In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. This week we are running excerpts the book, which is being released on Tuesday—preorder it today! The first question comes from Chapter 1: "How to Recognize a Real New Yorker," and concerns our local walking speed.
I moved to the city two weeks ago, and there are still many things I do not understand! For instance, how do I swipe a MetroCard in the subway or on the bus so it works without having to do it five times? But my biggest problem so far has been walking down the street. Yes, you heard me right. At least three times I’ve been walking along, just minding my own business, when someone sighs furiously or gruffly yells, “Excuse me!” and then rushes ahead. This has generally been on crowded streets in Manhattan, but it’s happened at least once going up an escalator in the subway. What am I doing wrong? And why do New Yorkers walk so fast?
New Yorkers do not walk too fast: You walk too slow. Most likely you grew up in a place where people got around in cars, which means your walking muscles are weak compared with those of people who get everywhere on foot. We also know where we’re going, which makes us appear to be moving faster, but really, it’s just that you are lost half the time, stopping to get your bearings, or else looking up to admire the skyscrapers we stopped being impressed by many years ago.
Give it six months—by then your body will have been honed by walking the standard five miles a day that most New Yorkers do during their daily routine, including the many flights of stairs required by most subway commutes and walk-up apartment buildings. During this time, you will also learn to move with the purpose of the experienced New Yorker: never stopping in the middle of a block to look at your phone for directions or to marvel at some routine New York sight—a red-faced Alec Baldwin screaming into his cell phone about dry cleaning receipts, a guy in an Elmo costume smoking a cigarette, two cabbies having a fistfight over a fender bender, etc.
Learning to walk like a New Yorker is a vital skill. During your stay here, you will be constantly pressed for time. The unacceptable state of our subways and buses—which have been starved of necessary infrastructure funding for years by New York’s car-crazy governors—means getting to work is always a game of Russian roulette, so you’ll often find yourself running from the station to your job. Then there’s work itself, where the hours will be long partly because of the workaholism of our intensely competitive industries, but also because most New Yorkers need to put in maximum hours to make enough money to pay our exorbitant rents. This leaves twenty minutes for lunch, which requires getting to the deli fast because there will also be ten people on line when you get there. If you have to bark at a waddling tourist or two along the way, so be it.
Even at night, when you’d think people would slow down, they don’t. Most New Yorkers are either rushing home to see their friends and family during the small amount of free time left to them after work, or they’re trying to get to whatever restaurant/bar/club they just heard about, and they either need to get there early to beat the crowd, or— even when they do score a reservation—they know that if they’re even five minutes late, they’re going to lose it. So, no matter what, they’re still going to walk fast.
For similar reasons, being punctual is a much more important virtue in New York City than in other places in America. We have far less free time and we don’t want it wasted, so being constantly late is treated as a much more serious character flaw. Of course, we forgive an occasional delay caused by a comatose G train or some such unavoidable problem, but do it often and you will soon find yourself very unpopular here.
Some advice to help you get up to local speed:
First, and most importantly, figure out where you’re going before you step into the stream of human traffic. It’s like merging onto a busy highway in a Fiat: This is not the time to suddenly stop and look at a map, fumble for your phone to text your friend, or realize that you’re walking in the wrong direction and abruptly turn around, forcing someone to quickly dodge out of your way, or worse, bump into you.
You will find yourself lost much less often if you buy a map of New York and tape it up somewhere in your apartment. Compared to most cities, Manhattan is actually quite sensibly organized along a grid, with the exception of famously labyrinthine neighborhoods like the West Village or the Financial District. Either navigate by landmarks, such as the Empire State Building or One World Trade Center, which can be seen from almost everywhere, or harness the power of the sun; since New York is north of the equator, the sun is always in the southern part of the sky, toward the east in the morning and the west in the afternoon. If that doesn’t work, just walk a couple of blocks; you’ll inevitably note the street numbers changing the right or wrong way, or you’ll come across a major avenue you recognize.
Second, walk on the right—as far to the right as you can get without grinding into a building. As with other mighty rivers, New York traffic moves fastest in the middle and slowest at the edges. By walking at the margin of the crowd, you will also have access to plenty of places to step out of the flow: behind standpipes and street signs and into building alcoves and so on, should you need to stop and get your bearings. Keeping to the right is doubly important on escalators, stairs, and on subway platforms— all places where a crowd is trying to squeeze through a narrow passage, and where, should you accidentally encumber traffic, you are likely to draw negative attention to yourself. And God help you if you inexplicably stop in front of the turnstiles when the train is pulling into the station.
