Multi-Genre Essay – Draft

Throughout the semester there seemed to be only one thing that I would return to, as we discussed the triumphs and tumults of the city I now call home. What made New York City special? What made the people special? How do I earn that level of specialty – are there steps that I can take? Is it as simple as a wardrobe change, or must I reinvent myself to begin with?

I have been nothing short of obsessed with finding the key that lets people claim that they are New Yorkers. I was born in a New York hospital, but I was raised in a no-smoke and golf clap misfortune of the quintessential well-bred town. I moved to the city in August, and I was eager to shed my skin and grow a new one. Of course, this left me vulnerable. I had yet to discover the moors of my new playground, and I wracked up as much information as I could. I pulled up countless Wikipedia articles on how to be a teenager in New York City, how to be a New Yorker, how to dress, how to act, how to exist. “Don’t stand in the sidewalk,” Wikihow warned me seriously. So I would move to one side of the sidewalk should I ever need to stop, and I would feel a spark of gratitude every time I felt the silent approval of my detour from the people around me.

It was when I came to John Jay that I met others like me; ones that had never truly experienced New York City. Students from New Jersey, Long Island, upstate, and even particularly sheltered students from Staten Island were nearly as clueless as I was. We would exchange tips, out loud or unconsciously, as I watched the map of New York City unfold in front of me, looking much more user-friendly.I kept a small running list on my phone of all the things I needed to remember, terrified that I would slip up, and that the real New Yorkers around me would be able to sniff me out, like foxes after a rabbit. Next year, I will be a peer advisor for the incoming freshman at our college. I know that I will be expected to share my own pearls of wisdom, the ones that I have burned into my brain.

Serving as more than a reminder to the students I will eventually counsel and me, my silly book of reasoning is a perfect way to examine the power of social construction around New York City. By interviewing a number of students that  were fresh-faced to New York City, I found that while experiences and perceptions differ, there are some rules that literally cannot be broken. This project proves that New York, while progressive and innovative, is still rigid in tradition. While some may complain about the tirade that New York is up against, the way it is turning corporate and Disney-like, the taboos of the city are nothing short of prehistoric. Even when crammed on the subway, it’s important for someone to have his or her space. If it’s an inch in front of their nose, they will fight for the right to have that space. I modeled my project after the Quantitative Analysis Report my group had completed – we practiced sitting too closely to people, to see how they would react. The volatile reactions seemed unpredictable at the time, but looking back, they seem obvious. Social construction bends a bit when moving into a different persona, but it never completely changes.

I phrased my tips with sarcasm, with absurd drawings and relatable situations, my audience would be able to understand that I was not coming from a place where I felt that I was a superior New Yorker, or that I was someone that pretended to know how to navigate the city. I didn’t want to be tacky or sentimental, but I wanted to stick little moments in my creation that I felt were important to say out loud. I let others read it, and I was pleased by their reactions. A few students laughed out at some of the pages, others eagerly told me stories about when they were in a similar situation, still others looked up at me and nodded in relief as I brought up points that they might have been too afraid to voice. This particularly came up in my suggestion about feelings in New York. “Sometimes you’re going to be lonely or sad and you won’t necessarily know why, but that’s really, really okay”, I wrote, to which students, new to the city and familiar with it, would agree, a smile spreading across their faces. This is one of the things that surprised me the most. I expected to find solidarity in the posts about stupid things, like tacos and cockroaches, not in the fact that it is okay to feel lonely sometimes. But this is how living in New York City can be comparable to summer vacation, or New Year’s Eve. There’s so much pressure to enjoy yourself, to be living your life to the fullest every day, that it is another unwritten rule to never express when you are unhappy or lonesome. I didn’t realize that the project I put together would give me this angle. Three students offered me moments when they had felt the most alone. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone at all, and I sat in my room and played Sims for a week before school finally started,” one confessed to me. Another – “I call my parents often because I really miss them, but I feel like such a loser doing that”. It’s egregious that we would force a generation to always be having fun – isn’t this what social media has taught us, that our lives must be as fulfilled as the statuses we make? This is why I added the complaint about the “Old New York”, the one buried underground with the subway, where the homeless would spit on your windows, should you refuse to pay them as they dragged a rag over them. We are the generation of New Yorkers people love to complain about, but we are never encouraged to breathe a word of discontent. It’s not allowed.

It’s an asinine task, to try to debate with the new social construction that the older generation has built up around us. We are stupid, and lazy, and we’ll find ourselves out of work and laden with debt. As my interviewed students told me about the things they had learned in New York City, we would reach the end of a laughing session and their faces would fall. Suddenly, I was being treated to a moment that I had not seen before, of frustration, of the feeling of failure. “Nothing,” one of my subjects told me a bit morosely (after he had listed numerous things). “I haven’t learned anything.” While this may seem as though it is childish petulance, it’s what we are taught to believe. “I Messed This Up So You Don’t Have To” is a glimpse into the way teenagers think, but more than that, it’s a window into how we survive. For teenagers, a project like this helps to reassure us that others are experiencing what we are, and that makes us feel so much less alone. The feeling of relief that I had when someone admitted to feeling alone sometimes was so palpable that for a moment I could not even speak, but the rules of this new city declare that we are not supposed to talk about this. People struggle to get to the city where the streets are made of gold every day, and we are failing our chance to take advantage of the opportunities the city is offering us. This project taught me that while our experiences are similar, it’s okay to have those similar experiences. “You’ll have to deal with bugs”, I had written. I felt silly writing this down – there were people that were starving, and I was worried about shiny winged things with too many eyes and stingers that could give me only modest, temporary pain. I didn’t want to admit to my fear. I’m a New Yorker, I’m not afraid of anything. Instead, people immediately launched into details of their own bug incidents, as we shared in the secret that we were afraid of bugs like schoolchildren passing a cigarette back and forth between them.

 

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