Empire City

She was young, I’d guess mid-twenties. She had a sleeve of multi-colored tattoos on both arms. She was pretty. She was nice.

She stood behind the New York City deli counter, slicing salami, making sandwiches. She had a line 16 miles long, snaking outward into the frenetic streets of The City So Nice They Named it Twice.

Some of her patrons were very “particular” about their orders. Although where I come from, we would not call these people “particular.” We would call these people “fussy.” But hey. When in Rome.

The girl took it on the chin. She replied to each “particular” customer by smiling and batting her eyes.

I detected a slight drawl in her voice. I wouldn’t have noticed this in any other city. But in New York, you notice drawls.

It was my turn. I ordered the cheapest sandwich available, an item which cost about as much as an average Harvard doctoral semester.

She began making my sandwich. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“Birmingham.”

A look of wistfulness came over her face. “Birmingham,” she said. “I’m from Birmingham. I was born there.”

“Small world.”

“And it just got smaller.”

The man behind me in line was not happy about this casual conversation between myself and our delicatessen professional. He began clearing his throat loudly.

New Yorkers, I have read, do not like idle chit-chat. I read this in an official guidebook. The guidebook stated: “New Yorkers do not like superficial conversation, eye contact, small animals, children, old people, or anyone who talks slow.”

The man in line behind me cleared his throat loudly again. He was sending a clear message.

“Can we speed this up?” the man actually said aloud. Then he made a “let’s get the ball rolling” getsure.

I was horrified. In Birmingham, this man would have already been in the backseat of a Jefferson County Crown Victoria.

The young woman merely smiled. She looked at me and whispered. “Bless.”

I asked what a Birminghamite is doing in New York, and did she need help coming up with ransom money.

“Oh, it’s not like that. This city’s a great place. Just wait. You’ll fall in love with it.”

The man cleared his throat again and stared me down. I was having a difficult time conjuring up feelings of romance for this city.

“You come to this town,” she explained, “and at first, you’re stressed. Everyone’s always rushing, the pace never quits. New York City is the only place in the world where you can get deliberately run down by a pedestrian on the sidewalk.”

“Sounds lovely,” said I.

Throat clear.

“When I first moved here, I cried every night. I was ready to go home. Nobody talked like me. It took me two weeks to realize the word ‘chair’ only had one syllable.”

I asked why she relocated.

“Because my mom was from here originally. Mom was Greek, she died when I was three. I don’t even remember what she looked like. So I came here to find her.”

The young woman has been living here for six years. I asked whether she had found her mother yet.

She smiled. “I have. I’ve rediscovered her in this city. I hang out with my mom’s relatives every day in Jersey City. I live in the same neighborhood Mom grew up in. I’ve seen the apartment where my mom lived as a girl. I can feel her whenever I’m here.”

She handed me my sandwich. The man behind me was annoyed. He wore a face that looked like he’d just sucked on a car battery.

And truthfully, I don’t blame him. My idle chit-chat had caused this man to wait a very long time. Almost 90 whole seconds.

Before I left, the young woman explained the secret to New York City.

“Eventually, you get past the anxiety of New York, and you realize this place is beautiful, because you’re totally anonymous here. You just float around, living your life, and everyone keeps to themselves. It’s very calming, being one of the crowd. It’s nice being invisible.”

I hate to disappoint you, Anna. But you’re not invisible.

23 comments

  1. Buddy Caudill - February 10, 2023 6:27 am

    Thanks, but no thanks, to living “up north”.
    Visits I have made, have always caused me to have the yearning for the great American south !
    I will take Southern hospitality any day over “yankee” rudeness.
    The old saying says, “Do you wonder why people do not retire, and move up north”?

    Reply
  2. oldlibrariansshelf - February 10, 2023 8:56 am

    No, she is not. Once we hear someone’s story we enter into a relationship–no invisibility possible then. Thanks again, Sean.

    Reply
  3. Helen De Prima - February 10, 2023 3:23 pm

    You so nailed NYC! So glad I no longer have to visit there.

    Reply
  4. David Britnell - February 10, 2023 3:26 pm

    Bless her heart!

    Reply
  5. David in California - February 10, 2023 4:50 pm

    Great sketch. I’ll have to look into Stephen Wiltshire. Great sketch of an Alabama girl in the Big Apple. (Excuse me while I clear my throat). 😀

    Reply
  6. Nancy M - February 10, 2023 5:04 pm

    I really like your sketch of NYC! That could be framed and hung on the wall!

