If You Can Fake It There,
You’ll Fake It Anywhere…
How to pass for a native New Yorker
By Susan Goldberg
Recently, I took my daughter into Manhattan for a hectic day of culture and shopping. It’s been more than 20 years since I moved out of the city, and I feel conspicuously suburban there now—like a giant Talbots label has been taped to my forehead. But on this particular day, I felt sure-footed and confident as we zoomed around town, barreling down side streets and casually ignoring traffic signals. At one point, my daughter even complimented me on how well I navigated the city streets. I should have taken this comment for what it was; a blatant attempt to score high-end department-store cosmetics. Instead, I let it go to my head.
From that point on, I began to see myself as a steely eyed urban explorer, tracking down Manhattan locations as if they’d been missing for years. I spent the day in a fog of sloppy self-regard, marveling over my uncanny ability to predict that 48th Street would quickly follow 47th. When we spotted the first bright lights of Broadway, I made a grand, sweeping gesture with my arm, as if to indicate that I—like a latter-day Vasco da Gama—had discovered Times Square.
I was beyond obnoxious. My out-of-control self-esteem came to an unattractive peak when I found the one and only bus line that would take us directly to Lincoln Center. By this point, I was delusional—happily convinced that anyone who saw me would think that I was the real deal: a full-on native New Yorker. This illusion was rudely shattered when I climbed onto the bus and inserted my MetroCard incorrectly—not once, but three times. The driver finally took the card out of my hand, turned it around, and dipped it properly, while real New Yorkers snickered all around.
The strange thing is, despite my crazed desire to look like a local, I actually am lukewarm about the city. I have been thoroughly spoiled by life in Westchester, and have lost my tolerance for crowds and noise, not to mention the hysterical, non-stop trendiness of Manhattan. But my day of posing as a native turned out to be strangely beneficial. It helped me to reconnect with an earlier, breezier version of myself. It was a happy flashback to a time when I was not yet preoccupied with SAT tutors and keeping moisture out of my basement.
So, on the theory that it is more fun to pass for a New Yorker than to actually be one, I have assembled some easy-to-follow guidelines. These tips can help you fine tune your own impersonation of a native New Yorker.
Obviously, you’re on your own with the MetroCard.
Dress for success. If you go into Manhattan wearing sturdy white sneakers and a fanny pack, you may as well top off your outift with a T-shirt that says “I’m not from here. Help yourself to my wallet.” Other wardrobe malfunctions you may want to avoid are front-pleated khaki slacks (classically tourist) and belly shirts (the official uniform of mall rats everywhere). Wearing leather pants will brand you instantly—not only as a tourist, but as one who is visiting from 1987.
It may be a clichÃ©, but black is still your safest choice for city attire, since it generally is regarded as slimming and sophisticated. But remember, black is a color and not a magic wand; it cannot fix every fashion faux pas. Even in black, a SpongeBob sweatshirt is hardly ever an acceptable choice of outerwear. Leave it in the minivan.
Another way to tell if you’re appropriately dressed for Manhattan is to watch The Today Show and pay special attention to the happy crowd assembled behind Matt and Meredith. Do not wear anything remotely similar to what you see.
Put on your “game” face. A sunny countenance is not part of the true New York experience. To be mistaken for a New Yorker, you will have to look preoccupied, self-important, and slightly pissed off. (As a happy byproduct, this will discourage the leaflet distributors near Times Square from inviting you to peep shows.) In any case, avoid big, toothy smiles, and try not to appear sensitive, caring, or overly helpful. If you can’t summon up a suitably miserable expression, just pretend you’re looking for a parking spot at the Whole Foods Market in White Plains.
Red light? Big deal. Real New Yorkers are an independent bunch and do not react to red lights with the same blind obedience shown by the rest of the world. City pedestrians feel that red lights are simply a gentle warning—a request, really—to finish jaywalking as quickly as they can. You will find that this is just part of the city’s overall policy of moving at warp speed. For more information, see below.
