A favorite pastime of many New Yorkers is kvetching and kvelling about daily struggles and comparing them to people around us. Often, the comparison becomes a competition. If you are not familiar with the Yiddish vernacular that is peppered into the conversations of New Yorkers, Jew and Gentile alike, I will teach you the necessary terms.
Kvetch - verb: to complain habitually : gripe
Example: “Rachel is always kvetching about her nephew who won’t get a job and find his own apartment.”
Kvell - verb: to be extraordinarily pleased; especially, to be bursting with pride
Example: “Rachel won’t stop kvelling over her son who was recently accepted to law school, much to the dismay of her knitting club.”
As odd as it may seem to outsiders, these two actions are usually performed in tandem, and sometimes applied to the same topic. There is a subtle art to master in complaining about a thing while also turning it into an object of pride.
Maladies and Ailments
Among friends and casual acquaintances, discussions of physical discomfort are as common as commenting on the weather. New Yorkers delight in sharing war stories about the realities of living. Such conversations can escalate into competitions to see who can claim the worst affliction that was suffered in “silence” while life went on as usual.
As an example, I meet with my good friend M every Thursday, and we reserve at least ten minutes to discuss our current bodily afflictions over a drink. If we can’t fill the time with our own afflictions (which is rare), we will invite the bartender to join the conversation. In doing this, we gain new stories to share in future conversations with others, so if our own ailment isn’t applicable, we can at least borrow from a friend; thus earning credibility by proxy.
There are levels to which conditions are appropriate in a given situation. Below is handy reference that will aid in avoiding a mis-step.
(A) New or Casual Acquaintances and Co-Workers
Cold, flu, stomach virus (without gory details), minor injuries, minor genetic/hereditary defects, dental procedures, optical problems, ravages of aging (without gory details), rumors of upcoming pandemics and unusual cures.
(B) Outer-Circle Friends, Extended Family Members and Significant Others of Friends
Section A, plus: Gastro-intestinal distress (in limited detail), parasites, minor medical procedures and socially-acceptable mental health problems (i.e. Seasonal Affective Disorder).
(C) Inner Circle (choose wisely!)
Sections A and B, plus: Gastro-intestinal distress (in full detail), colonoscopies, sexual dysfunctions and/or other related health concerns, weight struggles, substance abuse, taboo mental health problems (i.e. suicidal/homicidal thoughts), documented allergies, full details of medical procedures, incurable or terminal illness and favorite medications.
There are also certain topics that are never appropriate and best kept to oneself.
Self-diagnosed allergies or gluten intolerance, veganism or any other voluntary food restrictions, aromatherapy, involuntary weight-loss and humble-bragging (i.e. “I can eat whatever I want and never gain a pound”).
In a metropolis of five boroughs connected by trains, ferries, bridges and tunnels, getting from one place to another is often a process fraught with strife. Between signal failures, track maintenance, re-routes, unscheduled police investigations and “passenger emergencies,” it is common to experience delays multiple times in a day.
Even though these struggles are universal and common, we never tire of sharing the horror stories. They transform even simple tasks, like going to work or picking up groceries, into epic adventures and heroic tales, the best of which should be retold in three minutes or less (because who has time?). Unlike our suburban counterparts, mundane things like buying milk, stamps and laundry detergent in one outing might require three separate stops and more than one method of travel (i.e. bus to subway to foot).
Rather than feeling deflated by the extra effort required to live our lives, real New Yorkers are energized by the challenge and feel triumphant. This reality of metropolitan life inspires us to kvetch over the conditions of our struggles, and kvell over our resilience and determination. There is also a hidden bonus to the constant unreliability of our transit system, which is the socially-acceptable practice of blaming one’s own tardiness on the Metropolitan Transit Authority, when in reality: you just overslept.
Thriving in New York is not cheap. This is evident in the astronomical prices of generic pain relievers at Duane Reade pharmacies throughout the city (who are they kidding?). Everything from french fries to electricity is set to its own inflated value that hovers high above the rest of America (with the exception San Francisco). This lead to the formation for the “Rent is Too Damn High” party founded by folically-memorable Jimmy McMillan in 2005 (Google it, you won’t be sorry). Although nobody likes relinquishing their hard-earned money, we do take delight in talking about it whenever possible. This gives us a chance to practice kvetching and kvelling simultaneously. Below are a few common expenses that are discussed frequently by New Yorkers.