    Reply
  7. Patricia Gibson - February 10, 2023 5:10 pm

    So true! New York is fast paced.

    Reply
  8. Eddy - February 10, 2023 5:17 pm

    I’m from deep in the state of Mississippi Delta Blues. In the late ’70s I lived in northwestern New Jersey for 7 months. I attended community college and worked part time pumping gas as self service was and the last time I checked still illegal there. Of course practically everyone I spoke to asked where I was from. Coworkers, customers, and friends usually picked at me about the southern accent all in good fun. I returned to Mississippi.Then in 1986 I took a course at New York University for 5 weeks and lived in Greenwich Village. It was a most excellent experience that substantially broadened my horizons and yes they made fun of the accent. But by the time I left they were trying to talk like me. The early days of changing “you guys” to “Y’all” as I just couldn’t adjust, but they did.

    Reply
  9. SweetieOnion - February 10, 2023 5:38 pm

    Is there any similarities to Twitter (I never did Twitter), but your subscription gets blocked if it is decided your comment wasn’t to a liking. Asking for a friend?

    Reply
  10. MD - February 10, 2023 6:06 pm

    Should’a bought the guy behind you a sandwich. That would’ve shown him!

    Reply
  11. MAM - February 10, 2023 6:52 pm

    I thought the same thing as MD. Just buy the jerk a sandwich and show him what polite people do. I’m glad Anna has “found” her mother and has reconciled with NYC, but I bet she misses Birmingham! And by the way, Sean, that sketch is awesome!

    Reply
  12. Stacey Wallace - February 10, 2023 8:51 pm

    Being invisible sounds sad. I much prefer living in Auburn, Alabama, in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. But maybe my husband and I will visit NYC one day. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.

    Reply
  13. Jan Linden - February 10, 2023 9:24 pm

    I sure hope Anna reads what you wrote about her. I love you both. The guy behind you in line not-so-much. Life is too short to be that way. Actually I feel bad for him.

    Reply
  14. denise - February 10, 2023 9:56 pm

    Love the description, but I’ll take FL ( Florabama style) any time.

    Reply
  15. Linda Moon - February 10, 2023 10:49 pm

    New York’s been a nice place for me to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. My Deep-South neighborhood surrounded by friendly visible neighbors works for me. Thanks for showing and telling us about Anna and her Mom, Sean.

    Reply
  16. Sheri K - February 11, 2023 1:25 am

    Sean, the sketch is definitely worth a professional framing! Beautiful! Please don’t think NYC rudeness is typical of “Yankees”. It’s not. Some of the nicest people I know are from The North.

    Reply
  17. bg - February 11, 2023 4:59 am

    Winter. 57th & 7th Ave. Snowing. 7 pm. Mid 1980s. Almost empty streets and sidewalks dimly lit by lights from skyscrapers. Almost quiet. Blissful anonymity.

    Reply
  18. George Robert Leach - February 11, 2023 5:15 am

    What a nice story about NYC, a place that cares.

    Reply
  19. Peggy Slaton - February 11, 2023 2:21 pm

    Reminds me of my first trip to New York. Got on the wrong subway train, as directed by a policeman. ..wrong train. Got off to ask a subway employee what to do. She disgustingly told me I needed to learn to read in her not so sweet New York accent. Enjoyed the city in spite of being insulted. My trip to Boston with my southern accent was delightful. Only in New York did my accent matter.

    Reply
  20. Johnny Bracey - February 11, 2023 6:10 pm

    Sean,
    May our rescue, Red Road Rescue, post some of your dog stories to our Facebook page?

    Let me know if it will be ok.

    Johnny Bracey
    Thomasville, Ga.
    229-221-8510

    Reply
  21. Vince - February 11, 2023 7:36 pm

    Ah, NYC and its environs. Rightly known for its lack of manners. Have heard from some around here actually say things like, “Why should I talk to someone I don’t know?”, and ‘I don’t want chit chat at the counter, just ring me up and let me be on my way’. Sad that anonymity and rudeness are conflated.

    Reply
  22. Cheryl Yarborough - February 11, 2023 8:17 pm

    I’ve lived in many places, Dad was in navy. Moved here from Va.Beach. Been in Birmingham 20 years now. It’s home.❤️

    Reply
  23. Robert Chiles - February 15, 2023 12:38 am

    You talk about the price of a sandwich, and I know it’s been a while ago, (like 13 or 14 years ago) but I remember in New York getting the most wonderful Reuben with about an inch and a half of hot pastrami for $6

    Reply

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