On Thanksgiving Eve, while most New Yorkers eagerly shuttled out of the city, I befittingly found myself glued to my couch in Alphabet City, alone, milking a bottle of wine. Solitary gulps couldn’t replace my family’s embrace but somewhere between the self-pity and nostalgia, I found a silver lining. This week marks my 2nd year of living in New York. Bottoms up!
Should the occasion warrant celebration or consolation? In the past month a number of authors have written emotionally wrenching tales about their breakups with the city. “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York At Age 24” likened the city to the overrated “prom king”. Most recently, “The Long Goodbye“- a NYT commentary on well-known writer’s broken love affairs with NYC – prompted me to ask whether it was time I cut the cord soon too.
2 years is not a long time, but it’s enough to begin embodying characteristics unique to a place. Certainly, my expectations of the city have evolved since day 1. I still remember arriving on a bus with an oversize suitcase that could barely fit in the aisle. Scurrying to the dinner I was late for (the beginning of a recurring New York theme) only to have my dinner date keep me waiting for an additional 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, I had learned an important New York lesson: never wait longer for someone than they will wait for you.
The rest of it reads like a once-poignant-now-trite Thought Catalog riff. But in New York’s defense – or perhaps I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving propaganda at this time of year – I’ve learned lessons which can only be attributed to New York’s hard-knock teaching style. Here are a few:
1. The city moves fast, but you still need to wait at the station.
*applies to more than just commute times.
People can respond to your emails in a heartbeat, but getting anyone to do anything is like moving a mountain. When you’re young, resistance finds you at every corner. You have to pay your dues.
In a literal sense, you need to add at least 20 minutes to a projected commute time because the R or F train will likely be delayed.
The moral is that plans, ambitions, and dreams often get derailed by unforeseen obstacles but usually (God willing) you get to where you need to be. It just takes patience and waiting for the train to come.
2. The city gets smaller, while the world gets bigger.
New York City is the center of the universe and there’s always people to meet. But as my network has expanded, I’ve experienced a shrinking of the “center”. This simultaneous shrinking and expansion of worlds is interesting. The more people I meet, the fewer degrees of separation I am from other people in the city (and the more I treasure my close circle of friends). Neighborhood establishments become part of the routine and former strangers become friends. New York City essentially becomes one big town and way more manageable.
Then I flip to an article on Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and never does anything seem farther away.
3. The hero is redefined.
Few places embody beauty, wealth, and status more than New York does. I arrived here as starstruck as the worst of Bieber groupies. But after meeting a handful of personal role models- some as impressive as I imagined and others rude as rats – I’ve had to destroy my gods. Working in media taught me that so much of what we see is a marketing blitz and once all the fluff is stripped away, well – celebrities are mere mortals too.
Perhaps because of the preponderance of celebrities in this town, titles and money are a dime in a dozen. What’s harder to find is genuine compassion, a desire to listen, and an ability to think deeply about meaningful issues. While I’m not immune to the allure of wealth and its impact (we all need to make a living), New York’s in-your-face inequality reveals the inflationary value of certain attributes and a gap in appreciation for the everyday heroes who display value beyond the short-lived hoopla of models, millionaires, and moguls.
For the past two years, I’ve raced to keep up with NYC’s speed, size, and glitz. It’s kicked my ass. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished overall: building a network within the tech and startup community, writing for one of the most-read US digital publications, working for the government of this grand city of cities, and most importantly, learning more everyday about this intricately woven world. While I have acquired certain archetypically New York characteristics, the hardest part about living here hasn’t been about becoming more assertive, professional, or socially savvy. It’s been refining the qualities that often aren’t associated with New York: patience, humility, and compassion. In its own prickly way, New York City has forced me to reconcile its somewhat contradictory nature (movement-stillness, expansion-shrinking, glitz-poverty) in a way that tamer cities simply can’t.
Saying “Goodbye to All That” is justified. For my friends wondering when I will leave, my answer is not yet. Two years ago, I came to audition. Two years later, I’m still perfecting my routine. I’m still naive enough to believe that, more than anywhere else, New York City is the place for reinvention. Tomorrow, I will say “Hello again, New York” – like I do everyday – and audition for the next month, year, future. The show is yet to begin.
Tell me one last thing. Tell me why New York. You could be anywhere with what you’re trying to do – find your place – but why NYC? L.A., Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, these would all work just as well. So tell me what it is about New York that you love. Why it speaks to YOU. Don’t give me a watered down Woody Allen script either.
