At the risk of sounding like a complete Scaredy Cat, I have to confess that I did not ride the subway the first time I visited New York in 2003. I was a mere babe of 27 at the time.
I knew that New York had experienced a stunning decrease in crime during the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras. Only a year later, in 2004, New York would be named the safest large city in the United States. Still, the subway seemed dangerous to me during that first visit. Some irrational part of me suspected at the time that stepping underground meant that I'd be easy prey for dangers lurking around every darkened corner. I'd be as good as dead.
At Steph's insistence (and mild taunting), I succumbed to reason on Visit to New York #2 and discovered by personal experience that entering the New York subway system did not mean certain death. Indeed, I soon learned that nearly 7 million people survive the subway system each workday. 9-year olds even manage to survive it on their own. Since that first courageous day, I bet I've survived the trip 800 times.
Having moved here from the SF Bay Area, I'd lived in a major metropolitan area before; however, I'd never experienced anything like what it means to live in New York. Attending Stanford and living in the surrounding communities thereafter meant living in a socio-economically segregated setting — a state of affairs that is not unique to the Bay Area, but miles away from life in New York City.
Changing coasts and moving to the most populous city in the country combined my fear of the unknown with my unease with urban poverty. It's easy to have a noblesse oblige attitude about social class when you can remain safely ensconced in the familiar and safe, yet moving to New York reminds you that whatever fear you have of urban violence is built on a foundation of fear about poverty and the fruit of desperation.
The daily demands of living here quickly started the process of exposing and eroding defenses that I didn't know I had, yet this process continues as Katie's dad. Toddlers reach out to people, and people reach back. On a recent trip on the subway, Katie wouldn't stop staring at the brightly dressed person on the other side of the car. Clad from head-to-toe in black & gold, the guy was obviously a member or aficionado of the Latin Kings. No matter for Katie — she had soon melted him into making faces across the subway car in an attempt to make her laugh.
Of course, this brief time in New York has not inoculated me from a fear of the dark or the unknown, but I like to think that this experience has helped me acknowledge some of the roots of whatever unease I feel when faced with a landscape far removed from the Nebraska of my youth. Next month, I'll start a chapter of my life that's much more white picket fence than these past three years have been. Here's hoping that the lessons of New York's urban life are lasting ones.
What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.