Third, do not jaywalk until you’ve been here at least a year. Your brain has not yet learned to reliably calibrate the speeds of passing taxis, buses, and delivery bikers, and there is a good chance you’ll screw it up and get run over. Yes, most New Yorkers will cross in the middle of the street, or at corners against the light when they sense that it is safe. They have already acquired this skill. Use your first months here to watch their movements and learn the timing—and when you begin to do likewise, stick to the side streets and quieter neighborhoods until you really get the hang of it. I’m pretty sure bad crossing is the leading cause of death in newly arrived New Yorkers! That, and ordering Papa John’s. You live in the pizza capital of the world; what’s wrong with you?
I also have a theory that much of New Yorkers’ reputation for being rude stems from tourists’ experience of our walking speed. They come to the city for a week, see the crowds rushing to and fro, maybe get jostled a few times, and come to the conclusion that New Yorkers are mean and dislike outsiders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Approached in the correct way, New Yorkers are some of the most helpful people on Earth, trained by a long history of helping immigrants and lost tourists get where they need to go.
What is the correct method of approach? First, spot a knowledgeable New Yorker—an easy way is to pick the person who seems most at ease, and who doesn’t have any of the tell-tale signs of outsiders here: shorts of an awkward length, I Love New York gear, or any kind of fanny pack not, obviously, worn ironically. Second, approach them at a natural place of pause—while they’re waiting for traffic to pass at a corner or on line at the halal cart. Third, ask your question in a clear, loud voice, and then listen carefully for the response because it will not be repeated.
You will find that the vast majority of New Yorkers are eager to show off their knowledge of the city. A personal example: For five years I lived in Brooklyn Heights, close to the Brooklyn Bridge. Almost every day on the way to work I’d find a group of lost tourists outside of the High Street station trying to figure out how to get to the Brooklyn Bridge steps, and nothing made me happier than successfully guiding them to their somewhat-hidden destination under an overpass two blocks away. I did this nearly every day I lived there, and I still feel a certain glow when I reflect on the many confused visitors I was able to send on the right path.
One word of caution: It is often best, when getting directions, to ask two people, or to double check with your phone’s map, because the local tendency to be helpful with directions sometimes conflicts with the fact that many New Yorkers have a fairly bad sense of direction outside the five blocks around their home or work. There is also a strong desire here not to look like a chump who doesn’t know his way around, so rather than simply admit they don’t know how to get to where you need to go, they’ll just make an “educated” guess, and suddenly you’re on a PATH train to Jersey City instead of a 7 train to Queens.
But sometimes New Yorkers don’t even need to be asked to offer assistance. I’m not talking about times of emergency—hurricanes, terrorist attacks—when the local willingness to help ends up in the national news. I mean the little dramas you see all the time here, when someone faints on the subway and ten people immediately clear a bench and offer water, or a cyclist gets doored by a car and five bystanders rush in to make sure he’s not too seriously injured and to call an ambulance.
Or how about this one: I was locking up my bike last week on Third Avenue and Twentieth Street, going to meet a friend, when suddenly, I saw a dog break its leash and run straight up the middle of Third Avenue with its owner screaming, running after it. Before I could even stand up, at least twenty ordinary New Yorkers dropped what they were doing and immediately began running after the dog. One second they had their typical implacable New York faces on, the next, they were flying up the street after a stranger’s pet. I wasn’t at all surprised— New Yorkers love to help people out.
A final thought: New Yorkers walk with speed and focus because otherwise they’d have a hard time getting anything done here. As you settle in, try to live all aspects of your life with a similar sense of purpose. In your first months you’ll find New York presents you with endless distractions: bad tabloids that promote toxic values of wealth and fame, superficial careerists more interested in networking than friendship, overpriced trendy spots that just leave you feeling ripped off. Ignore as much of this stuff as you can. Pick your destination—fulfilling job, kind friends, stimulating art— and advance toward it, eyes always on the goal.
Also avoid any open manholes and rusted sidewalk cellar doors— those can really be killers.