If you’ve worked at a bar recently — especially one that’s a 20-minute walk from NYU — then you’re aware of the mental preparation that one must go through before the night begins; and that’s what I’d do working as a bar-back on weekends, once I felt that game-time was soon approaching.
One night, during one of my meditative prep sessions (behind the counter and near the bathroom), some guy randomly walked up to me to say hello and ask me about my day. I assumed I knew this guy, otherwise why else would I be on the receiving end of a warm greeting? That wasn’t the case, however. I didn’t know this guy from a hole in the wall.
Once that realization set in, this dude must have misjudged the confused reaction on my face as a signal to beg for his life, because he put his hands in the air like I was pointing a gun at him. Then he took two steps back and said, “Hey, man! I was just saying hello.” To be clear, I never moved or said anything. There was never an intention to physically harm him. I just thought to myself, as I always have when strangers approach me, “who are you and why are you talking to me? I don’t know you. Go away.”
Perhaps that energy startled whatever frequency he operates in, but I didn’t care. That’s how I’m going to react to a stranger one hundred percent of the time. You might not agree, but for me, it’s a natural train of thought. I may appear to look angry, but I’m not. Everything’s fine. Trust me…nothing’s wrong. Most people find this disparity between face and feeling puzzling… until I reveal that I’m from New York — born and raised. This is the mental dichotomy between a New York native and everyone else.
Rakim described the psychology of a New Yorker perfectly on Mahogany, his romantic hip-hop escapade, when he said, “Everything’s fine, but I’m in a New York State of Mind.”
We live in an era where kids who were born after the mid ’90s have a romanticized vision of what New York was like in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’ve been told by teenagers and transients that they wish they could’ve lived in that City. These are the same people who are struggling to survive in this whitewashed version of New York, stressed out over a slow Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks. I’m sorry, but you’re not mentally built for that New York.
Living in that New York was like truly loving someone…taking the good with the bad. And trust me, there was a lot of bad. The ones that missed out on the old days would have had to take the crimes, robberies, and danger along with the culture, art, and music scenes which are so heavily revered online. Remember, all that creativity from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s didn’t emerge without struggle or fear.
I was born in the mid ’80s, during the Crack Era, where I caught the final act of a city in transition. This was before the attacks of September 11 turned this City into a police state, more or less. If a stranger said hello to you in 1992, you were getting robbed, assaulted or, in my case, as a child, kidnapped and raped. That’s why saying hello to strangers is, accurately, strange to me.
As a New York native, I acquired and developed survival skills that kept me alive in a drug-infested neighborhood, where blood on the concrete was a regular occurrence. Sure, I have some happy memories, but I also have memories of a man walking up to me, looking me in the eye and threatening to kill me. I had classmates — young girls — who were being cat-called by 40-year-old men, and some that were molested before they could read. Coming home from school was a game of survival. My mother once fled the burning building she lived in, with my newborn sister who was days old, because The Bronx was infamously burning. That was the city that I grew up in and called home.
It’s not farfetched to believe that I may be suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress. My ability to connect emotionally with others may have been affected, because I spent a majority of my life trying to make it through another day, unscathed.
Physically, I survived. Emotionally, I’m scarred.
So don’t be offended if I don’t show enthusiasm and smile when we’re greeting each other. Please, understand that “everything’s fine, but I’m in a New York State of Mind.”