The first time I went to New York, it was 1971. It wouldn’t be true to say I hadn’t traveled anywhere, since I’d been to Oklahoma quite a few times. But I hadn’t traveled much.
But there I was, getting off the plane in New York. I had read a lot and knew what to expect: The minute I got off the plane, I would immediately be mugged. That’s why I had my purse strap over my shoulder and under my coat; I also clutched it in a death grip and tried to look fierce so no one would get any ideas about rolling me. I was in my early twenties and probably had a good $20 in my purse and I stared out at the world beneath the straight, center-parted hair that every woman in the world wore at that moment in time. Why anybody would have been hard up enough to mug me, I have no idea, but those were strange times.
I was also prepared to be treated very rudely. I’d read about that, as well. Everybody knew New Yorkers were terrible, hostile people. If they weren’t mugging you, they were making rude remarks or bumping into you without even saying, “Excuse me.”
That kind of attitude wasn’t the basis for a rewarding trip. But I liked New York, in spite of myself. I went there time after time, and nobody mugged me and almost nobody was rude to me. Truth was, I could be treated every bit as rudely if I wanted to hang out in Texas all the time and the only time I’ve ever been mugged was midday in Dallas several years ago. Only the accent and the rush and the horn-honking were different in New York. (The first time I took our daughter to New York, she was 6. She was shocked at all the horn-honking, which I explained in a typical Southern mother fashion. In Texas, people didn’t honk horns as much. Sure, they might haul out a gun and shoot you for a bad move in traffic. But at least we weren’t rude enough to honk incessantly.)
These days, I go to New York and realize I probably won’t get mugged as long as I’m smart and lucky. I talk to my favorite people on earth, the taxi drivers. I people-watch 24 hours a day, seeing everything from Beautiful People to the homeless. I try not to think about how much money we’re spending. I try not to look like a tourist, as if that would be the worst fate on earth and — who am I kidding? I am a tourist. What else would I look like? Still, I feel ridiculously pleased if anyone asks me for directions. They must think I fit in, that I’m a part of all this excitement and culture and glamour.
The only thing I worry about — aside from the money — is being patronized. I always feel a little defensive, coming to the big city from the hinterlands, like I’m going to make some faux-pas only a tourist would make. “We went to MOMA over the holidays,” a friend from New York wrote me a few months ago. Then he added, in parentheses, Museum of Modern Art. Like I would have confused it with one of his parents, otherwise.
This trip, my husband and I went to MOMA and it was great and all that. I think I’ll write my New Yorker friend about it and misspell it. We went to MOMMA, I’ll tell him. That’s the Museum of M-modern Art, in case you’ve never heard of it. I tend to stutter when I get excited. Tourists do things like that.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)