I decided to write you about New York, strategically, in its absence. I’m not there now; in fact, I’m situated smack in what you may call its antithesis along a windy path bordering the Smokeys, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here it seems like God is about to turn the seasonal switch, with time teetering gently between the late night shouts of children enjoying Summer’s last call and the swaying trees beckoning Fall’s cool breeze. It’s beautiful.
So, why New York?
Being somewhere else has forced me to recognize its intangible value. Let’s be real – nothing absolutely pertinent to my existence is strictly in New York. I can find anything I need in any other big metropolitan city (with the exception of a really good slice of pizza and the view from the Brooklyn Bridge) but even then, there are suitable (albeit sub-par) replacements.
So, the real question then becomes, why do I belong in New York? Because at the end of the day, all we really want in anything – a significant other, a friend, a career, a city – is a sense of belonging.
It boils down to a few things:
In NYC, I have two walking limbs – rusty and badly in need of a massage at the end of the day – but dependable. They’re just like the New York subway – slow, dirty, and always running late – but they get you where you need to be.
NYC is a city for walking simply because you can. If you really wanted, you could walk from the northern tip of Manhattan (Harlem) to the southern end (Wall Street) – all 16 miles – and be back in time for dinner. What a sight you’d see along the way! In New York, I have to place my feet on the pavement, feel the hard concrete beneath and the subway rumbling below. Jumping in a car is not an option, unless you’re rich and can afford a car or a hefty cab fare. In other cities, there’s the luxury of escape, A/C, silence. IN New York you walk because you have to, and it’s sometimes (actually, usually) really annoying because all you want is to sit and go for a drive and listen to your music in peace without all these barking wannabe comedians, pesky tourists, beggars, germs, not to mention the unmistakable smell of crap at the Chinatown subway stop…but you walk anyway.
In the griminess, you are forced to face an unfair world. There’s no easy drive to the gated community. Rich and poor, you see it all and with each pounding step, you hurt for the city. And so, you own it.
Better than the public transit system are the people you see on it. One night, near midnight, I was nodding off on the train when an odd-looking trio entered. They looked nothing short of the Circus Freaks from Big Fish: a morbidly obese woman, a dwarf, and a gangly man (who looked all the more gangly next to the dwarf) with a scruffy beard. Within minutes of stepping on the train, the man began to howl like a wolf (in fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised had he turned into one) while the woman sang like an opera singer and the dwarf awkwardly stood there. There were 2 other people on the train who didn’t even look up. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream; the only other possibility was that I was going crazy. Eventually they got off, but it was one of the most bizarre things I ever witnessed.
I’m not saying that you should move to NYC to catch this midnight act. I’m sure there are similarly odd characters residing in other cities. But New York has a higher proportion of them. You’re bound to see an energizing and most interesting collision of cultures in the most densely packed American city.
Other memorable New York characters include the fashion-forward pink-haired women, the break dancers providing unsolicited stress relief on the N while crossing the Manhattan bridge, and the jovial Caribbean men spouting newspaper pickup lines. Seeing such off-the-wall characters means I cannot possibly be ashamed of my own weirdness because someone is sure to have already outdone me. Normalcy is relative; the city has seen it all. New York’s identity is neither classy Cambridge nor star-studded Hollywood; it’s all of the above, a hodgepodge of everything. I belong, simply by being me, a patch stitched next to the suited-up corporate executive overlaying the pink-haired fashionista sewn next to the Wolf Man. New York is a colorful quilt.
It’s what we crave. Brett Nelson sums it up best in 50 lessons he’s learned from living in New York.
Whatever shape the economy’s in, millions of people continue to pay an absurd premium to toil and escape in New York City. That’s because deep down—more than any specific satisfaction or vice—we all crave possibility. In that sense, NYC might be the world’s greatest brand: It makes you feel (goofy as it sounds) like anything can happen.
New York, Boston, L.A., Miami, Chicago – they are all stellar cities. Wherever you decide, you can’t go wrong, for your needs will be met. But my question to you – is life about meeting needs? Choose the city that makes you come alive. For me, it’s New York. I said it 2 years ago in this post, and I’ll say it again:
There has to be a reason I feel so happy every single time I come here. I feel alive. It’s not the same high I get when traveling; this feeling is more realistic, more sustainable. I still waver between feelings of sadness and exhilaration, exhaustion and caffeination, drunkenness and sobriety like a swinging pendulum. But I think the unpredictability is more manageable because my surroundings are….well, unpredictable. Walking through the streets, I skim through tongues, cuisines, and faces around the world; my stress dissipates in the bubble of anxious energy surrounding the city.
Now sitting in Chattanooga, things are calm and good. I can live here just fine. But this age does not call me to be just fine. When I’m back in New York I’ll fall in love all over again. That’s my NY.