AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
This essay presents personal experience narratives about living in New York City. Collected individually and in group settings, these narratives range from simple observations about the city's off-beat or unpleasant quirkiness to recitations of near-traumatic experiences, and they generally mark negative characteristics of the city, which run the gamut from annoyingly rude behavior to serious threats to personal safety. Yet humor plays a paramount role in these tales, both in content and in performance. In her contribution to "Encounters with Folklore," author Cornelia Cody provides transcripts of several stories, sketches the generic expectations of listeners, explores thematic content, and suggests why and how these personal narratives are funny. By highlighting and juxtaposing the excesses and ambiguities of city life, she argues, New Yorkers narratively adapt to the demands of the city in order to overcome them.
Have I Got a Story!
Cornelia: Do you have a New York story?
Steve: No. New York's tough because there's not a lot of stuff that happens in New York that is inherently funny. I think you ultimately make fun of and find humor in the things that happen in New York, but most things at their core are tragic.
Cornelia: I agree, but I think that's why New York has such a good sense of humor. I mean, nothing happens in Baltimore where people say, "Oh, only in Baltimore."
Dana: "Only in Duluth." [laughter]
Steve: But, you know, there's much more walking-around, contact kind of stuff. I mean, I don't know if this is funny but I can remember the one time I knew I had really become a New Yorker.
And it was after fifteen years.
Shannon and I were crossing the street in front of the Flatiron Building. And Shannon's on my left side. We're just crossing in front of the Flatiron and this taxi driver ... I mean, the light was green. It was our light and ... shit! In New York there are very few privileges and rights.
And the light is green. It's our light.
And this taxi comes screaming up and stops inches from Shannon.
And I turn and I say [does stereotypical, working-class New York accent], "You stupid Motherfucker! What the hell is wrong with you? You goddamn asshole!" Boom! I smack the hood. [uproarious laughter]
And I turn back to Shannon and say, "What were we talking about?" [laughter]
That's when I knew I had become a New Yorker. [uproarious laughter] (Steve Wall and Dana Hickox, interview with the author, 15 March 1994)
"What makes a city a city?" asked B. A. Botkin in Sidewalks of Americana.
"What makes it different from other cities? Humanly, not statistically speaking." Botkin goes on to answer his own question: "From the folklore point of view, a city is 'we'--you and I and everybody else, what people say, especially what they have to say about themselves in their own way and their own words, folk-say, and what they choose to remember" (1954:1). We find the city in the voices of its people: in their stories.
If you have lived in New York for years, if you arrived last month, if you only have visited briefly--even if you have never been there at all--yon have something to say about the city. New York City does that; it solicits stories from people. Or perhaps New York compels one to tell a story. As Vivian Gornick recounted in The New Yorker, to be in New York City is to take part in a performance:
On Thirty-eighth Street, two men were leaning against a building One afternoon in July. They were both bald, both had cigars in their mouths, and each one had a small dog attached to a leash. In the glare of noise, heat, dust, and confusion, the dogs barked nonstop. Both men looked balefully at their animals. "Yap, yap, stop yapping already," one man said angrily. "Yap, yap, keep on yapping," the other said softly. I burst out laughing. The men looked up at me and grinned. Satisfaction spread itself across their faces. They had performed and I had received. My laughter had given shape to an exchange that would otherwise have evaporated in the chaos. The glare felt less threatening. I realized how often the street achieves composition for me: the flash of experience I extract again and again from the endless stream of events. The street does for me what I cannot do for myself. On the street nobody watches; everyone performs. (1996:72)
I am drawn to New York City stories, those that narrate this "concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance," as E. B. White has described it, "bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader, and the merchant" (1977:148). How do these varied inhabitants talk to each other about New York City? And what do their stories tell us?
New York City has been dramatized in everything from television's wildly popular Seinfeld to the New York Times feature "Metropolitan Diary." But as Eleanor Wachs tells us, the city is performed beyond the mass media: "One of the most popular traditions among New Yorkers is telling stories about significant events in their daily lives" (1988: xi). Though the stories share features of all personal experience narratives (see Stahl 1989), Wachs identifies themes and characteristics common to these particular tales. "Many New Yorkers," she writes, "recount their experiences with power blackouts, transit or garbage strikes, battles at traffic court, or eccentric characters"; consistently, these narratives "deal with some aspect of crime victimization or some feature of urban life" (1988:xi).
Both "socially situated" (Bauman 1974:9) and geographically sited, these personal narratives direct attention to the struggles of everyday urban life within the larger performance of New York City, a place that has developed a "body of custom and fantasy peculiar to itself" (Botkin 1954:vii). Foregrounding negative characteristics associated with the city, these stories offer "exemplars of lives, heroes, villains, and fools," as well as guidance about how to behave and even survive (Richardson 1995:211). But their performance also helps to create New York and New Yorkers themselves. In Laurel Richardson's words, "Participation in a culture includes participation in the narratives of that culture, a general understanding of the stock of meanings and their relationships to each other. The process of telling the story creates and supports a social world" (211).
And in New York, that social world is ever changing, open to recreation. "There are roughly three New Yorks," writes E. B. White in his paean to the city:
There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is there New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy.... or a young girl arriving from a small town.... or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference. (1977:152)
In my ten years of collecting narratives about the city, (1) I find that the most interesting, passionate, and funny stories belong to the third kind of New Yorker, to people who have come to New York to find--or to lose--themselves, as the case may be. The stories from immigrants to New York City are compelling because, like Steve in the opening story, these settlers are undergoing transformation; they are becoming New Yorkers. At home, in traffic, while shopping, they participate in the risk, excitement, conflict, and uncertainty of the city. New York stages continual performances on the street, which native New Yorkers may take for granted unless they have lived elsewhere and returned (see Gornick 1996). But transplanted New Yorkers, those here "from some excess of spirit" (White 1977:1:51), are particularly attuned to the spectacle of the city, and they become part of it by crafting their experiences into personal narratives that capture its pace and its paradoxes. Their stories initiate newer transplants, imparting "street smarts" and making sense of the city's chaos and over-stimulation.
The tales themselves also become part of the city and its performances--and it is not just what they say, but how they say it. If tellers of New York personal narratives foreground the negative, they do so humorously. They have to, in order to reconcile the dangers, threats, and inconveniences of the city with the fact that they have chosen to live here. Finding the humor in everyday travails also transforms narrators from victims to survivors. "Yes," they imply, "I was scared, hassled, annoyed, or threatened ... but I lived to tell the tale!"
You Won't Believe What Just Happened to Me: The Personal Narrative
Stephanie: So do you have a New York story?
Cornelia: Actually, yes, and it may have been one of the springboards into this whole study.
Stephanie: So ...?
Cornelia: I was coming home on the F Train. It was rush hour. And the train, of course, is packed. I was standing ... and not too far from me I notice this guy who's also standing--yon know the seats that are three across, in front of the pole ...?
Stephanie: Uh huh.
Cornelia: So this guy is standing there, hanging on to that center pole. He's fiftyish. Slightly unkempt. Looks like he's been sleeping in Iris clothes ... [laughter] Longish hair.
And he's staring intently at this young woman sitting in one of those seats in front of the pole. She's reading a book. And she's very Bay Ridge. [laughter] You know, the big hair, the long nails, the tight jeans, smacking her gum.
And this guy is staring at her. And the rest of us are aware of it.
Stephanie: Right. A weirdo.
So, you know, he's making the rest of us a little anxious because he keeps staring at this girl and she's clearly becoming uncomfortable. She glares at him once or twice but he …