How to Complain Like a New Yorker

Friend and all-around maven Joan Warner is this week’s guest blogger.  She’s making me consider adding a new site tag: rants about rants.  You think complaining is easy?  Odds are you’re just a bush-league whiner.  True complaining is an art form:  Joan will show you a true master at work.

People born in New York City have mutant genes. Like the unique species of the Galapagos Islands, a similarly isolated and freakish environment, we developed our mutations as a result of natural selection. One is the Real Estate Gene, which compels us to base all

Which one evolved to complain the most?

decisions, including the most personal, on whether or not we’ll wind up with a better apartment. Another is the Complaint Gene. For New Yorkers, complaining isn’t really about achieving results. It’s great when our grievances are redressed, but the true goal is making an impact.

My friend Bruce, who was born on West 169th Street and still lives there, is so good at complaining that he does it even when he has nothing to gain. For example, last month he needed solar filters so he could watch the eclipse through his binoculars. Online, Bruce found that B&H, the famous camera store on Ninth Avenue, was selling the items he wanted for $24.95. He printed out the product page from B&H’s website and headed downtown. The store had the filters—marked at $21.95.

The Naked Cowboy watching for the solar eclipse as seen in Times Square in New York City, NY on August 21, 2017. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)

A non-New Yorker would have paid and left, perhaps feeling slightly smug about coming out three bucks ahead. Bruce did nothing of the kind. Brandishing his printout, he pointed out the price discrepancy to the sales clerk, who naturally tried to collect $24.95. Clearly, the man didn’t realize he was dealing with a New York native. “By law,” said Bruce, “if an item is marked $21.95 in the store, you have to sell it at that price.” He demanded to see the manager, and he didn’t leave until the manager went into the B&H database to lower the filters’ online price. Then, and only then, did Bruce pay his $21.95 and go home. “My work here is done,” he may or may not have thought to himself.

Then there was the time, some years ago, when Bruce needed a few shirts. He went into a men’s store on Seventh Avenue after seeing an enormous SALE sign in the window. “I found

A bargain at Sym’s!

some shirts I liked on the ‘sale’ table,” he recalls, “but they had no price tags.” So he consulted the person sitting behind the checkout counter. The shirts cost $100 apiece—$157.50 in today’s dollars, according to my inflation calculator—on sale. Why, Bruce inquired, were they so costly? The clerk pointed to the label. “100% cotton!” he said proudly.

Bruce thanked the man and went to Syms, the men’s store “where an educated consumer is our best customer.” He picked up two cotton shirts for $35 bucks each. End of story, right? Wrong. Bruce went back to the store on Seventh Avenue so he could show the clerk his new Syms shirts. He made the guy examine the labels and price tags. “100% cotton!” Bruce said proudly.

He says the incident gave him satisfaction, and as a fellow New Yorker I understand why. When you live in a town with 8 million other people, it’s easy to feel invisible and unheard. Complaining is our way of saying, “What do you think I am, some kind of sucker?” This is why the mayor’s office maintains 311, a complaint hotline you can call to vent about noise, traffic, vile odors, and other joys of city living.  Nothing ever happens when you call 311, but shutting down the hotline would put the city’s whole economy at risk. If New Yorkers couldn’t complain about the things we pay thousands of dollars per square foot to endure, we’d be suckers.


Joan Warner is a repeat blogger for Jane Explains — check out her wealth of knowledge about Free New York.  Unlike myself, Joan is a professional writer and journalist. Read more from Joan on her blog.

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