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Author: William A. Stein
"The Making of a New Yorker"
Originally printed in The New York Times in 1943, John Steinbeck's essay below was reprinted in The Empire City: A Treasury of New York (New York: Rinehart, 1955. 469-475).
New York is the only city I have ever lived in. I have lived in the country, in the small town, and in New York. It is true I have had apartments in San Francisco, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Paris, and sometimes stayed for months, but that is a very different thing. This is a matter of feeling.
The transition from small town to New York is a slow and rough process. I am writing it not because I think my experience was unique; quite the contrary. I suspect that millions of New Yorkers who were not born here have had much the same experience--at least parallel experiences....
When I came the first time to New York in 1925 I had never been to a city in my life. I arrived on a boat, tourist, one hundred dollars. It was November....
From a porthole, then, I saw the city, and it horrified me. There was something monstrous about it--the tall buildings looming to the sky and the lights shining through the falling snow. I crept ashore--frightened and cold and with a touch of panic in my stomach. This Dick Whittington didn't even have a cat.
I wasn't really bad off. I had a sister in New York and she had a good job. She had a husband and he had a good job. My brother-in-law got me a job as a laborer and I found a room three flights up in Fort Greene Place in Brooklyn. This is about as alone as you can get. The job was on Madison Square Garden which was being finished in a hurry. There was time and a half and there was double time. I was big and strong. My job was wheeling cement--one of a long line--one barrow behind another, hour after hour. I wasn't that big and strong. It nearly killed me and it probably saved my life. I was too tired to see what went on around me....
My knowledge of the city was blurred--aching, lights and the roar of the subway, climbing three flights to a room with dirty green walls, falling into bed half-washed, beef stew, coffee and sinkers in a coffeepot, a sidewalk that pitched a little as I walked, then the line of barrows again. It's all mixed up like a fever dream. There would be big salamanders of glowing coke to warm our hands and I would warm mine just for the rest, long after I couldn't feel my hands at all....
I don't even remember how long the job went on. It seems interminable and was maybe a month or six weeks. Anyway, the Garden got finished for the six-day bicycle races and Tex Rikard congratulated us all, without respect to race or color. I still get a shiver from the place sometimes.
About that time, my rich and successful uncle came to town from Chicago. He was an advertising man with connections everywhere. He was fabulous. He stayed in a suite at the Commodore, ordered drinks or coffee and sandwiches sent up any time he wanted, sent telegrams even if they weren't important. This last still strikes me as Lucullan. My uncle got me a job on a newspaper--The New York American down on William Street. I didn't know the first thing about being a reporter. I think now that the twenty-five dollars a week that they paid me was a total loss. They gave me stories to cover in Queens and Brooklyn and I would get lost and spend hours trying to find my way back. I couldn't learn to steal a picture from a desk when a family refused to be photographed and I invariably got emotionally involved and tried to kill the whole story to save the subject.
But for my uncle, I think they would have fired me the first week. Instead, they gave me Federal courts in the old Park Row Post Office. Why, I will never know. It was a specialist's job. Some of the men there had been on that beat for many years and I knew nothing about courts and didn't learn easily. I wonder if I could ever be as kind to a young punk as those men in the reporters' room at the Park Row Post Office were to me. They pretended that I knew what I was doing, and they did their best to teach me in a roundabout way. I learned to play bridge and where to look for suits and scandals. They informed me which judges were pushovers for publicity and several times they covered for me when I didn't show up. You can't repay that kind of thing. I never got to know them. Didn't know where they lived, what they did, or how they lived when they left the room....
I had a reason for that, a girl. I had known her slightly in California and she was most beautiful. I don't think this was only my memory. For she got a job in the Greenwich Village Follies just walking around--and she got it with no trouble whatever....
Now New York changed for me. My girl lived on Gramercy Park and naturally I moved there. The old Parkwood Hotel had some tiny rooms--six walk-up flights above the street--for seven dollars a week. I had nothing to do with New York. It was a stage set in which this golden romance was taking place. The girl was very kind. Since she made four times as much money as I did, she paid for many little dinners. Every night I waited for her outside the stage door.