In most places, discussing one’s rent is taboo, but not in New York. It is perfectly acceptable to go to a party and ask the host what they pay for the dwelling in which you are consuming free booze. New York landlords and realtors are a whimsical tribe, imagining that anything with four walls and a toilet above the first floor can be listed as a “loft.” A bathroom sink in the living area accessorized with a hot plate and microwave is imaginatively called a “kitchenette.” A fire escape constitutes “outdoor access.” Contact paper newly adhered to the bottom of a drawer counts as “renovation.” Each of these “amenities” has a price tag, and each of these added living costs give the New York tenant more to discuss in mixed company.
New York is a city of restaurants. New Yorkers, as a group, tend not to cook very often (see description of kitchenette above), so there is a beautiful marriage of supply and demand that makes a true capitalist smile. Restaurateurs throughout the city have devised ways of arranging very small portions of food on very large plates to make diners feel like they are being served a work of minimalist art, when in reality, they are just paying for “negative space.” Although the substance of the meal may be minimal, the bill is anything but.
Many New Yorkers have therapists. I think the only other American city that rivals New York in the amount of psychiatrists per capita is Los Angeles, for obvious reasons. If I were a smarter man, I would have become a therapist myself since I believe the only appealing reason to listen to someone discuss their feelings is for profit. Luckily, I am too poor to acknowledge my feelings, so I do without the luxury of mental health. If I were one of the many New Yorkers that throws their money into the black hole of the mental health establishment, you bet I’d bring it up every chance I could!
Dating and Romance
As in any other city, many New Yorkers are looking for love. Dating in the Five Boroughs is like going to a Sizzler. There’s an endless buffet, constantly replenished with new fare, but the more you eat, the sicker you become. Common challenges of dating in the city are the following:
Location, Location, Location
It is just as dangerous for someone to live too close as it is for them to live too far away. Although New York is big, it can become a very small town in relation to unwanted contact with an old flame. If you date someone in your neighborhood, you risk running into them too easily if things don’t work out, and it’s a big ordeal to find a new grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, local bar and subway route. On the other hand, if the object of your affection lives on Staten Island and you live in Harlem, traversing the New York Harbor on a boat to see them, regardless of how charming they may be, is too much to ask. My ideal relationship would take place on opposite sides of the park, two days out of the week with the stipulation of keeping separate friends and private bank accounts indefinitely.
Too Many Fish
Due to the abundance of options to choose from, many singles in the city become too choosy (myself included). Knowing that there are more than twenty million people in the New York Metro Area (including places accessible by commuter rail), it is difficult to overlook even small flaws in a potential mate. This makes for a culture of flaky singles with the nagging belief that they can always do better. It is for this reason, among others, that many singles in the city remain single, which is typically a much wiser choice.
One of the perks of living in New York is the opportunity to encounter new and exciting cultures. If you date someone from an exotic culture, what seems like a fun novelty in the beginning can quickly devolve into constant arguments over food preferences, media consumption and incompatible world-views. Unrealistic fantasies of meaningful cultural exchanges are usually tempered by the reality that past one’s early twenties, we become set in our ways. Rather than acknowledging that fact, it’s easier to find the other parties’ ways intolerable, and call it a day. These are not always insurmountable challenges, but the success rate of long-term union is not promising.
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Struggles make us who we are. They reveal our inner strengths and weaknesses, they steer us on our path of life, and they ultimately distill the “purest” versions of ourselves from the disjointed mess we begin with. People who don’t struggle enough are insufferable, which I know from experience because I have been to California. Rather than lamenting over our struggles, we should appreciate them, hold them dear to our hearts, perhaps even sit with them sometimes and tell them that they’re pretty. If all else fails, our struggles make good conversation starters, which anyone who spends time with the elderly, knows very well. So take pride in your life’s heart aches, love your past regrets and always remember that without them, you’d have nothing to fall back on when you’ve run out of witty repartée.