A biker busily rushes through the street swerving around taxi cabs and racing six-foot-tall MTA city buses. He shouts at it, slapping it on the side like a farmer slaps a cow. “Get moving, eh. Whaddaya think this is?” It’s 8 a.m., and everyone on the street seems to be in a rush. In fact, it’s rush hour. Yet everyone seems to have been up since the crack of dawn. They busily rush past each other. No one looks at anyone in particular. They walk, staring directly in front of them. Everyone minds their own business. The year is 2014.
I traveled back to New York in the summer of 2019 to visit a family friend. Surely, I was returning to the home I was accustomed to, a place where you could just be a number. I was shocked to find out, however, that it seemed all the locals had moved; southerners had migrated and seemed to have taken over the “Rotten Apple.” On my way back to JFK, I took the MTA bus to the airport. I remember dropping my toothbrush on the way off the bus. A bunch of riders stopped me and scrambled to pick it up for me. I was freaked out. A couple hopped out of the bus behind me and handed me my toothbrush. Somewhere between flight and fright, I managed a timid “thank you.” Where was I, anyway? Was this really New York or had the plane never left Tulsa?
When I moved from North Carolina to New York City in 2005, it was obvious to people that I was experiencing a culture shock. I was accustomed to waving at everyone in cars next to me because I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with people I didn’t know. But there are many differences between the South and New York City that I still had to get used to. For example, if one were to wave at a perfect stranger one would be branded a lunatic. There, the car horn was used for a variety of reasons — any reason except to say hello. The hustle and rush of the city differed from the slow and calmness of the South, even in the southern cities.
It was hard for me to have the courage to still be my Southern self, to step out of the city’s survival mode and be me. So you can imagine the feeling of betrayal when I arrived back in the “city that never sleeps” and everyone was nice. People said hello and looked at you like you actually existed. Even the long-time New Yorkers behaved as though Southerners infiltrated their thinking. It was a coup d’état of Southern hospitality, but instead of guns, they used roses to gain control. A conspiracy if you ask me.
As I spent time observing them once again, I realized maybe the change is all for the good. Before, I didn’t dare look up. Now, I look up and see that people are people everywhere. They get lonely. They love their headphones. They are nice. They stare. They need love — just like all of us. New York City had allowed me to understand beauty — to be beautiful was who you are, not what billboard signs said you should be. Diversity allowed me to see true beauty in all its different forms. I saw this in NYC.
2020 came with a lot of things many of us didn’t expect. A city that never sleeps, painfully empty— Times Square vacant like a western ghost town at the crack of dawn. A city missing incredible, amazing individuals whose loved ones are mourning in isolation. We are all people here. Southerners. Northerners. New Yorkers. And when the bikers and taxi cabs and pedestrians fill these streets again, I presume it will change even more for the better.