We would sit in Italian restaurants--she paid--and drink red wine. I wanted to write fiction--novels. She approved of that in theory, but said I should go into advertising--first, that is. I refused. I was being the poor artist, shielding his integrity.
During all this time, I never once knew or saw one New Yorker as a person. They were all minor characters in this intense personal drama. Then everything happened at once. The girl had more sense than I thought. She married a banker from the Middle West and moved there. And she didn't argue. She simply left a note, and two days later I was fired from The American.
And now at last the city moved in on me and scared me to death. I looked for jobs--but good jobs, pleasant jobs. I didn't get them. I wrote short stories and tried to sell them. I applied for work on other papers, which was ridiculous on the face of it. And the city crept in--cold and heartless, I thought. I began to fall behind in my room rent. I always had that one ace in the hole. I could go back to laboring. I had a friend who occasionally loaned me a little money. And finally, I was shocked enough to go for a job as a laborer. But by that time short feeding had taken hold. I could hardly lift a pick. I had trouble climbing the six flights back to my room. My friend loaned me a dollar and I bought two loaves of rye bread and a bag of dried herrings and never left my room for a week. I was afraid to go out on the street--actually afraid of traffic--the noise. Afraid of the landlord and afraid of people. Afraid even of acquaintances.
Then a man who had been in college with me got me a job as a workaway on a ship to San Francisco. And he didn't have to urge me, either. The city had beat the pants off me. Whatever it required to get ahead, I didn't have. I didn't leave the city in disgust--I left it with the respect plain unadulterated fear gives.
My second assault on New York was different but just as ridiculous as the first. I had had a kind of success with a novel after many tries. Three of my preceding novels did not make their advance and the advance was four hundred dollars. The largest amount I ever got for a short story was ninety dollars, for "The Red Pony." When royalties for "Tortilla Flat" went over a thousand dollars, and when Paramount bought the book for $3,000--$2,700 net, I should have been filled with joy but instead I was frightened. During the preceding years I had learned to live comfortably, and contentedly, on an absolute minimum of money--thirty-five to fifty dollars a month. When gigantic sums like $2,700 came over the horizon I was afraid I could not go back to the old simplicity.
Whereas on my first try New York was a dark, hulking frustration, the second time it became the Temptation and I a whistle-stop St. Anthony. As with most St. Anthonys, if I had not been drawn toward luxury and sin, and to me they were the same thing, there would have been no temptation. I reacted without originality: today I see people coming to success doing the same things I did, so I guess I didn't invent it. I pretended and believed my pretense, that I hated the city and all its miles and traps. I longed for the quiet and contemplation of the West Coast. I preferred twenty-nine-cent wine and red beans. And again I didn't even see New York. It had scared me again but this time in another way. So I shut my eyes and drew virtue over my head. I insulted everyone who tried to be kind to me and I fled the Whore of Babylon with relief and virtuous satisfaction, for I had convinced myself that the city was a great snare set in the path of my artistic simplicity and integrity.
Back to the West I plunged, built a new house, bought a Chevrolet and imperceptibly moved from twenty-nine-cent wine to fifty-nine-cent wine. Now I made a number of business trips to New York and I was so completely in my role of country boy that I didn't look at it because I must have been enjoying my triumph over the snares and pitfalls. I had a successful play but never saw it. I believed I wasn't interested but it is probable that I was afraid to see it. I even built up a pleasant fiction that I hated the theatre. And the various trips to New York were very like the visits of the Salvation Army to a brothel--necessary and fascinating but distasteful.
The very first time I came to the city and settled was engineered by a girl. Looking back from the cool position of middle age I can see that most of my heroic decisions somehow stemmed from a girl. I got an apartment on East 51st Street between First and Second Avenues, but even then I kept contact with my prejudices. My new home consisted of the first and second floors of a three-story house and the living room looked out on a small soot field called a garden. Two triumphant Brooklyn trees called ailanthus not only survived but thumbed their noses at the soft coal dust and nitric acid which passed for air in New York.
