we would be quite the dynamic duo in NYC. Wonder-twin powers activate: Form of a terrified tourist. Shape of pavement. I can see us, clutching each other. I bet the kids would do better without us. (Maybe we could just follow them?)

  2. Oh yeah… me too TERRIFIED but way in love. I’ve only gone to NYC with knowledgeable guides and I’ve stuck with them. Last time with Hubby & Brother-in-Law was the best because BOTH of them have lived there and BOTH of them knew where they were going. I got the best Pizza, the best Noodles and my stubby little legs were so grateful to hit the subway I wouldn’t have minded going to CT.

    I digress, you asked what we fear? Irrationally I fear plumbing ALL plumbing. Thanks to big sister wanting us to get out of the tub faster the story of the witch that comes out of the drain started things. A house fire caused by frozen pipes and some wiring that did not short properly (oh electrical wiring not so happy either).

    How do I attempt to conquer these fears? I don’t anymore. They are there. I can shower and bathe, but I am quick about it. Pools I used to be absolutely terrified of is dealt with by repetitive use as well. So far nothing bad has happened in the bathroom or pool. Should something untoward happen I imagine I will have issues and become the great unwashed until repetitive use once again dulls the fears to levels that can be dealt with.

    I love Central Park too but I am terrified I’ll get lost, mugged or otherwise have a bad experience. Some of those movies you mention and lots of books you didn’t help to promote this fear. I can’t get past that through repetitive experience on my own because really? This is not unhealthy. I don’t think your fear is unhealthy. Stick with friends and thank goodness for GPS!!! (Walking Directions ROCK!)

  3. I love New York. I was lucky in that I had a bunch of good experiences with the city when I was in college, driving down to see some buddies at Columbia a few times during my freshman year and getting my taste of the city through them. I’ve always been so surprised every time I’ve been there at how nice the people are; you only ever hear about rude New Yorkers but everybody’s always been so friendly to me. Sorry you have not been so lucky!

    1. Everyone is always fabulous. It’s just that — when I am alone — I have to stop every two seconds to make sure that I am, indeed, going in the right direction. So much nicer to rely on friends.

      I have found that I really like Brooklyn. Much more manageable than Manhattan. It feels like a neighborhood. Going there, I understand how people want to live in New York City.

    1. Yes, but much easier to stop when you are driving your own vehicle. 😉 Methinks this Country Mouse is too much of a control freak to leave the driving to others.

      Plus, Upstate, we are above-ground and I can tell if I have passed the wrong cow. 😉

  4. This was an eye-opener… I would not have imagined that about you.
    NYC for me? Love it! Love it!! Love it!!! As a place to visit for a short time 🙂 I grew up in Brooklyn and then the island before moving upstate so it’s familiar territory for me even if it’s ancient. The only thing I don’t like about NYC (and most large cities) is the crowds. It’s one thing when you’re looking for ‘the action’, but having to deal with it on a daily basis is too much for me! I’ll take upstate (yeah, and I mean the *real* upstate — Westchester is NOT upstate) 🙂

    This topic couldn’t have come at a better time. My biggest fear… sigh. I’m not really sure it’s a fear, but rather a management issue. In a way, I’m vicariously living through it now — for the the third time (but my first time as an adult).

    Here’s the story. There is a member of my family who is currently ill. For the sake of references, we’ll just say his name is Saba. Saba has seen a lot in his life and is the oldest member of the family. Lives alone in an apartment and has ailments. Nothing *really* major in and of themselves, but combined, they are enough to be a real damper on the lifestyle. Arthritic, frail, a little overweight, suffers gout and the worst (IMO) has emphysema from smoking back in the day before anyone really knew any better. He takes about 15 different medications all in all that pretty much run about $500+ every 3 months. He sometimes gets them mixed up.

    These things alone make it difficult for him to even walk so he needs a walker. However, he doesn’t walk much because of the combined affects of the ailments. He’s okay to get around the apartment, but it’s a trip to go walk down the hall to get the mail. And it’s been getting worse. So he sits all day in his apartment watching TV, going to the kitchen, back to the chair, going to the bathroom, back to chair…I think you get the idea.

    Saba recently became ill. Pneumonia. Has it pretty bad and has been hospitalized for just over a week now. He is on a respirator because the emphysema has made it difficult to breathe with the gunk filling up the good part of his lungs. Because of this, he can’t talk and has been sedated for a good part of the hospital stay to try and make him comfortable while the medication and healers do their jobs.

    I am the grandchild (in-law to be precise, but have come to know and love Saba like my own grandfather — and I truly do love him). Saba’s adult children are the ones ‘taking care’ of him at the hospital and are treating this as a deathbed situation. From my own conversations with the medical staff, while there’s always the possibility that this is his time, my perception of the situation is that is a premature decision. However, the family has been called in from out of town and it’s out of my hands.

