I grew up in the California suburbs where life was wonderfully orderly and serene. My childhood included a large, grassy, back and front yard with trees under which we would sit and play for hours. My mom was in a neighborhood carpool to drive us to school and the only interaction that we had with our neighbors was the occasional friendly wave exchanged while coming in or out of the house from the car.
But, that life is a thing of the past. Now, I am a New York City mom. Life with kids in the city is definitely not tidy, orderly and serene. It is however, always interesting, and now matter how many years I live here, the very essence of a New York City childhood continues to fascinate me. What used to be things that I only saw in movies, are now a part of my life as I raise my kids in the city. So, without further ado, here are is my list of childhood things that are a reality if you are a bonafide New York City kid.
1) Concrete, Concrete and More Concrete – When people call New York City a concrete jungle, let me tell you, they ain’t lyin’. Playtime for my kids involves the pavement. Whether my kids are playing at the park or running around in front of our building throwing the ball, their feet don’t leave the concrete. OK, OK, yes, some NYC parks contain the plastic looking miracle that is astro turf, but it is not even slightly a substitute for luscious, soft, green grass. The main difference that separates astro turf from concrete is that you get an itchy plastic rug burn if you fall on it, as opposed to a bleeding open wound, like you get if you fall on pavement. So, astro turf certainly has its utility, but let’s be real, it still sucks. So, if we want to escape parks filled with concrete and astro turf, and play on real grass, then we go to Central Park or Riverside Park. And yes, we go there for the grass. Because if you are a New York City kid, accessing a “legal” type of grass to enjoy involves public transportation and a day trip.
2) People screaming out of apartment windows – NYC is so crowded that no matter where your kids play someone is going to hear them outside their window and be bothered enough to yell out at you. I am sure that this bit of news comes as a shock, but there happen to be a lot of cranky, angry sourpusses in NYC. Maybe it’s the crowded living conditions, or maybe it’s the searing heat in the summer or the bone chilling cold in the winter, that cause New Yorkers to scream at kids from their windows. Whatever it is, adults can get downright crotchety about kids playing around their buildings. Apparently, this is because these very people yelling out their windows popped from out of the womb straight into adulthood, and themselves never made noise as kids outside on the streets of New York. In my book, if it is the middle of the day and you require absolute silence, then invest in earplugs and stop yelling at the kids outside, you cranky pain in the ass.
3) Old ladies ask you to help them feed the pigeons or the squirrels – First off, these ladies are usually half to full blown crazy. Sometimes they are crazy in a lovable way and sometimes it’s crazy in a “I was just discharged from Bellvue Psych Ward” kind of way. If they happen to be a squirrel feeder then they are usually carrying a bag of peanuts around and calling out to the squirrels in this low ticking “ki-ki” sound. If they are pigeon feeders then they are usually sitting as still as a statue on a park bench and holding a sack of seeds. Now, the mean bird or squirrel feeders will give you a look that screams “STAY AWAY!!” similar to Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. However, the friendly ones, though perhaps mentally unstable, are more than happy to interact with children. They will gleefully offer some peanuts or seeds to your young kids and delight in watching them interact with New York City’s version of “wildlife” while chattering away in a high pitched and excited tone about the weather, the crowds, the no-good mayor, etc etc. I usually try to keep my kids away from these ladies because sprinkling seeds and nuts on the ground in NYC also happens to feed another population….and that is the rat population, of which I am not too keen. Still, sometimes I give in because 1) my kids love feeding the animals so much and 2) let’s face it, during that time I can check my phone for an uninterrupted five minutes.
4) You learned to hail a cab by age two – When my son was three and I told him that we were about to “take a ride”, he looked at me and asked “Shall I hail a cab then?” Yes, he said it that way. He was also on a British cartoon fix at the time. Anyhow, “car rides” mean cab rides for most New York City kids and there is nothing that kids in NY love more than to try to hail a cab with you. Unfortunately, taxi drivers are not so keen on picking up parents with kids in NY. This is due to the messes that kids make with their snacks, crumbs and juice boxes spilling about in the cab. Add that annoyance to the time that it takes parents to load their diaper bags, purse, shopping bag, strollers and kids in and out of the cab and it is no surprise that cabbies routinely zoom past families with kids. So, your best bet as a NYC parent is to try to block your kids from view whenever possible when hailing a taxi. After beating out five other people on the block who were also trying to hail the same taxi, your kids will delight at their cab ride through the streets of New York.
