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Whoopi Goldberg on loving and learning from New York City

By Tiffany Gibert
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We've asked you before: Are you ready to say goodbye to NYC? (Seriously, go take the quiz and find out.) Or can you, perhaps, never say goodbye to our fair city's beautiful buildings, food trucks and freaks? A new book, Never Can Say Goodbye, compiles essays from New York notables, from Elizabeth Gilbert to Phillip Lopate, about why they will never, ever, ever leave New York (at least in spirit). You can see editor Sari Botton and contributors this month at Greenlight Bookstore on Wednesday, Oct 15, and at Strand Book Store on Thursday, October 23.

But first, we've got an exclusive excerpt from the book: Native New Yorker Whoopi Goldberg's essay, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in New York City." Keep reading for some seriously moving city pride.

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All I Really Need to Know I Learned in New York City by Whoopi Goldberg

The first time I went to Europe, I visited Germany with my boyfriend, who had family there. I was very young and hadn’t been many places—this was way before I was famous. As soon as we arrived, I had this incredible revelation. “Oh, my God,” I said to his family, “I know all about this area! The food, the language. I know all about the Schwarzwald,” the Black Forest. They were stunned. “How do you know about this?” they asked in disbelief. And I was like, “Please. I’m from Chelsea.”

That was the first time it dawned on me how much I knew about the rest of the world, and how prepared I was for it, just from growing up in New York City—that I had been everywhere before I’d ever actually gone anywhere.

I grew up in the Chelsea Projects, 288 Tenth Avenue at Twenty-Sixth Street. A lot of kids there were first-generation Americans with immigrant parents who were still speaking Yiddish or Chinese or Spanish or Portuguese or Russian, or just name a language and they were speaking it. You had to be able to speak a smattering of everything to be able to say, in the language of the parents, “Hello, Mrs. So-and-so. Is So-and-so at home? Can she come out to play?” You ate every conceivable food from the rest of the world there. You were exposed to all different kinds of traditions.

It wasn’t just the projects. The whole city was a classroom—a big, fun, exciting classroom. All over town, you learned stuff you didn’t even know you were learning. You didn’t have to be rich to learn it either. My mom was a teacher—a great Head Start teacher—and she made sure I partook of everything New York had to offer people who didn’t have any money, because she knew it was the greatest education in the world.

I’ll never forget when the World’s Fair came to Flushing Meadows Park in 1964 and 1965. The theme was “Peace Through Understanding,” and that was the first place anyone ever saw “It’s a Small World.” If you lived in New York City, that was true—it was a small world. The logo for the fair was blue and orange. To this day, any time I see those colors together, it means the World’s Fair to me. There was also Freedomland USA, a sort of Wild West US history–themed amusement park in the Bronx. That was the craziest place!

We went to all the museums, which were free back then. In the summertime, we’d go on the Circle Line, and over to Liberty Park, and my mom would have us walk all the way up to the Statue of Liberty’s crown. Or we’d take the train to the beach in Rockaway or Coney Island. One of my favorite memories in life is when my mom would say to my brother and me, “Okay, you guys, I thought we might go to Coney Island today.” I loved Coney Island so much. We’d pack sandwiches, walk to Eighth Avenue, and get on the train to Brooklyn. When the train came out into the daylight, I remember tingling with excitement. It was like, We are on our way to Coney Island!

There was so much I could do on my own too. I was independent from a very young age. Back then, the world felt safer. As a kid, you could leave the house at nine a.m. and not see your parents until six p.m., and they’d never say, “Where the hell were you?” Your parentswould put you out of the house to get fresh air, and they didn’t want you back in the house until dinnertime. They didn’t want you sitting around when there was so much out there. They wanted you going to the museums or to Central Park: that was the people’s park. You could ride the carousel there or have picnics and listen to music on the lawn or, in the winter, go ice-skating. (I still love going to the park, maybe sitting down there with a slice of real New York pizza or a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya. Those hot dogs have snap to them!)

You could ride the bus for five cents right on up to Lincoln Center, before it was Lincoln Center. You could watch dancers dancing there, getting ready for West Side Story before they performed that night. You could see famous people walking down the street in New York. We would just wave and say “Hey!” and if you were lucky, they’d say “Hey!” back. If you were a walker, which is what I was, you could walk up to Forty-Third Street and watch actors leaving the theater. You could see James Earl Jones, or you could see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton dashing into their car. In my neighborhood I’d see Rip Torn and Geraldine Page—that’s where they lived. It was very exciting.

Now I’m the one who gets accosted when I’m walking down the street or when I’m hanging out in Central Park. But people are okay with me. They’re respectful. They’ll wave and say “Hey,” or they’ll come up and ask me for my autograph. And most of the time, I give it to them. I was taught very early on that it’s a big deal when somebody comes up to ask for your autograph. It’s taken them a good ten minutes to work up the nerve to talk to you. And they’re thinking, “Oh my God, I hope they are the person I want them to be.” I really do try to be the person they hoped I would be.

And I like to think I’m the same person I became as I grew up here. New York City played a big part in making me who I am. It’s where I learned that I could pursue whatever I loved but that I couldn’t be a slacker, because everybody else here was hustling. People are hustling at their jobs, hustling on the train. Musicians give you concerts in the subway station. There are artists who are hustling their work outside. If you want to make it in this town, you can’t fuck off. You have to be present. You have to keep moving.

And you have to do it with your head up. Because if your head is down, you walk into people. You keep your head up, like you own the street. Like, “That’s right, I’m from New York.”

Besides, if your head is down, you miss everything. Things change, and you don’t notice—don’t notice that they finally finished the West Side Highway (I am grateful they did because it seemed like it took ninety years to do it!), don’t notice that the hospital you were born in is gone (I was born in Saint Vincent’s), don’t notice that there are no more carriage rides around Central Park. (I will miss those. When I was growing up, whenever something good happened, you did that. Whenever you wanted to show that you cared about somebody, you took them in the carriage. That’s what you did. You went clippity-clop.)

New York is a vibrant city. It’s everything you’ve heard it is. It’s crazy, it’s horrible, it’s magnificent, it’s beautiful. It’s hard to become a real grown-up in, because it really lends itself to a good time. It’s a real live wire, hard to leave, like a living, breathing entity in your life. Since the 1600s, New York City has been communicating with everyone who comes here, putting out information. Like, “Hey, we’re New York, and this is how we do things. Come if you want to. But don’t be surprised when you get sucked in.”

Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted with permission.

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