I was going to live in New York but I was going to avoid it. I planted a lawn in the garden, bought huge pots and planted tomatoes, pollinating the blossoms with a water-color brush. But I can see now that a conspiracy was going on, of which I was not even aware. I walked miles through the streets for exercise, and began to know the butcher and the newsdealer and the liquor man, not as props or as enemies but as people.
I have talked to many people about this and it seems to be a kind of mystical experience. The preparation is unconscious, the realization happens in a flaming second. It was on Third Avenue. The trains were grinding over my head. The snow was nearly waist-high in the gutters and uncollected garbage was scattered in a dirty mess. The wind was cold, and frozen pieces of paper went scraping along the pavement. I stopped to look in a drug-store window where a latex cooch dancer was undulating by a concealed motor--and something burst in my head, a kind of light and a kind of feeling blended into an emotion which if it had spoken would have said, "My God! I belong here. Isn't this wonderful?"
Everything fell into place. I saw every face I passed. I noticed every doorway and the stairways to apartments. I looked across the street at the windows, lace curtains and potted geraniums through sooty glass. It was beautiful--but most important, I was part of it. I was no longer a stranger. I had become a New Yorker.
Now there may be people who move easily into New York without travail, but most I have talked to about it have had some kind of trial by torture before acceptance. And the acceptance is a double thing. It seems to me that the city finally accepts you just as you finally accept the city.
A young man in a small town, a frog in a small puddle, if he kicks his feet is able to make waves, get mud in his neighbor's eyes--make some impression. He is known. His family is known. People watch him with some interest, whether kindly or maliciously. He comes to New York and no matter what he does, no one is impressed. He challenges the city to fight and it licks him without being aware of him. This is a dreadful blow to a small-town ego. He hates the organism that ignores him. He hates the people who look through him.
And then one day he falls into place, accepts the city and does not fight it any more. It is too huge to notice him and suddenly the fact that it doesn't notice him becomes the most delightful thing in the world. His self-consciousness evaporates. If he is dressed superbly well--there are half a million people dressed equally well. If he is in rags--there are a million ragged people. If he is tall, it is a city of tall people. If he is short the streets are full of dwarfs; if ugly, ten perfect horrors pass him in one block; if beautiful, the competition is overwhelming. If he is talented, talent is a dime a dozen. If he tries to make an impression by wearing a toga--there's a man down the street in a leopard skin. Whatever he does or says or wears or thinks he is not unique. Once accepted this gives him perfect freedom to be himself, but unaccepted it horrifies him.
I don't think New York City is like other cities. It does not have character like Los Angeles or New Orleans. It is all characters--in fact, it is everything. It can destroy a man, but if his eyes are open it cannot bore him.
New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it--once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough. All of everything is concentrated here, population, theatre, art, writing, publishing, importing, business, murder, mugging, luxury, poverty. It is all of everything. It goes all right. It is tireless and its air is charged with energy. I can work longer and harder without weariness in New York than anyplace else....
I live in a small house on the East Side in the Seventies. It has a pretty little south garden. My neighborhood is my village. I know all of the storekeepers and some of the neighbors. Sometimes I don't go out of my village for weeks at a time. It has every quality of a village except nosiness. No one interferes with our business--no one by chance visits us without first telephoning, certainly a most civilized practice. When we close the front door, the city and the world are shut out and we are more private than any country man below the Artic Circle has ever been. We have many friends--good friends in the city. Sometimes we don't see them for six or eight months and this in no way interferes with our friendship. Any place else this would be resented as neglect....
Everyone at one time or another tries to explain to himself why he likes New York better than any place else. A man who worked for me liked it because if he couldn't sleep he could go to an all-night movie. That's as good a reason as any.
Every once and a while we go away for several months and we always come back with a "Thank God I'm home" feeling. For New York is the world with every vice and blemish and beauty and there's privacy thrown in. What more could you ask?