NEW YORK -- My reintroduction to the city came one recent Wednesday morning on the Goethals Bridge. Or, more precisely, on the approach ramp to the Goethals Bridge, where my family sat for a bloodcurdling 56 minutes in 95-degree heat amid a glistening sea of stationary automobiles.
What amazed me was not so much the delay, although after a while the 45 mph speed-limit sign in the hazy distance seemed to mock me. What was truly incredible were the drivers who sat calmly behind the wheel or stepped out for a cigarette, as though this were a momentary wait at the corner grocery. (If this had been Los Angeles, they might have stepped out to reload.)
Later investigation revealed that one of those tractor-trailer accidents had snarled traffic on the narrow, 59-year-old bridge from New Jersey to Staten Island. But the plain fact is that this happens all the time in New York because thousands of cars are forever merging into one lane to crawl past toll booths and across the city's phalanx of bridges and tunnels. One overheated car can cause a form of gridlock that makes the Beltway look like the Indy 500.
For a native New Yorker returning from Washington after more than a decade's absence, it was a fitting reminder about life in the nation's most densely populated chunk of real estate.
There are a thousand adjustments large and small that the repatriated New Yorker must make. People here regard non-New Yorkers with a surprising degree of suspicion. If you're from farther out of town than, say, Jersey, they sort of wonder whether you can survive in the Apple.
Without a New York state driver's license, for example, opening a bank account is more difficult than enduring an IRS audit, even when you simply want to deposit some money. I might have had an easier time had I told Citibank I was from Brazil and just wanted to borrow a few billion.
Lacking the requisite local license, I even suffered the indignity of almost being rejected by the neighborhood video club. ("Ya got a local phone bill? A lease? How long did you say you've been living here?")
It is a city of paradoxes. Far from the hegemony of Safeway and Giant, a shopper here can choose among Waldbaum's, Key Food, Gristede's, Pathmark, A & P and other supermarkets that plaster their specials across the front window. But the stores are so cramped you can't get the cart past the cash register.
I live near a 24-hour Waldbaum's well-stocked with seafood salad, sour pickles and other delicacies, but there was a long line even at 7 the other morning, the store echoed with jarring disco music and you couldn't get a parking space in the same zip code.
And another thing: No one seems to diet here, with the exception of a few anorexic types on the Yupper West Side. You can load up on endless pizza and corned beef sandwiches, but I have yet to find any low-cholesterol cheese or mayonnaise.
Here's what catches the eye of the newcomer: Sony Walkmans (thousands of commuters are wired for sound, apparently trying to drown out the subway's roar and other urban intrusions). Newsstands (with real human beings, a colorful improvement over those soulless newspaper boxes). Playground sprinklers. Handball courts. Hot bagels. Outdoor fruit stands. Beaches. Graffiti. Off-Track Betting. Honking horns. Billboards. Twenty-seven varieties of Chinese takeout.
Few people here care much about the federal deficit or deregulation or other policy concerns that dribble out of far-off Washington. Instead, aroused by screaming tabloid headlines and six local TV stations, everyone is always talking about the New York crisis-of-the-moment.
In the short time I've been here, a rapist has stalked the streets of Queens, a jury was reportedly intimidated into acquitting alleged Mafia cop-killers, a busted water main flooded lower Manhattan, a state senator was nabbed in an FBI sting and so on. No wonder everyone feels under siege.
But the overriding, overwhelming fact of life in this ethnic cauldron is the relentless overcrowding that traps rich and poor alike. Most people live vertically, in high-rise apartments, or in row houses without a trace of a backyard. At day's end, they pour out of those gleaming Manhattan towers like an army of ants, marching into subway tunnels, buses and cars for the slow journey home.
Hey, that reminds me. Did I tell you about last weekend when I tried to get over the Queensboro Bridge . . . ?