    So here’s the fear part — and there’s two parts. I am not sure of what I fear more here. Part 1: That I am the one being cared for and must realize this is happening around me and that my family is around me thinking I’m going, nay preparing for me, to die or that no one is there for me. At the moment, I’m thinking the former. Part 2: That I am the one making the decisions.

    I actually have an ongoing conversation with my own parents about this — about what needs to be done when the time comes. But I am not sure if this has happened with Saba and his children. And I haven’t had the chance to actually chime in because the decisions are happening behind closed doors from me. But there it is.

    How am I conquering it? By talking about it — with my spouse and with our children.

    1. Dear Geen:

      Alas, this is the un-fun part of growing older.

      I am so sorry to hear about your Saba. Losing control of my own free-will is one of my greatest fears, as well. Outliving all the people I love is another one. These things frighten me much more than getting lost in Connecticut.

      I wish you the best during these difficult times.

  5. Renee, another great piece of literature, you always hit close to home for me.

    One of my best friends moved to Brooklyn about five years ago and wants to know when I’m coming to visit. If I win the lottery and I have to go pick up my money in NYC then I’ll go, but it had better be more than a million dollars. Actually, my friend is getting married in the summer and wants me to be an usher. Just got the news that they are having the wedding on Long Island, you know, NYC rich, snooty step-sister. I’m with you 100%, New York City is for the movies, but you forgot to mention “Big”. Even in the movies “the city” adds a palpable form of tension. Maybe they subliminally taught us JDers to fear NYC.

    I’d end up being one of the crazies on the street yelling at the crowds in turret like fashion, “you suns-a-the-bitches, stop breathing, you’re usin’ all the @&^$ing good air.” Too many people! I now find myself gasping for air like when I watch “underwater” movies. I’m not even going to mention my fear of being mugged or being touched inappropriately on the subway (okay, that last one is not so much a fear as it is a disappointment when it doesn’t happen ha ha) Remember that lady that let her 9 year old son find his way home on the subway a few years ago. I don’t know if she was ballsy or just plain old fashioned crazy. Not me, and not my child.

    No, NYC isn’t for me neither. I’ll stay up here in central NY where I can breathe and I’ll watch NYC from afar. I have been there once and I realize, like ginseng tea, that “ain’t my cup of tea”. God bless you for going back repeatedly, let me know how that works out!

    1. Jeff:

      Sooooo funny that you mentioned “that lady” who let her kids go on the subway alone! She is a friend of mine — Lenore Skenazy — and I actually buy into her ethos 100%, baby! Her link to her blog (“Free Range Kids”) is listed on the side of my page, and if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, you should go! Her son Izzy turned out just fine!

      My child could definitely negotiate the subways better than me. He was born with a GPS in his body. I get lost if you turn me in a circle.

      I LOVE my annual visit to the Big Apple. I’m not afraid of the people, of being mugged or attacked, but I am definitely a Country Mouse — and I always come home feeling grateful for what I have and where I live.

  6. Funny! I have had similar experiences In NYC and other big cities. My brother lives there and my neice goes to college there. They both feel it’s the only way to live. My 6 year old refuses to visit these relatives because she says the city is very noisy and smells funny. I guess we too are country mice.

  7. I was right there with you until just this past fall. I’d visited New York a few times for various reasons, and just found it totally overwhelming and scary. But that was before I went to Italy, for example, where I didn’t speak the language (much), and before I’d had my horrible experience in a job I hated, and before I’d mastered the art of dealing with ridiculous amounts of stimulus (as I’ve been learning to do on these crazy internets). So this time, I didn’t feel so scared. I felt like if something was going to kill me it wasn’t going to be this frakin’ city. I enjoyed the cheap Korean food across from my hotel and crazy variety of people. Still don’t think I want to live there, but had more fun than I ever had before. Still got lost, though, that’s just never going to change!

    As for what scares me? I don’t know anymore…I was a kid that who had an existential crisis early in life, so I’m pretty good at just heading straight for the death and suffering as objects of fear. As unnerving as it can be, it makes it far easier to lead what some people consider a fearless life. Spiders? Who cares, try staring into the void for a while…

  8. What a lovely helpful man.
    I – as the slogan says – love New York – even though I was attacked there once. But that was ages ago. More recently it feel so much safer.
    Or perhaps it’s because as I age I’m not looking for the edge so much. A peach Bellini and some fish on a sunny square of pavement (sidewalk) on a mild November day is what I think of now when I think of New York.
    I haven’t been for a few year now – but hope to be back in March.

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