Volume 79, Number 22 | November 04 - 10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

It’s scary what some folks think about New York City

By Kate Walter

I was riding New Jersey Transit from the Shore to New York City, and we’d just switched trains in Long Branch. The purple-haired woman in the seat in front was settling a large, odd-shaped contraption into the overhead shelf. I figured it was an art project made from white plaster, but when two young African-American women across the aisle inquired about it, Purple Hair described an elaborate Halloween costume. This was its mask and headdress. She was a part of a theme group from her dorm.

“Are you going to the parade in the Village?” I leaned over and asked.

“What parade?” she said, puzzled.

“You know, the big parade in Greenwich Village.”

“Never heard of it,” she said.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “It’s a huge tourist attraction, like Mardi Gras. People come from all over the area, like a million people. You should check it out sometime.”

I realized she was young, but all my nieces in New Jersey knew about the parade. To me, this would be like not knowing about Macy’s Thanksgiving Day bash. But that was my perspective as a queer resident of the Village, where Halloween is the ultimate gay holiday, sacred yet festive. I love going out that night, walking around, seeing the amazing costumes. But perhaps I had become myopic after living in the Village for over 30 years.

I opened my book, ready to relax, and Purple Hair declared, “I don’t like the city.”

“What don’t you like?” I asked, my back going up. “I love the city.”

“Too many shady people,” she said, basing her generalization upon a recent experience walking along 42nd St. from the Port Authority to Times Square.

“You can’t judge Manhattan from that,” I said, slipping into my role as New York City cheerleader. “People who live here don’t spend time in that area. You gotta visit real neighborhoods where… .”

“It’s not safe,” she insisted, sweeping broadly with no real evidence.

“That’s not true,” I said, getting testy. “New York is very safe. “Take it from me. I live there.”  I must have raised my voice because the guy in front of her turned around to see who I was.

“I didn’t like walking through Central Park,” Purple Hair continued, “to go to a museum, The Met.” (She’d been on a trip with her class from a nearby university.)

From the way she spoke, I expected an incident to back up her unsafe theory, but nothing happened, so why the apprehension? I didn’t get it. This altie/goth girl seemed scared, not scary. When I was a student in New Jersey, we went into the city for coffeehouses, concerts, raunchy plays.

“Central Park is fine during the day, but I wouldn’t walk through it at night,” I explained. (Although I did that last summer after the Bettye LaVette concert and the park felt safe. Not like the late ’70s when my pals and I got mugged after a show.)

“Well, I was born and raised in New Jersey,” Purple Hair said getting defensive, as if that explained her irrational fear of Manhattan.

“Me, too,” I said. “I couldn’t wait to move to the Village.”

“Yeah, the Village is cool.” It was the young black woman, dark skinned, glasses, short hair, dapper butch looking. “Everything goes on there,” she said, as I pictured her hanging out on the Christopher St. Pier with her friend; she was light-skinned, plump, with a pink bandana and pink hair sticking up. Maybe they were a young lesbian couple.

“I hate when people put New Jersey down,” Purple Hair said to me, apparently forgetting she had started this by trashing my adopted home.

“Well, I do defend New Jersey to my city friends,” I conceded. “Look, I don’t want to argue,” I said, knowing it was pointless. “Have fun on Halloween.” 

Suddenly, this drunk guy, a few rows back, stood up and started shouting questions about the costume. He was slurring words. I turned and saw a white man, about 35, clean cut, with a can of Bud waving in his right hand. Purple Hair stood up to address him as he staggered down the aisle, almost falling into me. She then explained loudly that her mask was worn by the physicians during the bubonic plague, although she took liberties with the design because she’s an artist. She went into details about the Black Death, the various strains, how the physicians went from house to house wearing masks. Just what I wanted to hear with swine flu in the news. The drunk got louder, making dumb comments and offering the black women a Budweiser.

“Don’t worry folks, I’ve got my train legs on,” he told the passengers, as he wobbled and grabbed a seat handle when the car lurched.

“Would you keep it down?” said a prim-looking older woman trying to read.

“Sorry, lady,” he said and slumped back to his seat. The car returned to order on its own, no conductor ever appeared. Purple Hair started chatting with the black women about how she planned to “move to Cali” to find work in animation after graduation.

The art major, who hated New York, got off at South Amboy amid the refineries — the stereotypical image of what people mock about New Jersey. The drunk got off at Perth Amboy. The two black women got off at Newark. I got off at Penn Station after a drama-filled, two-hour ride.  When I sunk into a cab heading downtown, I got that feeling I always get after a weekend away. I felt safe, happy to be home, living in a neighborhood where I never had to mask my identity… except on Halloween.

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