What’s in a name? If it’s “I’m from New York City”, apparently there’s sheer terror. Oh, I know – we’ve gotten tame. The glory days are over. The hellscape burned into the mind of a credulous audience watching “Fort Apache The Bronx” or “Frankenhooker” morphed over the years into “Friends”, “Sex and the City” and from there into so many romcoms you’ll never keep track. Fearsome gangs wearing ski masks or annoying hipsters trying to get laid? The global id is big enough for both, I think.
Even if New York carries less currency as a place you don’t want to mess with, the Bronx is still golden. Once upon a time, the phrase “We’re from the Bronx” caused jaw-dropping awe among young people who were active members of murderous gangs in Los Angeles, even when the Bronx citizens in question were Al at a tender age and his three nerdy friends.
They had come to LA to seek fame and fortune in the music industry; not one of them had face tattoos, weaponry, or gang signs. Didn’t matter. Just letting people know you were from the Bronx worked its subtle magic. After that, you could wear your underwear on your head, and the gang members patrolling La Brea with semi automatic pistols just assumed this was a powerful Bronx symbol, and would steer clear. It was before the internet – these days, I assume they’d look it up on Instagram now and then shoot you later.
Those days may be gone – sigh — but claiming New York as your city of residence, and the Bronx as your own personal borough will still get people to sit up and take notice. I can’t claim Bronx residency, of course, but I don’t have to, as these vignettes will prove.
The Suitcase Caper
Once upon a time, I was taking my two daughters, aged 3 and 4 at the time, to midtown for some treat. Forget what it was – probably I’d had my arm twisted about an outing at the old Toys-R-Us in Times Square, which was worse than a kick in the pants but better than a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese.
Anyway, we disembarked on a fine Sunday morning around 10 a.m. at the 42nd street station, just in time to see a woman struggling up the stairs with two suitcases almost as big as she was. Times Square was fairly deserted at 10 am on a Sunday morning back then, and it might still be – I wouldn’t know, as I haven’t set foot in the place since two-thousand-ought-seven.
“May I help you?” I asked her. Often, I can tell where someone is from by their reaction to an unsolicited offer to help them. Here’s how:
Germans tourists immediately point to their map and ask which way to a very specific address, such as “350 Fifth Avenue”.
Japanese tourists smile politely and either feign ignorance of English or decline graciously.
Non-German European tourists generally ask if this is the way to the “red” train.
American tourists, on the other hand, recoil as if I’ve just sneezed loudly and wetly into their cup of Dippin’ Dots, then say “no no no! We’re fine! Just fine!” Sometimes they do a three-quarter turn away from me, presumably to foil my attempt to steal their wallet. Too late – got it anyway!
At any rate, this fine day, Two Suitcase Woman held an internal dialog with herself that I could see projected in her eyes. “A New Yorker is offering to help. Run!” “But I have 2 suitcases and I can’t really get them up this staircase by myself!” She was stymied.
“Are you going to mug me?” she asked me, while handing over one of the suitcases. “Yes!” I yelled, racing off up 7th Avenue, clutching her container of valuable clothing from Walmart and i-heart-ny keychains to my chest, my children sprinting behind, cackling in approval.
Well, no. I reassured her by appealing to the innate sense of logic that I assume (perhaps wrongly) that most of us have. “I have my two small children with me, as you can see, and I’m old and asthmatic so I’m sure I wouldn’t get very far since this thing weighs a ton. Besides, I don’t really want your suitcase or the pallet of bricks I assume is inside. Do you want my help or not?” She apologized, said she did want my help, and we proceeded in an uneasy truce.
At the top of the stairs, her relief as I handed the valuables back unharmed outweighed her sense of shame at having suspected an innocent mother of preschoolers to begin with. I can hear her tell the story now, to nods of approval: “well, she WAS a New Yorker, after all!”
But wait, there’s more! On an ill-conceived jaunt to Madrid with the hub and his nutty Cuban friend, Illuminado Guzman(stage name: “Ronny Ransom”), we encountered a large, stocky bald soccer thug in the airport queue waiting to board the buses to Madrid proper. Skinhead tats, head to toe “West Ham United” regalia, almost incomprehensible East Enders accent.
As Al and Ronnie fetched the bags, West Ham Fan struck up a conversation with me. He had never been out of the UK before. Now, he was traveling into the depths of Darkest Spain to attend the wedding of a soccer mate. Since he did not speak Spanish, he was clearly out of his depth. “Oh, here’s my husband Al and his friend Ronnie now,” I said. “They speak Spanish fluently. I’m sure we can get you to the right station.”
“Oi fanks, wur y’fum?”
“I grew up in California and these 2 guys are from the Bronx”.
He blanched to the shaved ex-roots of his skinhead hair, then asked “they aren’t going to mug me, are they?” (yes, his diction improved).
“Probably not,” I said. Mind you, he had a good 60 pounds of muscle over Ronnie, who was of a slender, quicksilver build, barely tipped the scales at 110 pounds, and was burdened by a serious man-crush on Tony Iommi.
Ronnie and the Hub were amused and irked in equal measure. Every time one of them looked in Soccer Holligan’s direction, he jumped as though jabbed with a hot iron. On the bus and in the metro, he kept close to me (as the least obviously dangerous among us), and his relief when we finally got him to his hotel was sad to see.
Back when the hub and I were world globetrotters (thanks to him working for an airline) we’d been visiting the tourist sites in Egypt. On our last day, we landed in Cairo late at night for our flight back to JFK the following day. We’d booked an airport hotel and we could see it, right across the expressway. We wanted to stay there, because we had to rise at 4 am the next morning, and it had looked on the map like we could walk from the hotel to our terminal. Alas, the expressway blocked foot traffic, so we jumped in a cab.
Also alas: our cab driver assured us “his cousin” ran a better, cheaper hotel that was “almost as close”. No, we said, we booked the airport hotel and it’s right there. Just get us across the expressway so we can check in, shower and nap, because we’re flying back to New York in 4 short hours. New York City. Where we live. Hint hint.
Suddenly, we both realized the cabbie was not taking the ramp that clearly lead to the airport hotel, but the one that was pointing back to Cairo proper. We were being kidnapped, and taken as hostages to his cousin’s hotel, even though we had made it clear we were from New York. Even more alas: that news does not impress cab drivers in Cairo.
The hub and I reacted simultaneously. Before the car could pick up speed, I opened the cab door a crack and declared I would jump out right here, right now. The hub brandished some kind of Egyptian shillelagh we’d bought for my parents to use as a walking stick, and announced his intention to climb over the front seat and rap our driver smartly on the head with it. Many f-bombs were dropped. The cabbie begged me to close the door as he swung into reverse and backed into the correct ramp. In fact, he backed up all the way down the expressway, off the “on” ramp, and proceeded backwards into our hotel.
People always assume we didn’t pay him – but we did. Gave him a tip, too. After all, there were no hard feelings. He was doing his duty to cheat tourists, and we were doing ours to uphold the New York reputation. Stiffing a cab driver simply isn’t done….unless they try to cheat you on your home turf.