First Impressions: Fresh Eyes on NYC

BY Emily Carmichael | February 19, 2021

This story is part of the Underrated issue (Fifty Grande #2), which is available for purchase here.

I have been dispatched from the humidity and sunshine of the Gulf South to New York City, a decidedly faster, colder place. New York does things differently than we do outside of its five boroughs. (Boroughs are what they call sections of the city — itself an oddity.) My mind has been a torrent of questions since my arrival. For those of you who are, like me, Southern in origin, or from places that are more, say, logical, allow me to share parts of what I call the beginning, “bewildering” phase of moving to New York City. This is some of what I have seen in my first few weeks here. 

First, they have these things called bodegas. What’s a bodega? I couldn’t figure it out. From Twitter, I knew bodegas sold food and they were a supposed mainstay of New York living. One tweet said they sold hot dogs — my only concrete lead. The tweeters spoke of bodegas like they  are  some universal, national thing. (They are not.) Do bodegas only sell hot dogs? Are hot dogs really such a common aspect to the daily life of New Yorkers? Wait, were they the carts selling cooked nuts or halal food on street corners? With this vague criteria, thousands of things could be a bodega in this city.

Second, the South has long earned the reputation for being the more unkempt part of the country. But, reader, we are not the dirty ones. Walking down the street, water drips on me from unknown places even on the clearest of days. What is it? I can only assume it is some kind of runoff from the buildings high above me. What exactly is this runoff? I shudder to think about what it may be. 

Then there are the dogs, purebred and sometimes wearing shoes to protect their feet, which shit on the concrete. The concrete! My dogs in Texas — who are civilized — become distressed if they defecate on something other than grass or carpet. These city dogs leave the sidewalks lined with pee streams and poop stains. If you have to commute during peak bathroom hours, the dog excrement mixes with the other flavors of the city, and the street takes on the odor of a carnival Porta Potty.

This, I deduce, is what happens when developers are allowed to cover up every inch of nature with concrete. If I didn’t know better, I’d say New Yorkers have some kind of addiction to large panes of glass. They keep building them higher and higher. Even though New York is the only city where I can look up and get vertigo because the buildings are so tall and crowded, I still see new construction everywhere. Normal-sized buildings are being replaced with glass gilded high-rises and rooftop gardens. With each crane I see, I wonder why they are building that.

Sometimes I run to a park and huff the sweet, sweet grass, get a glimpse of the sky and clear my senses. A brief reprieve from New York’s wildness.

There are similarities to the South, of course. 

They too have street performers, except more of them. Musicians play the same kind of jazz I heard in New Orleans. I spent a delightful afternoon in Madison Square Park glancing between my book and a group of little ballerinas dancing on the cobbled stone. 

And, like us, they have preachers who stand, unsolicited, in public and minister to the masses about the Lord and how he may well damn you. Only here, I have typically encountered these spiritual vigilantes underground, in the subway stations where they wander just a little bit closer to the hell they speak of. 

New York is also warm in its own way. Contrary to what we’ve been told about Yankees, that they are cold, uncaring and inhospitable, the city seems to be for lovers. Everyone is holding someone’s hand or looking for someone’s to hold. Within its vastness, there is a shape to fit every person, no matter how weird or eccentric they might be. The brownstones with their heavy, earthen stone are kind of romantic. The Yankees are kind as long as you aren’t slowing them down on the sidewalk. 

I quickly made friends here. It was one of these new friends who took me on the tour of the city and answered some of my most burning preoccupations, starting with bodegas.

Reader, bodegas are convenience stores.