For the record: I’ve never actually lived in New York City. In fact, when I wrote the chapters about Dexter Peterson living in New York City, I lived in Nashville and had only been to the Northeast once or twice. Now that I live in Boston, I almost feel like a traitor for opening the new album with what is effectively a love song for the Big Apple. Sing this song on a Green Line train after a Sox game and you’re likely to get more than just dirty looks.
No, I had good reason to start the story off in the distant, foreign land of NYC, but first I needed to dispel a lot of my own misconceptions. I know I may sacrifice “street cred” by saying this (even more so than putting “street cred” in quotes), but I’m strictly a middle-class suburbanite kid. For the past few decades I’ve awakened to the sounds of birds and lawnmowers, not car stereos and construction crews. To put myself into Dexter’s shoes I had to learn something about the largest city in America.
Don’t Believe Everything You See
I’m probably not the only one who based his impression of New York City on movies and TV shows. If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and 100,000 episodes of Law and Order are my guiding documentaries, then New York City is actually a pretty easy place to understand…
- The subways are controlled by roving street gangs who spray paint everything within reach and threaten everyone with guns and knives.
- Homeless people constantly wander around yammering to themselves and harassing people for change.
- Every street is littered with… well, litter. And people sleeping in boxes, used needles, obvious hookers…
- The sewers are infested with ninjas and Ron Perlman.
- Making eye contact with anyone, anywhere, for any reason will get you shot, stabbed, or both.
Big Apple residents, stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Maybe all stereotypes are formed around a grain of truth, but my few experiences actually visiting New York have been nothing like this.
Yeah, it’s crowded. Duh. But the impersonality of a major metropolis doesn’t completely degrade everyone’s sense of humanity. A suburbanite like myself has to get used to things like coffee shops with no bathrooms and traffic that ignores lines and signs, sure. The noise level is much higher and it never stops, but it’s not like Mayor Bloomberg has mandated that at least one jackhammer per square block must be running at all times. It’s just… busy. The subways are dirtier than Boston’s, but at least they run all night.
Where No One Knows Your Name
The important thing I noticed about the people of New York, though, is that they don’t care about you… in the good way. So many people from so many different parts of this planet live in such a small area that nothing really seems out of place. You can see a flaming queer in rubber shorts, an Orthodox Jew, an African in a dashiki, and a Muslim couple complete with long beard and hijab all waiting for the same bus. And nobody’s trying to kill each other (mostly they’re all just noses-down staring at their iPhones anyway).
Dexter could bump into all his former and future lives right there in Manhattan and nothing would seem out of place- WWII uniform, Antarctic parka, 1970’s lab coat, powdered wig… He wouldn’t even need to be near Broadway for people to accept such variety and move on with their lives.
Dexter himself grew up in Suburbia, just like me, but the Big Apple seemed like the best natural camouflage for someone living as thousands of other people. If he ever wakes up at home and can’t quite shake the effects of his previous life, he could still venture outside with little chance of anyone calling the police. I doubt he’d be able to do the same in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota.
Writing About What You Know
There’s no way I could claim to know what it’s like living in NYC, even if I grilled Ariel Hyatt for info. Then again, there’s no way Gene Rodenberry knew what space travel was like or Anne Rice knew what living through multiple centuries with no sunlight would do to a person.
I do, however, know what it’s like to feel lost. I know what it’s like to miss my home and my routine. I know what it’s like to be afraid of commitment and what it’s like to be self-centered. I know what it’s like to open up to someone for the first time and share secrets you wouldn’t even admit to your cat.
I know what it’s like to fall in love when you least expect it.
Like all science fiction and most adventure stories, The Lives of Dexter Peterson isn’t an autobiography. While “living in New York City” is a perfectly attainable feat, in my case it’s merely a backdrop to what’s really happening: A young man is lost in his own search for identity and no one- not one of the millions of people he calls neighbors -can help him figure out who the hell he really is.