I had been living in Manhattan for 4 months when I faced my hardest test as a budding New Yorker.
Originally from Oklahoma and then Colorado, I had wanted to live in the big city ever since I could remember. That dream led me to attend college at New York University, where I was a few weeks into the second semester of my freshman year.
In my quest to become a true New Yorker, I’d already passed some of the basic criterion: I could use the subway and walk no-nonsense through a crowd. I also knew to call it Sixth Avenue and not Avenue of the Americas. All this was child’s play compared to the challenge now before me: a trip to the ER.
Earlier that morning, I'd felt a dull aching in my lower right back, almost like a period cramp. Discomfort quickly turned into full-blown agony and after a short ambulance ride from the University Health Center, I was now at the hospital, alone, lying on a stretcher in the hallway. The pain was unbearable. The only thing I could do was writhe and whimper. I felt nauseous.
“On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced, how would you rate your pain?” A nurse stood over me in the hallway.
“Twelve,” I was past the point of acceptable public behavior, openly crying and moaning. Extreme pain will do that to a person.
I was put in a room and given an I.V. The pain gone, I was content, albeit bored. It was 2003, and my cell phone was just that: a phone.
My boredom faded when a doctor informed me that one of my urine tests showed I was pregnant, so he needed to take a blood test to be sure before I could have a CAT scan.
My boyfriend was all the way in Colorado. But. I’d just returned from winter break; it’d been like 5 weeks since we’d had sex. I took my birth control every morning, but I knew it wasn't 100% effective.
The doctor said I’d have an answer in 45 minutes. I looked at my cell phone: Should I call my boyfriend? No, if it’s negative, I’ll have scared him for no reason. I would be a big girl and brave it alone for now. I was now a New York woman, after all. I could handle a pregnancy scare on my own.
If I was five weeks pregnant, I’d be due in October, so I could finish my freshman year and then move back to Colorado. So much for being a New Yorker or acting on Broadway.
My boyfriend, the college graduate who still lived with his mother, and I could the life we’d dreamed about: two starving artists raising a family. Maybe we could even make it back to New York eventually.
I looked at my phone again: 35 more minutes.
Two hours later, I was in a wheelchair in front of a television playing The Munsters. I wasn't sure why I’d been moved, and there was still no word from anyone as to whether or not I was pregnant.
It was now dark outside. I could see out the window of the deserted waiting room onto the rooftop of a nearby building. Where was this hospital, anyway? What part of town was I in?
Here I’d thought I was some kind of big shot New Yorker, rolling my eyes at tourists who waited for the walk signal and chuckling at the girl on her cell phone who pronounced Houston Street like the city in Texas. That because my fake ID said I was 25, I must be a grown woman. “The bars in New York don’t close until 4," I sighed when I went home for Christmas and last call came at 1:30 a.m.
At the Denver airport, waiting for the train to the next terminal, I would shake my head in disgust as the other passengers rushed the train doors. Don’t they know to wait for people to get off first? No, because they’re not New Yorkers. New Yorkers like me.
A New Yorker who didn’t know where she was on the island of Manhattan, who still crumpled at the callous nature of other New Yorkers, like the ones in this hospital. Me a New Yorker? No. I was still a scared Midwestern girl who wanted someone to hold her hand. The closest I got was leaning against the nurse’s station, clutching the phone to my ear. My poor mother, calmly listening as her eighteen year old daughter explained through tears that she might be pregnant but she didn’t know and everyone in this hospital is mean.
Eventually someone came and took me to a room with a bed inside of what looked like a giant donut. There was a window into another room with lots of computers where a man spoke into a microphone and told me to lie down. Did this mean I wasn’t pregnant? I should make sure, right? But what if I didn’t want to be pregnant anyway?
And that’s when an adult thought swooped in: there could be a baby in there, and I might care about that.
“Um, excuse me? They had said I might be pregnant? And they were finding out before I could have a CAT scan?”
The man looked down and flipped through a couple pages. “No, you’re not.”
As the giant donut machine passed over me, so did the relief. I would finish my freshman year and eventually graduate college as planned. I would break up with that boyfriend and date other ones. I would move out of my dorm and into a real New York City apartment, work three jobs to make the rent and spend my twenties thoroughly confused about what I was doing with my life. I would get to become an adult without a baby forcing me to learn how.
I went through more New Yorker rites of passage. I learned the hard way that whatever I bought at the grocery store I’d have to carry home on foot. I installed a window AC unit myself when I discovered the reality of a summer in New York, and then I figured out how to layer in the winter months.
I also developed a true fear for that excruciating kidney stone pain. And when I had it again three years later, I knew what to do: I took a taxi to the ER, not an ambulance. My god-awful compassionless hey-maybe-you’re-pregnant experience would allow me to very much appreciate the kindness of everyone at the next hospital. By then I’d learn that New Yorkers aren’t really callous, just rough around the edges.
For example, when I was waiting at the ER, every chair was filled. It was going to be forever before I was seen. I rocked back and forth, hugging myself, trying to ignore the pain or move enough so that I could find some soft of position that was comfortable. I was back to that point of writhing and moaning in public, that I’m-in-so-much-pain-I-don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks point.
And that’s when a Hasidic Jewish man got up and walked over to the nurse’s station. I overheard him say something about the girl who should probably be seen next. He was talking about me.
This random stranger that had probably been waiting a long time himself spoke on my behalf. That is what it means to be a New Yorker. At first glance you might assume that they’re all self-centered, take-care-of-me-first, and nothing-is-going-to-stand-in-my-way.
But New York is really a series of small towns, pockets of neighborhoods where people look out for each other. A New Yorker is someone who won’t take any bullshit but who also won’t stand for someone else to suffer.
I say “they” because I no longer feel qualified to call myself a New Yorker. I now live in Los Angeles, a place where I would no sooner expect a stranger to speak up on my behalf than I would an alien to drop out of the sky. In New York everyone experiences the trials of daily life together: the weather, the crowded subway train, the delayed subway train, the subway train that doesn’t seem to be moving anytime soon. In Los Angeles we’re in our own individual bubbles that we call cars and freely haul loads of groceries while enjoying a little air-conditioning.
Perhaps I’ll get the chance to be re-inducted one day. It might take some practice, and I may catch myself waiting for the walk signal. I will again be a baby New Yorker, but a New Yorker all the same.