The natives are restless. Nothing annoys city people more than being stuck behind sluggish out-of-towners who mosey down the street gawking at tall buildings and men wearing fishnets. The etiquette on Manhattan streets requires you to stay to the right and walk as if you were fleeing rabid ferrets—fast and panicky, eyes straight ahead. Under no circumstances should you come to a sudden stop, since this will allow bad-tempered pedestrians to mow you down and address you as “Tool.” If Mary Tyler Moore had chosen Lexington Avenue as the spot to spin around and toss her tam in the air, she would have ended up as a pile of perky roadkill.
Be afraid, very afraid. New Yorkers are, by nature, confident and intrepid. They will take squeaky little dogs out for late-night walks in Riverside Park. They will follow strange men up dimly lit staircases to buy knock-off Dolce & Gabbanna handbags. But there are certain places so threatening, so terrifying, that even the natives will not venture there. These include subway restrooms, Rockefeller Center during the month of December, and, of course, Planet Hollywood. Go at your own peril.
No time for toddlers. Westchester restaurants are famously and inexplicably accommodating when it comes to small children. Even at night, they are permitted to toddle noisily between tables, making unwelcome eye contact and plunging their chubby little fists into plates of black-truffle risotto. Perhaps it’s the prevalence of $18 appetizers, but city diners are far less tolerant of other people’s offspring. In a nice Manhattan restaurant, you and your child will be on the receiving end of snarky comments and dirty looks instead of booster seats and chicken fingers. Use dinner out in New York as an opportunity to provide employment to Westchester’s teenage babysitters—
either one of them.
Better dead than red. Do not (and I can’t say this forcefully enough) go into Manhattan with your pals from the Red Hat Society. Actually I am a huge fan of this organization, which encourages women “of a certain age” to wear oversized red hats and take rowdy day trips to wine-tastings and matinÃ©es. As a middle-aged gal myself, I love the idea of women banding together in unruly mobs, high-fiving their way through menopause. This is a healthy and life-affirming phenomenon—but it absolutely reeks of suburbia. City women do not trumpet the passage of time with boisterous behavior and gaudy headgear—they cling to youth quietly, with the bloody tips of their desperate fingers. If you absolutely must join the Red Hat Society, limit your outings to Ulster County.
Don’t ask. It turns out that men have had the right idea all along: asking for directions really is a bad idea. You’re better off walking 17 blocks in the wrong direction than asking a stranger for help. And don’t even think about unfolding a street map or a guidebook. Jaded city residents will take no notice of partial nudity, crimes in progress, or public sponge baths—but they will openly sneer at you for consulting the Big Apple Guide to street fairs.
Harsh your mellow. New York is a city, but it’s not just any city. So it’s important to remember that passing for a New Yorker requires an entirely different skill set than posing as a native of, say, Seattle. The typical Manhattan outing does not require hiking boots, trail mix, or clothing that has been specially designed to wick perspiration. To pass for a New Yorker, you will have to be able to get through an entire day without mentioning Birkenstocks, alternative rock music, or recycling.
Know your limits. These guidelines can help you look indigenous to Midtown, Gramercy Park, and large stretches of the Upper West Side. Unfortunately, they will do you no good at all in SoHo, TriBeCa, or the trendier parts of Brooklyn. If you have lived in Westchester for any length of time, there is absolutely no way you are going to look like you belong in Williamsburg—unless you can quickly acquire a neck tattoo and a crippling nicotine habit. Frankly, if you’re willing to go to those lengths, it may be time to re-examine your priorities.
You can thank me later. You will know that you can successfully pass for a New Yorker when you are asked for directions by a timid-looking couple in his-and-her khaki trousers. Your accomplishment will be complete when you look into their gentle, Midwestern faces and snap, “Out of my way.”
Susan Goldberg is a writer whose city edge has been mercifully dulled by two extremely pleasant decades of living in Chappaqua.