5) You know the subway map and the NYC bus routes so well that you could give directions to tourists – My four year old son loves nothing more than studying a subway or bus map. He follows the different colored intersecting lines with his fingers and asks me about the different stops in the five buroughs of NYC . The other day we were at our bus stop and a tourist asked which bus was coming to go uptown and my son told him the M15 was coming soon. Yes, my four year old was giving transit directions to a tourist. It was a proud moment as a NYC mom, because of course, this is an essential life skill for the NYC kid who will grow up giving directions in this town.
6) You can spot a tourist vs. a real New Yorker by age four – Last month I was behaving in my normally impatient manner, trying to move past a large backpack wearing group snapping photos in the middle of the sidewalk in midtown Manhattan. My four year old looked at me, shook his head and said “Ugh, tourists! Why don’t they move to the side of the sidewalk so New Yorkers can move by!” I was honestly a wee bit surprised. I don’t think I knew what a tourist was as a suburban child until probably sixth grade. But a New York City kid passes by tourists daily and can easily spot them and their funny hats, large cameras and backpacks from a much earlier age.
7) You are obsessed with firetrucks because there is a firehouse on every other block – In NYC, the firetrucks also respond to some general emergency calls so they are literally EVERYWHERE in the city. There are also firehouses all over the city. So it makes sense that because the typical New York City kid sees firetrucks go by all day long with firemen hanging out the windows, rushing past with lights blazing and horns blasting, that they love firemen. In fact, because of their hard work during 9/11 most people in New York love our firemen. I love the FDNY for all of their hard work, but I also happen to love them for an entirely different reason. My reason is because firemen are hot. I mean, honestly, what woman strolling the streets of NYC while pushing a stroller doesn’t need a little midday eye candy? When the fire trucks go by it’s fun for the kids and fun for me too. I’d call it a definite win-win situation.
8) You stop in Starbucks with your parents five times per day because it’s the only place in the city that your mom can guarantee to find you a clean bathroom – I honestly have no idea what New York City mothers did when their children had to use the toilet before Starbucks took over every block of NYC. Their kids must have peed in the streets because it is next to impossible to find a reliable bathroom anywhere else in this city. Unless, of course, you are dining at a restaurant, which no New York City mother wants to do with a gaggle of screaming children, anyway. Now, I know that many people are anti-chain stores and equate Starbucks with the devil. But, if you have to pee in NYC then seeing that green and white Starbucks sign will represent your impending bastion of relief. Plus, you can ply yourself with multiple shots of coffee while waiting to use the bathroom there. For that reason, each time another Starbucks opens in a different location in NYC, I jump for joy and thank God for another spot to bring the kids to pee.
9) You don’t go to the pool in the summer, you strip down to your underwear and run through the sprinklers with the other city kids – A day floating in the pool is for the pampered suburban kids. New York City kids run barefoot on the concrete and splash around the sprinklers and fountains that the city now thankfully includes in most NYC parks. Sometimes, you just strip your toddlers down to their underwear to go in the sprinklers because at times you may be walking past the park on the way to somewhere else in the middle of the summer and the heat radiating off of the city streets is so intense that you cannot take it anymore. So, you simply pull your stroller into the nearest park, strip your kids into their skivvies and let them run through the sprinklers. OK, let’s be honest, sometimes it is so hot that you yourself as the parent run with your kids through the sprinklers…fully clothed though, because even though you live in NYC, you aren’t that crazy.
10) You share a room with one or two siblings while your parents sleep on a pull out couch in the living room – In NYC real estate is insanely expensive. The rent on a two bedroom apartment can easily run upwards of $5,000 dollars per month. So, parents make do as best they can, which means siblings co-exist in bunk beds in one room and if the parents can’t afford a two bedroom apartment, then they sleep in the living room. In NYC, no one shocked over this arrangement. It’s not a relaxing set up, but New Yorkers are a tough bunch and they make it work. My husband grew up in NYC and shared a room with two other siblings and somehow managed to survive. In fact, he still thinks he had the best childhood in existence. Home life may involve a cramped apartment but luckily there is always something going on outside or around the city for a New York City kid to do.
What does all of this mean? Well, childhood in New York is a unique experience. On one hand, you have world famous museums, theater, art and culture at your doorstep. But, you also have crowds, lots of concrete all around and you live in an apartment with a bathroom smaller than a suburban kid’s walk in closet. It’s not always easy, but a New York City childhood is pretty interesting. And when I meet people who grew up in this big city they usually tell me that there is no other place that they would rather have been a kid, than in crazy, crowded, fun and exciting, NYC.
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