Today, I was shopping at a boutique in SoHo (Soho?), when a salesgirl a few years older than me came over to help.
“That dress is cute,” she said, pointing to the chambray fit-and-flare I was wearing. “Where are you from?”
I should have smiled and said, “LA! And you?” Instead, I prickled at the way this chick with a trendy bob and perfect eyeliner instantly knew I wasn’t a real New Yorker.
“Here,” I said curtly. “I’m from here.”
“Oh!” she replied. But I saw it in her eyes. She knew the truth. She could smell the Wisconsin on my breath.
I’m not a real New Yorker. I’m not one of those girls who strides confidently across the street while the “do not walk” sign is lit. I don’t know how to ride the subway, standing, without holding onto any poles. Hopefully, this is because I have other attractive qualities (California cool? Midwestern charm?) that make up for the aura of efficiency and competence that I lack. But just in case, I’m finding ways to fake it so I don’t feel quite as inadequate when I look at all the impeccably polished girls along my morning commute through the garment district.
Here are some pointers I’ve come up with during my first week in New York. They’re little things I do to try and feel less like a tourist in the city that’s currently home. Maybe they’ll help you pass as a local, too.
Image from Darren Johnson on Flickr (Creative Commons.)
1. People enter the subway through the outside edges of the doorways. They exit through the center.
I would never have noticed this if a nice lady I struck up a conversation with on the subway hadn’t mentioned it. She said that it’s easy to spot tourists because they stand in the middle of the doorway trying to get on the train, but they end up being trampled in the steady stream of people getting off. Mentally divide the doorway opening into three lanes: people get on through the left and right lane and get off through the center lane.
2. Get your Metrocard out before you go down into the subway station.
This is for two reasons. One, it makes you feel less flustered: you don’t have to fumble around in your wallet for your card as people swarm around you toward the turnstiles. Two, it’s safer: your wallet is safely tucked away (and you’ll be less distracted) as you navigate a large crowd of people.
3. Give addresses as intersections, not numbers.
When people/cab drivers ask you where you’re going/where you live, they’re not looking for the street number. Numbers mean nothing to these people. Give them the street/avenue your address is on first, then the nearest cross street (like, “I live on 56th [Street] and 5th [Avenue.]”) Most of the time you don’t have to say “street” or “avenue,” because people can guess from the type of numbers you give. If you’re in between two cross streets, you can also use “between” (as in, “I live on 56th between 5th and 6th.”)
4. Catch a cab going the same direction you are.
If you’re trying to go uptown, catch a cab that’s already on an avenue going uptown. If you want to go uptown and you get in a cab going downtown, you’ll pay extra for the distance it takes to turn around. Most roads go only one way, but the next one north/south/east/west will probably be going the other way.
5. The lights on top of the cab tell you if it’s available.
Avoid looking like a noob by only trying to hail cabs that are actually open for business. An empty, on-duty cab will have only the middle lights lit. When all the lights are off, the cab already has a passenger inside. When all the lights–the center light giving the cab number and the two side lights–are on, the cab is off duty.
6. Know what you want before you get to the front of the line.
Ironically, I’m the queen of order-postponing at Starbucks counters and drive-thrus back in California. When it’s time to give my order I usually still don’t know what I want, and I spend several more seconds deciding. This doesn’t fly in New York. Get up to the counter, give your order, and get out of the way.
7. Don’t be glued to Yelp/Maps.
Yelp doesn’t know everything and at times isn’t even helpful (I don’t want coffee 0.6 miles away, Yelp! I want coffee NOW!) And map apps don’t have every place in their database. I think in LA we’re really used to destination traveling, where you drive from one hotspot to the next one miles away with a sort of tunnel vision. Because of how sprawled out the city is and because we drive everywhere, it’s difficult to wander and discover new things.
Totally not the case in New York. Here, every single street houses dozens of places worth visiting. You don’t always need to set out with a destination in mind–in fact, doing so can make you miss even better things you come across along the way! It’s just as fun to walk along a new street and see what hidden gems Yelp didn’t show you.
8. Get Seamless.
The pop culture New Yorker never cooks dinner. The real New Yorker never cooks dinner, either. As far as I can tell, this is because 1) the average New York kitchen has exactly one square foot of counter space and 2) groceries are so ludicrously expensive that it doesn’t save money to cook your own meals. Most people use Seamless, a website that lets you order food online for delivery or takeout from thousands of different restaurants.
9. Ask for help.
The secret about scary New Yorkers is that they were all, at one time, the very scared newcomer. Don’t believe the stereotypes: most of the people I’ve met here have been very kind. If you need directions on the subway, ask; someone will answer you. And further, don’t be afraid to reach out to role models. I chatted with a girl about ten years older than me at a lunch last week. She has one of my dream jobs (writer at a major magazine.) Despite extreme anxiety about doing it, I asked her for her email address and if she’d like to get coffee this week. Having conversations with people you admire is a great way to get inspiration and a little direction, two things that are crucial when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Real New Yorkers, I’d love to hear what tips you have for feeling more at ease in the city. What do you all do that I’m still missing?