About a year ago, I set foot on my own in New York City for the very first time. I had been there before with friends, but it felt more like stumbling through the dark than actually experiencing the city that never sleeps. With friends, I was a handheld child as we ventured the subway and to various stops around town. I had no concept of directions, streets – anything, really. So last January was an experience. I had come for a writing conference, and I was shaky and nervous ever since landing on the tarmac at LaGuardia. How do you hail for a cab? How much do you pay the driver? Can you just go in one subway station and go wherever you want? I was like a big ole doe with blinders on.
With a brand new smart phone, I tried to maneuver my way around with it’s GPS to the World Trade Center. Somehow I ended up in Hell’s Kitchen and still believed it was the actual location while sending out a prayer to those lost.
I ended up taking gypsy cabs (just because I felt sorry for them), then feared for my life during the drive. Not only did they charge exorbitant prices, but I overtipped – just because I was delivered to my location alive. While I promised myself that I wouldn’t look like a dumb tourist – that is exactly what happened. The doorman at the hotel I stayed at had to tell me more than once that my purse was unzipped. While trying to figure out where I was at in the city, each time I said “I’m from out of town.” Sometimes, I would even include that I was from Iowa – complete with a confused, wide-eyed expression. I might as well have worn a Hawaiian floral T-shirt and fanny pack.
Before I moved to the East Coast, one knowledgeable person warned me, saying “Carrie, you are an easy target.” But how? I had been to NYC a couple times, I was practically a New Yorker already. Boy, was I wrong. The first couple weeks were tough, but I had a travel partner who didn’t have problems with directions. The first time I took the subway alone, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t want to sit in close quarters with people that I didn’t know, kept looking at my purse to make sure it wasn’t gaping open, and anxiously darted my head back to the train’s map, just to make sure I hadn’t missed my stop.
What has changed since being there for almost five months? Well, I still get lost pretty easily, but I have taken the blinders off. Some of the stories that I can tell people about my first travels in the big city, while funny, are actually pretty scary. Looking back, I shake my head and think, wow, I have come a long way.
As a woman, I have to make sure that I am approaching any situation eyes wide open. Even in the Midwest, I was a little too gullible and trustworthy to begin with. My phone is always charged, directions are always looked at beforehand, and my bags are always zipped and located in front of my body. If strangers talk to me on the subway or at a bus stop, I can be polite but I don’t have to engage in conversation each time. Sometimes though, you have to be downright rude. Don’t want to get in a cab with somebody? Just say no or ignore them and walk away. Don’t want to talk with someone who is trying to converse with you on the train? At the next stop, move to a different car. I may have my headphones on, but most likely there is no music playing. And my mace is pretty powerful, none of those cute pink lipstick-shaped pepper sprays for me.
NYC is supposedly one of safest large cities in the nation. Yet that doesn’t mean that a cop will always be there to assist you in a bad situation. While I grew up in farming country, trusting most everybody – that is not how it works everywhere.
I used to think that the city was just cold and impolite. There is truth in that statement, yet it is also called surviving. Although I haven’t completely assimilated to the area yet, the experience of living in this place is different than a week’s worth of vacation here. I can’t say I’m a “New Yorker” either, as there is still so much to learn.