When I was eight years old, my parents took us to see the Ice Capades in Madison Square Garden. Even then I had the sense that going to the city was exciting and special, and required a certain look. I wore my new mohair sweater, a favorite pleated skirt, and was just about to buckle up my patent leather Mary Janes when my mother stopped me, insisting that due to slushy street conditions, I had to wear rain boots. Red ones. Made of rubber. Sitting front and center at the Ice Capades, I seemed to be surrounded by little girls all wearing the Right Shoes, while I tried (unsuccessfully) to keep my rubber-shod feet hidden. Since then I have made many, many trips into Manhattan, but I have yet to feel that I truly belong there.
Not long ago, I was in mid-town for an education conference. Before leaving, I made sure I had my train schedule, my street map, and cash in small bills. That morning I dressed with extra care. Black slacks, check. Black double-breasted trenchcoat, check. Stylish yet comfortable Italian leather T-strap flats, check. Black leather satchel to carry folders, conference materials (I don’t do tote bags), and the entire contents of my purse. Check. Okay, I thought, I can now walk among them with confidence. I can show that I belong.
But once I stepped out of Penn Station, I realized how wrong I was, and here’s why:
I do not jaywalk. I have always been a well-behaved girl, a follower of rules, and without question, an observer of laws. When I see that bright orange hand illuminated, I stand at the curb obediently in my sturdy shoes, waiting patiently until the little man appears to let me know I can cross. To New Yorkers, however, the orange hand means step in front of that speeding taxi and the little man indicates plow through the pedestrians as fast as possible while slamming them with your hip messenger bag.
I do not have a purposeful stride. I try, really I do. I walk briskly, chin up, straight ahead, my leather satchel slung over my shoulder in a pose that suggests Important Work awaits me. That I am in fact so busy and important I can’t make eye contact or look anywhere but the six inches in front of my face. But can I help it if thoughts like ooh, it’s the big button from Project Runway and oh my god I didn’t know the Hachette Building was in this part of town maybe somebody in there will buy my book someday and the M&M store! the M&M store! compel me to slow down and gawk like the tourist that I am.
I still don’t have the right shoes. How proud I was of my Italian leather flats, with their slightly pointed toe and two sets of tiny brass buckles, their leather uppers and moleskin liners. But little did I know that the Right Shoe is a menacing looking black ankle boot with four inch stiletto heels, a boot that sneers at my flats, a boot that says, hah, so what if you started off in Italy, you ended up in Marshalls. And you’re so two seasons ago. And when they’re done laughing at my shoes, those spindly ankle boots will go tappity-tap down the subway stairs and beat my sensible little flats to the last train.
Perhaps I’ll never really be a native in the strange land that is Manhattan. When it comes to New York, I still haven’t lost my sense of awe. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
♥ ♥ ♥
*A version of this post first appeared in Red Room