NEW YORK -- When you no longer notice the singing beggars on the subway, the verbal abuse in the streets, the endless elbowing as you walk down Madison Avenue, the garbage, the gridlock, the gum-cracking grocery clerks who act as if they're doing you a favor by taking your money, then -- and only then -- are you a certified New Yorker.
I guess I don't qualify yet.
When I arrived, I complained a lot about the traffic backups at every river crossing, which the morning radio tells me are utterly routine ("20 minutes at the George Washington Bridge, 15 minutes at the Midtown Tunnel . . . "). In the meantime, I've basically given up the automobile as a form of transportation. Now, I whine about the subways. (Like every New Yorker, I've begun exercising my constitutional right to kvetch.)
I no longer have illusions about getting a seat on the E train, regardless of the time of day -- the one time I actually came near an empty seat, an old lady pushed in front of me and grabbed it.
Now my best hope is that the car will not be so densely packed with strap-hangers that I will be unable to lower my arms enough to read the paper.
We have to share the subways with a new generation of tenacious beggars. I've seen panhandlers play the 53rd Street station with trumpets, guitars, violins, even a full drum set. But that's nothing compared with the disheveled guys who walk through packed subway cars crooning at the top of their lungs as they motion for spare change from their captive audience.
Riding the subways here has become risky business. Forget my earlier theory that things seem scarier in New York because the tabloids play up every incident. It is scary. Perhaps you've heard about the small problem we have with our subway doors, which trap riders as they squeeze into overcrowded cars and carry them along as the train leaves the station.
A 45-year-old woman was killed last month when her purse was caught in the door and she was slammed into the wall of a tunnel. Days later, a 60-year-old man caught his foot in the door and was dragged 75 feet before the conductor stopped the train. Similar incidents followed.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority responded that it will study the problem. Unlike those in other cities, subway cars here are specially designed to allow trains to depart while human body parts are wedged between doors, holding them open as much as 3 to 4 inches. Otherwise, officials say, people would forever be pushing their way in, and the trains would never leave. We couldn't have that, could we?
Not long ago, Orna Lewis, 41, visiting from Los Angeles, boarded an eastbound G train in Queens, unaware that it had made its last stop at 1:57 p.m. No conductor bothered to tell her as the train pulled into a dark tunnel for a layover. As recounted by The Daily News, Lewis, finding the doors locked, climbed out a window and onto the tracks, where she risked electrocution, ran along the catwalk and then climbed a stairway to what turned out to be an emergency exit onto Queens Boulevard.
Being an out-of-towner, she'll probably complain.
But there are some advantages to living in New York. Have you ever had difficulty with curt and unresponsive bureaucrats in the District government? We don't have that problem. Nobody in the New York City government below the level of police commissioner ever answers the phone. It either rings endlessly or you get a tape telling you to wait for the first available representative, who never picks up. Sometimes, you get a different tape saying the number is not in working order.
Even the Green Book, an insider's directory, is useless, because most agencies have changed their numbers and the rest list the main number at City Hall, which is always busy because Mayor Ed Koch is always on the phone.
There are also the cultural advantages. In my neighborhood, nearly every block of shops includes one with a big sign that says NAILS. I'm sure there is a place or two in Washington where a woman can have her nails done, but these places are everywhere here, and they're packed. I mean, row after row of women having red or purple polish applied to their elongated fingernails -- $10 for a manicure and pedicure, $30 for silk or linen tips.
The places smell like turpentine factories, and most manicurists wear surgical masks.
After hearing a couple of my early gripes, some New York chauvinists here became a bit defensive, saying I was simply feeding every Washingtonian's anti-New York bias. After all, they argued, what about the diversity, the excitement? Where else can you get a hamburger at 2 a.m.?
You know what? I don't care about getting a hamburger when everyone else is asleep. I'd settle for a haircut for under $25 and an occasional seat on the subway. -- Howard Kurtz