Tonight as I was walking home and pondering how I would spend my Monday night now that my Spanish class is over, I noticed a big ugly chair thrown in the pile of black garbage bags along the curb in front of me, and I remember what I’d been missing for the last 3 months — Monday Night Garbage Night Curbside Furniture Picking. I’m really proud of my free furniture curb picks over the last year. I started small, with a broken end table that I “refurbished” by setting a bronze plate on its top. Then I found a nicer end table. Then a makeshift TV stand. Then a microwave cart (and seriously, a nice wheelie microwave cart can go for over $100…). I even took a painting once. Finally, one day, my crowning jewel found me, a naturally antique-looking desk that I use as my creative and productive space. Yay! Bearing in mind the rule that one of my colleagues passed down to me, I passed by the upholstered chair and kept walking, and stumbled upon some serious bounty in front of my own building: a wood and glass coffee table and matching desk. So what, we already have a coffee table and 3 desks between the two of us, this was a nice set, and I wanted it to be mine, so I disassembled everything right there on the sidewalk, and lugged it inside, with the help of some obliging neighbors who were kind enough to grab the doors for me.
While my compulsion for free furniture may be a tad much, it reminded me of all of the nonverbal languages I’ve become fluent in over the last two years, the languages of New York. I speak curbside furniture: I know which days are garbage days, and which streets have the most apartment buildings and ergo, the most free furniture. I know not to pay hundreds for antiques when one will end up on my sidewalk. I know to avoid anything upholstered, because, bed bugs. I’ve learned how to furnish an apartment for free.
I’ve learned how to speak subway. When I first came to New York on my own for my interview at my job, I could not have been more lost when it came to public transit. I panicked searching for a quarter machine in Laguardia so I could have exact change for the bus (thank god the HR manager had mentioned that), and then had a harrowing ride in on the M60 into Manhattan, frantically flipping through the 4 pages of Google Maps I’d printed out. Even then, I got scared and got off too early, wandering down into the subway and asking the lady behind the glass if this was where I could find Metro North. After finding the real Metro North station, it took a while to figure where to buy my ticket (the booth) and when the train would be coming. When I did ride the subway for the first time, all the lines, letters, and numbers blurred together, and I wished it could just be simpler, like the T in Boston. “I don’t need all these lines,” I thought, “just show me a map with just the 456.” My first shuttle ride between Grand Central and Times Square was a rare thrill, and my initial bus rides were an interesting practice in running to the stop to catch the bus, and then either getting off two stops before or two stops after my intended stop, each time. These days, I bus like a pro. I’m the go to girl for anyone in my office who’s looking for ways to avoid Metro North and save a dollar. I have the W45 weekday schedule memorized, and I’ve successfully figured out how to get from Astoria to Flushing via bus, just for shits & gigs (and bubble tea). The subway is a piece of cake, and makes DC and Boston’s transit look like a child (I read recently that the 456 line gets more foot traffic in a day than all of Boston’s T system). The other weekend, as I headed into the city for my weekend job, I witnessed a man, a father with his wife and two kids, trying to figure out where to get off the subway. It was a crowded car, and the way he leaned back to try to see the schedule, and his uncertainty about whether our train would stop at their station made it evident that they were tourists, that he had very little idea what he was doing, but that his family had deemed him most competent and trusted him to figure it out without really having much faith in him. From 86th, I minded my business, but after 59th, when I heard him say something about “33rd” I had to step in. I asked where he was going, and explained that we were on an express train and he needed the local, so at the next stop they could get out and just walk across the platform and transfer to the 6. The man was so relieved. It’s not a special story, and one I’m sure all New Yorkers have. But, it stood out to me in that moment that I spoke a language someone else didn’t: subway.
I also speak food in a way that I didn’t before. In particular, I’ve become fluent in bagel, which is saying something for a girl who came from a town so white bread that she didn’t even meet a Jew until she was 17. I understand that the freezer bagels are bread masquerading in a bagel shape, and that chain bagels are passable, but vaguely styrofoam. Only a real, true New York bagel will do it for me now. The very Dunkin Donuts bagels that were a precious commodity for me when I lived in upstate New York, only available on the rare days that I went to and from Utica or Clinton, are now the sort of bagels I turn my nose down at, or roll my eyes about. Pizza is another example. I won’t go into as much detail, but I know a New York slice, and I know which $1 slice places are worth it, and which ones are a rip off. I’ve also learned how to spice up a plain slice with a shit ton of seasonings — oregano, red pepper, parmesan, garlic — to make it feel less, well, plain.
That’s not to mention my mastery of the New York Shuffle, in which we’re all always in a hurry because we’re all always late, or my callous disregard of panhandlers in the subway. I’ve discerned which musicians to give money to and which to ignore. I’ve figured out how to exit the subway and orient myself to which street corner I’m on. I’ve can complain about New York as a way of showing my love for it.
And maybe New York is less the language than the dialect and accent, but in any case, I speak it now. Some things I’m still learning (I have a lot of brushing up to do on my Brooklyn), but when I meet tourists I have an experience similar to my epiphany in Spanish class when we met the level 1 students: for all of my struggles, for all of the things I don’t know, here’s a person in front of me who knows way less, against whom I can measure myself and realize…there was a time I didn’t know these things. And now I do. And that’s called progress.