A survivor’s guide to New York City

John Bohannon

Most new visitors to Manhattan worry about the crime. Well, fret not There’s no more crime in New York than, say, in Chicago during the Al Capone era.

If you’re planning a visit to New York City, Times Square is a good place to buy nifty souvenirs, such as small replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, or coffee mugs and drinking glasses with the sloga”I Love New York.” And there’s a store on 42nd Street just off Broadway where you can buy a bulletproof vest. The vest doesn’t have the “I Love New York” slogan, but you could ask for something special, such as “Nyah, Nyah. You Missed.”

Not that you’ll need such a protective device. But it’s nice to know that it’s there, much the way many people feel about Koch. He’s one of the first New Yorkers you’ll see. He’s a tall, slightly overweight man with a cherubic face, balding with tufts of unruly hair sticking out on each side, and his suit may look a little wrinkled and rumpled. You’ve probably seen him on the Johnny Carson show talking about the books he has written, or just talking about himself. He keeps a high profile around New York City as well as the rest of the country, and he’s fond of asking, “How’m I doin’?” in a high, whiny voice that makes most people want to say, “Oh, you’re doing fine, Mayor. Not to worry.”

There are some other things you’ll need to know about New York-which is usually pronounced “Noo Yawhk.” The following is a collection of helpful hints not found in a typical tour-guide booklet.

One of the first things you’ll notice about New York is that everyone is in a hurry. Even the pigeons walk fast. (They don’t fly. The license costs too much.) People break into a jog without warning, often because of a rumor that a nearby apartment is vacant or a parking space has become availaable. New Yorkers always break into a run when crossing streets. Some experts say the “DON’T WALK” street signs actually mean “RUN.” People start running when they’re within two blocks of closing subway or elevator doors. And most natives lunge desperately for a revolving door as though it’s the last available space in the world. You just have to move fast. One survivor says, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

In New York, one-dollar bills are “singles.” And if you want to be among the cognoscenti, drop into a deli and ask for “a bagel with a schmear.” A bagel, to some tastes, is a doughnut made of hard rubber. It usually comes sliced in half with a “schmear” of cream cheese dolloped in the middle. Deli cream cheese often tastes like Elmer’s glue, but you can wash it down with a “regular” coffee, which means with milk and sugar.

New Yorkers seldom make eye contact with anyone unless they’ve exchanged a written agreement not to take each other to court in case of a misinterpreted raised eyebrow. It’s just local custom not to look anyone in the eye, even when asking directions. When asked for directions, a New Yorker will keep moving and with a nod of the head say, “Thataway,” which means either that your destination is a block away, or that you could walk west until your hat floats.

It’s easy to tell the difference between a native New Yorker and a tourist. The tourist will be smiling, looking up at the tall buildings, and nearly getting wiped out by an errant taxi or a galumphing charter bus with a destination sign that says “Have a Nice Day.” The native New Yorker frowns and keeps his eyes down on the sidewalk or shifts his eyes from side to side watching out for bicycle messengers going the wrong way on a one-way street or sailing through a red light. The typical New Yorker is also easy to spot because he’ll be the person complaining about something. New Yorkers complain about everything. It’s too hot. Or too cold. Or too expensive. Or too cheap. They complain when something’s not worth complaining about.

Most visitors to Manhattan worry about the crime. Well, fret not. There’s no more crime in New York than, say, in Chicago during the AI Capone era. Sorry. A slight exaggeration.

If you have a lot of bracelets, necklaces, rings, and other flashy jewelry, leave it at home, or put it into the hotel’s safe-deposit box before you go out. Chain snatching is a popular sport, so “if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it,” as a recent anticrime campaign warned. And never count your cash in public unless you’re feeling philanthropic and would like to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots of New York City.

Keep away from the street vendors who sell “bargain” watches. Most of them are counterfeit copies of brand names. They are designed to stop working as soon as you’re on the plane heading for home.

Another popular scam involves the disreputable street bum who looks as though he hasn’t changed his clothes or been acquainted with a bathtub since 1973. He usually appears a bit tipsy and mutters something about finding some valuable coins in an envelope marked “rare.” They do indeed look rare and valuable. One recent incident involved an 1852 gold half dollar, a 1903 nickel, and a 1971 gold Mexican centavo. The street bum told a passerby he was trying to reach a “Dr. Thompkins,” whose name and phone number appeared on the envelope he had found. The victim went with the bum to a public phone and dialed the number. A receptionist answered and put Dr. Thompkins on the line, and he explained that he was a coin collector and he would pay a generous reward for the return of his valuable coins. “Give that man anything he wants,” Dr. Thompkins said, referring to the street bum, “and I’ll reimburse you and pay you a $650 reward for my coins.”

At this point the victim usually gives the street bum $50 or $100 and takes the coins to the address the man on the other end of the line has given. Naturally, no one at that address has heard of a Dr. Thompkins-whose office was actually a pay phone-and the coins are worthless, usually costing no more than 25cts from a dealer. This is an old scam that several thousand people have fallen for. And interestingly, most victims are native New Yorkers. Tourists, according to the police department’s Special Frauds Division, seldom fall for the con.

Tourists also seldom give money to panhandlers on the street. Again, native New Yorkers are the most generous. Mayor Koch recently went on a public campaign urging people to “Just Say No” to street beggars, on grounds that, in his opinion, most of the money goes for booze and drugs. And not long ago the mayor clamped down on whathe saw as another menace-the people who run up to cars stopped for traffic lights, wash windshields, and wait for a tip. Apparently he was afraid the practice might spread to airport terminals and bus stations. Vagabonds with washcloths might descend on arriving tourists, wash their faces, and expect a tip. Well, who knows? It could happen only in New York, where a drink called an egg cream has neither egg nor cream, and where “Houston Street” is pronounced “Howston Street.”

And if there’s a mysterious knock on your hotel-room door late at night, just listen. You’ll probably hear someone say, in a whiny voice, “How’m I doin’?”

It’s the mayor just checking up on things. Tell him he’s doing fine, and go back to sleep. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you tomorrow.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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