What makes someone a New Yorker? Are you one?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

  • E.B. White, Here is New York (1949)
New York City
New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

Few cities continue to have the gravitational pull of New York City.

A new book, a collection of 28 essays, all by women, reflects on when and why they came to New York City — and why some of them later chose to leave.

Here’s an audio interview with them from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show.

I moved to New York in June 1989, alight with ambition, optimism, high hopes for a stunning career — yadayadayada. Take a number!

English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Gra...
English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, New York, United States. Taken with a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in conversation with an editor who once sat atop the masthead of a Very Big Magazine, she called me “so talented.” She’s a sweetheart and I may well be talented, but my years here have since toughened me up to well-meaning flattery. It’s lovely, of course, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

“Sweetie, everyone in New York is talented,” I replied.

What does make someone a New Yorker?

Do you have to be born and raised here? Some say yes, but I disagree. Millions of us have arrived here from distant towns, cities and countries, whether to study, take a job, marry a sweetheart, see how we stack up against the toughest competitors in our field.

New Yorker Hotel building from below
New Yorker Hotel building from below (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had worked in my native Canada in journalism for years and was doing well there.

But the thought of 30 more years doing the same thing amidst the same people? Not for me. One Toronto magazine editor, without exaggeration, held the same prestigious, powerful and much-coveted job for more than 20 years. That sort of stasis struck me as really boring. The place was just too small.

It’s an interesting experience trading your Big Fish-ness in a much smaller pond to the guppy-ness of arriving in a place where the greasy pole of fame and fortune looms into the stratosphere.

I admit it — I’ve never lived in the city itself but in a small town 25 miles north, a 38-minute express train ride. The sort of place snotty New Yorkers dismiss, incorrectly, as “upstate.”

I have a great apartment for a much lower cost. Would I live in the city if given an affordable choice? Maybe. Maybe not.

But I’ve seen myself change in some  basic ways since I moved here, as do many who choose to come here…

So, what makes a New Yorker?

— We’re direct

There’s a sort of conversational bluntness here that’s shocking to me, even today. I was at the movies recently and an older woman I don’t know snapped “Make sure no one takes my seat.” How about “Please?” Typical. For better or worse, strangers here often address one another as others rarely do in more formal/polite places, with the familiar tone of old friends — or despised relatives.

— We’re here to make money

Why else choose to stay in/near a city where the costs of living are so crazy-high? Where simply driving to the airport to pick someone up can snatch $13 from your pocket in tolls and parking? Surviving on ramen and free shows gets old after a while.

— We’re street smart

With people getting shoved onto the subway tracks more often than any of us would like, you learn fast to guard your wallet and your personal space and not to stare anyone in the eye. You learn not to engage potential psychos.

— We walk fast

When I visit other cities, everyone is walking sooooooo slowly. Tourists are the bane of our existence, clogging the narrow, crowded sidewalks, sometimes four abreast. Move it, people!

— You can cry in public and no one will notice

That’s possibly a mixed blessing, but I’ve cried in public here a few times and, just as we studiously ignore celebrities, observers will pretend everything is OK.

— We talk fast

If someone else has time to make small talk with the bank clerk or grocery store bagger, we’re tapping our foot and sighing.

— We’re not mean, just in a hurry

Being brusque doesn’t mean we’re cold or unkind, although it can certainly look that way to a newcomer or visitor from a slower-moving, more social place.

— Our bullshit meters are highly sensitive

We’ve heard just about everything in our years here. We watch our local and state politicians being sent off to prison for corruption or sexual crimes on a depressingly regular basis. So if something sounds soooooo amazing, we immediately look for the fine print.

— We’re driven

People come here to succeed professionally. (You can do much better more quickly in many other places.) That means climbing over the thousands of other smart, ambitious, highly-educated people who also want that job/promotion/grant/fellowship. We know how tough it is. We’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.

— We relish the mix of people here

Rockettes, cops, artists, editors, actors, Wall Streeters, lawyers, NGO types, UN diplomats. They’re all here.

— We put up with the longest commutes in the U.S., some up to two hours each way

The cost of Manhattan being sky-high for rentals or ownership, thousands of “New Yorkers” live far outside the city limits, traveling in every day to work by car, bus, bike, train or ferry. Some, like Mr. Rockefeller (yes, that one, the billionaire whose enormous estate lies 10 minutes drive north of me) come in by helicopter.

— Income Inequality ‘R Us

Indeed. Just stand at the corner of Madison and 42d at rush hour and watch the endless parade of gleaming, spotless, black Escalades taking the 1% crowd home to the Upper East Side. See the Town Cars idling outside the restaurants and shops. Then cross Park Avenue at its northern end and you’ll see a cliffs’ edge plunge from the plutocracy to deep poverty.

