Rube in the City

Introducing a new semi-regular feature here at the The Roving Home:

Rube in the City

Not to make too much of my Midwestern roots, but as we know from thousands of hours of analysis and Woody Allen movies (the same thing, really), place is everything. And even though I’ve never really entirely identified with being born and raised in a rural  community, the country life begins to feel (as a movie hillbilly might say) all-powerful familiar whenever I’m confronted by the sheer otherness of city life. Still, I love my experiences, when they come, of wading into the hordes of people, the wild thickets of buildings and cultures found in the world’s major cities – or at least the five or so of them in which I’ve spent time – and have no shame about engaging in some wide-eyed staring at… everything. (I’m a little more discreet when it comes to staring at people. I think.)  In New York this last week for a dose of the sublime and the ridiculous, I came up with a few tips for those of us who consider ourselves rubes. In the city.

  • You can be lost, just don’t LOOK lost. This is something I really take to heart. I have zero sense of embarrassment about not knowing where I’m going as I make my way from place to place in the city. Or not. In this way, you’ll find yourself being asked for directions by people who look very, very lost. Your confidence will grow, increasing in direct proportion to their ignorance. You begin to care less and less that you don’t know where you’re going, so gratified are you that perfect strangers have taken you for a local. I was asked no less than three times how to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by dazed parties wandering through Central Park. I just waved my arm at the general direction of the East Side and said airily, “Oh, it’s over there!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was wandering across Central Park from the West Side for much the same reason. But the difference between those tourists and myself? They were panicked with distress, whereas I was breezily zigzagging along, as though on a country ramble. This is what separates the Happy Rube from the Unhappy Rube.
  • When in Rome, Wander. This relates to the first tip, and doesn’t really work if you’re, say, on a strict deadline, or a Type A personality who simply has to squeeze in three museums in a day in order to not feel like a complete failure. My wandering on this trip led me in short order to: Harlem, for no particular reason, and Soho, for no particular reason. Which are as unlike each other as two neighborhoods could be, except for the fact that a bit of the creeping gentrification in Harlem looks like the overwhelming gentrification in Soho. In Harlem I was lured into Manna’s Soul Food by the crazy huge marquee scrolling a mouthwatering list of what could be found inside those doors, all homemade. I piled my styrofoam plate high with mac & cheese (which I swear actually contained sugar) and collard greens. For a rube in the city, eating collard greens loaded with ham and bacon grease was like a return to childhood, circa 1950. It was awesome. My point is, I would never have had collard greens at Manna’s if I had been obsessed with actually getting somewhere I was supposed to be. Soho held less obvious moments of discovery. You had to look very, very hard to find anything beyond the preening of Greene Street. I did stumble across Porto Rico Importing Co. on Thompson Street, which, it turns out, is not much of a discovery, as they have outposts all over the city. Still, the place had all the illusions of old New York. A dirty filthy hole with great coffee and surly service. So if I couldn’t have the real experience of the old Soho, I could at least pretend to.
  • The 80s are back. But not for you. As a visitor to the city, it is best to leave the super skinny jeans and the ratty Converse and the oversized ripped sweatshirts and the day-glo colors to people who fake this look on a daily basis.
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