I moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1998. I was working at the time as a marketing person for a large American corporation that provided the conversion of printed documents to digital ones, digital storage capabilities, and corporate mailing services.
I recall too well how boring all that was. I was aware of that already, of course, and although they didn’t know it, I had talked the company into moving me to New York simply so that I could live there. My job was to call on the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, which may sound thrilling to some. But Fortune 500 companies are as tiresome as any other simply because they are business entities. That they are cash-cow monoliths does not make them any less dull. In whatever case, my interest in the corporate bottom line and a high-rise corner office suite had always been minimal, even though business had allowed me to live with a certain amount of style in San Francisco and now in Manhattan.
I knew on my first morning as a citizen of New York City that I had made the right decision, even though the temperature was in the low teens. It was a rattling cold New York winter day, in bright, cloudless sunlight. The evidence of snow from a few days before was still there on the sidewalks and, as blackened ice, at the street corners. I wore a new wool overcoat buttoned to the top, my neck buffered by a soft wool scarf.
I was happy.
Just then, I met the first New Yorker with whom I was to have a significant encounter. He was a bilingual madman. Dressed untidily, his hair like scum-lined, twisted wires, his overcoat splotched with mud and, maybe, dried soup, wearing sunglasses, he attacked me as I was walking down East Eighty-second toward Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan Museum.
The first thing he did was to take a swing at me. I fell away—gracefully, I thought—with enough physical panache that the assailant missed. Very angered by this, he began shouting and gesturing at me with a fist. I was, he thought, a son of a bitch, a rich white boy pussy, a faggot and, then, a pendejo, a cuero, an hijo de puta, and a mama ñema. I speak Spanish, and knew all those phrases, except for mama ñema. When I looked it up that afternoon, I found that such a person, in the Dominican Republic, is a man who offers sexual services to another man with his tongue and mouth. The phrase itself carries considerably less politesse than does my explanation of it.
My assailant then turned away and ran across Eighty-second, headed toward Central Park.
A young couple walking their dog hurried up from behind, to make sure I was okay. They asked where I was from. When I told them, they apologized profusely for my attacker’s behavior, and told me that New Yorkers were simply not like that. “New York is safe,” the man said. “You can walk in this city.”
I subsequently found that was true. I was never so approached again during the three years I lived in Manhattan.
I knew that I would write about New York. One of my reasons for wanting to move there was to do just that. I had traveled to Manhattan many times for pleasure and business, and loved the place as a tourist. I expected that would be the case even more so were I to live there, and that also proved to be true. But my encounter with this fellow (despite the fact that I was no mama ñema) was memorable. A fictionalization of it for the first New York story I was to write (titled, appropriately, “The High Line”) was my first effort to describe the experience of living in Manhattan.
Soon enough I was to learn that approximately eight hundred languages are spoken in the six New York boroughs, a result of the city’s numberless immigrations. My previous fiction often features Americans living outside the United States, in circumstances in which a major portion of their difficulty is the fact that they don’t fit in, linguistically or culturally. That was a feature of my own early adulthood when I lived for a few years with tribal peoples on Borneo, on the Malaysia-side of that huge island. I learned then that to be in a position in which I must learn how other people speak, live, feel, think, and treat each other is a true privilege. That understanding has been a major factor in all my writing.
Because of those many cultures in New York, the city is for me its own foreign country. Even those speaking New York-style English from birth are outside the general North American identity, because of the way they talk and, occasionally, act. Throughout my time there, I was often singled out for the way I dressed (“You don’t own a tie, pal?”), the way I proceeded through conversation (“Hey, get to the point.”), and the principled naivety I displayed with regard to how things get done in business in New York. (I once asked a senior marketing guy at one of the Fortune 500s for advice about whom I should call on in the company, to tout our services. He gave me a name, and offered to make an introduction for me. I gladly accepted, and then he suggested that next time I visit his office, I bring along a gift certificate for a full set of Callaway golf clubs and a Wilson bag in which to carry them. Flummoxed, I stammered that I thought the services I was bringing with me would greatly improve his company’s bottom line, and I would make it clear to everyone with whom I spoke that he was personally responsible for such an improvement in operations. After a lengthy silence, he told me he had a meeting to go to. I never saw him again, and never got any business from that Fortune 500.)
I frequently was asked where I was from. (Native New Yorkers thought I talked funny.) A typical response to my answer was given me by my client at ASCAP, which at the time was located in an office building directly across Broadway from Lincoln Center. Joe was a New Yorker from the Bronx…a good guy, no nonsense. When I explained that I was from San Francisco, his response was “I don’t get it. You’re from San Francisco, and you came here to live? Why the f**k would you do somethin’ like that??”
The book I wrote is titled New York, and was published this week.
Terence Clarke is back in San Francisco. His story collection, New York, is available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com. He is currently at work on a new novel, The Splendid City, which recounts an incredible life-threatening adventure in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.