— We treasure anonymity

If you want to be left alone to just get on with it, whatever it is, you can do that here without small-town nosiness, gossip or scrutiny.

— We expect open-mindedness

Whatever your religion, (or lack of same), your gender or sexual preferences, (or combination of same), your political views (or lack of same), it’s all good. This is not a place where (most!) people will dismiss you for not attending church every Sunday or voting for a specific party.

— We know what we want (even if we can’t afford it!)

The costs of living here are punitively high. This tends to focus you quickly on what you want and what you need to do to achieve it.

— We want to be here, no matter the (considerable) costs

Many of us came from smaller, quieter and far less expensive places. We chose New York.

Some of us are massively entitled

This recent New York magazine article about parents cheating in every way possible to boost their kids’ chances of success is sadly instructive.

— We’re (outwardly) confident

This is not a great place for the tongue-tied, shy or self-deprecating. People assume that if you’re successful, you’re telling us about it and we’re read or heard about you. Or we will soon.

— We brought NYC-specific dreams

Mine was to succeed in journalism and to publish a few books with major houses. The bitterly cold winter’s day in 2002 I walked through the halls at Simon & Schuster, with my agent, surrounded by the framed covers of their best-sellers, felt like a dream to me. That afternoon, to celebrate the imminent acquisition of my first book, I went around the corner to “21”, another Manhattan institution, and ate profiteroles. I went to Saks and bought myself a silver ring to commemorate this huge milestone.

— The people we really need to work with are here

Depending on your field or industry, this still remains the place to be. It’s said that “writers can live anywhere” and while that is technically accurate, there are few other cities where you can so quickly and easily meet and work with the people who can kick your career into high(er) gear.

— 9/11 remains very real to us, not some random historical fact

We lost friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and our fantasy of invulnerability. Thousands of us heard the roar of those planes coming in, and the F-15s that followed, and smelled the bitter tang of the fires after the towers fell and saw the smoke filling the sky. I know Richard Drew personally, the photographer who shot the terrifying photo, Falling Man, of a man falling (or jumping)_to his death. I know people here who are forever traumatized by what happened to them that day. It was also the day my husband was to have moved into my suburban apartment. Instead, he turned his Brooklyn apartment into a photo lab, scanning and transmitting film images to the Times’ midtown offices. (They won the Pulitzer that year for those photos.)

Are you a New Yorker?

What makes you one?

Do you wish you were?

Tim Hetherington, war photographer in HBO doc April 18, 8:00 p.m. ET

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union So...
English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union Society event with Sebastian Junger, co-director of the Oscar-nominated, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Restrepo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you not working in news journalism, or photojournalism, award-winning British photographer Tim Hetherington was only 40 when he was killed in Misrata, Libya with photographer Chris Hondros in April 2011.

It’s easy to forget — or not even really understand — that while soldiers are killed, or maimed and traumatized by fighting in war, so are journalists, photographers, videographers and their fixers and interpreters. You can’t phone in war photos, so those shooting with a camera are often as much in the line of fire, as much in harm’s way as the soldiers they are with.

It is a small and tightly-knit community of men and women war journalists who move from one conflict zone to the next, their helmets and Kevlar flak jackets ever at the ready.

Author, writer and film-maker Sebastian Junger, who lives in New York, gave this long and intimate radio interview yesterday on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. He made an award-winning war documentary, Restrepo, with Hetherington.

Here are some images of American soldiers by Hetherington at the International Center of Photography, on display until May 13.

Every journalist, journalism teacher and student of journalism needs to watch this film and know what news reporting can cost.

A life.

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session i...
English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session in Huambo, Angola in 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you’ll make time to watch this documentary and remember the sacrifice and bravery of those who witness war on our behalf.

We owe them our attention and respect.

'Beetle Queen Takes Tokyo': A Bug-Obsessed Woman's Documentary On This Week In NYC

Loved the passion for insects from Jessica Oreck, a young woman animal keeper at the Museum of Natural History, whose first documentary opens this week in Manhattan at Film Forum.

She’ll even show up Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 and 8:20 with live beetles. Apparently (?), Japan is mad for beetles, one collector paying $90,000 for a rare specimen.

I heard her interviewed yesterday on one of my favorite radio shows, The Leonard Lopate Show, and her unlikely enthusiasm for creepy crawlies was lovely. If a woman could be said to be the patron saint of insects, she’s in the running.

Here’s a short video of her and photos of her apartment, with lots of tiny, cool things carefully curated within it like a mini-museum, with an interview with her, from one of my favorite websites, apartmenttherapy.com.