Here I am, two years into living in New York City and finally feeling comfortable, perhaps too much so, in this place. The rumble of the subway only slightly registers in my ears now and a perpetual stream of honking becomes daily background noise. The steady hum of the city is energizing and comforting all at once. Once all the chaos begins to normalize and feel less so, it can be easy to fall into a routine in spite of it all. To go to the same bars with the same people, stop at the closest bodega to your apartment with those weird cookies, and walk the same route home each time. Yet it is when we deviate from our set routines, or simply keep our eyes open and ears listening, we stumble upon little bits of wonder and surprises that shake your world up, even if ever so slightly.
Living in New York City
calls for demands a shift in perspective.
Oftentimes, we go into situations expecting one thing and largely getting just that. New York City seems to have the opposite effect. Our perception of things can be deceptive, in the way most first impressions are wrong because we project who we think a person is over who they truly are. Just the other night, I found myself wrinkling my nose as a girl in white overalls pushed past us at a venue and began bobbing constantly in front of my view of the band playing. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when she hopped up on stage a half hour later, lead singer, keyboardist, and violinist for the headlining band and blew me away with the amount of pure emotion that poured from her voice and keystrokes. Hopping off the subway to attend New York’s Pickle Day, I had in no way anticipated three blocks filled with people as much in love with this strange food as I am. Joining a line for pickle truffles, it’s hard not to feel a little more connected in this city surrounded by others just as strange as you.
Unintentionally, I have explored all five boroughs that make up New York City, for reasons as varied as the boroughs themselves. Each neighborhood, vastly different from the next, isolated yet connected without realizing or by choice. Never did I expect to find one of the most beautiful of rose gardens in the Bronx, nor uninhibited screams at the top of the Cyclone at Coney Island, scarier than any other I’ve ever been on. As the entirety of the pier comes into view at the top, those screams turn to maniacal laughter. I felt alive, something I had not expected on a hundred-year-old rollercoaster.
It is there on the Coney Island boardwalk I am not disappointed by the “lack” of vibrancy it once held, but rather, surprised at the crowd of dancers, moving to the beat in one corner despite the rain. The old New York blends with the new here, a sense of nostalgia threads between old arcade games and Wonder Wheel, a faint hint at what used to be. Standing in stark contrast are concrete slabs scattered throughout depicting beautiful, tongue-in-cheek murals of current events. This city is always evolving, for better or worse, by ideas big and small. Similar to the many Christmas pop-up bars I convinced my boyfriend to go to, not much in this place is permanent. With this sense of unsettledness and fleeting windows of time, I believe it’s why people hustle harder. It isn’t easy to stay settled in one’s comfort zone here when the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet in a city that truly never sleeps.
Fierce competition breeds exceptional creatives.
There is intense competition in New York City, teeming with dozens of comedy nights, trivia, gallery events, or improv shows. While everyone looks to make a name for themselves, we are exposed to like-minded creatives that have similar ambitions and struggles to our own. Much like the serpentine layout of the subways, our journeys are not linear, which could not be more clear in a place like this. Living rooms are turned into concert venues, old flower shops into gallery spaces. New Yorker’s, or those who choose to call this place their home, do what they can with what they’re given, and turn a barren space into something beautiful.
Every experience we step out of our comfort zone to attend, whether it be an emotional audience-driven performance art piece, or human rights film festival, we reinforce the idea of creators supporting other creatives in their pursuits as we blaze our own trails. More people are writing, creating interactive gallery spaces, and booking gigs at the smallest of venues. I have heard more than once, that living in New York City can begin to feel limited for some in a way. Where they believe this city has nothing else to offer them and little to gain. Yet, oftentimes when a place feels small like a hometown might, we have yet to really explore underneath the surface to experience all micro-niches and subcultures that are bred here and give a pulse to this very place.
Just the other night, a stranger asked me to do a bump with him in the bathroom of a bar/music venue, and, as I told him to leave me alone, it reminded me how everything in this city is accessible at the nod of a head. It can be the biggest playground whilst having the toughest ropes to climb. The thought of so many others striving for the same thing and hustling harder than you can ever imagine creates a bit of an overwhelming feeling. It is a humbling experience to be surrounded by great talent, yet it is easy to be invisible in such a large city, where everyone is trying to rise to the top.
There is a large chasm between the very best in my industry and the worst, yet I have quietly made a home for myself somewhere in between. I am doing so many things I love, things that feed my soul, in a city that has had my heart for so long. The city is alive, and when I find myself slipping further into my thoughts, there is a strange comfort in knowing this place will not wait for me, nor anyone else.
I love this city, but am I in love with all that comes with it?
Living in Bushwick, I am lulled to sleep by sirens and constant honking. Guys take up residency on our stoop at all hours, becoming the guardians of the small section of sidewalk my building exists on. I’ve watched them play dominos some nights, handing slapping pieces down quickly, pieces moving faster than I can follow. Parked on street corners are shopping carts used by older women selling ears of corn and Italian ice. Everyone is always screaming, whether in anger or enthusiasm whilst catching up. I am so in love with this city, and despite all the growing pains that come with living in a big, dirty place where I find comfort in the chaos.
Surviving as a freelancer has left me in a weird position of sweating about refilling my Metrocard at times, but in other cases, having the ability catch up with old friends over street tacos on a weekday afternoon. I have had the freedom to watch the sunset from atop my roof, yet feel imprisoned in the very same apartment after witnessing mice dance on our soap sponge til’ sunrise. The charming little detail of wood trim everywhere became a complete nightmare when all the itchy bumps on my legs from after one long flight back from China, were in fact, bed bugs. That very same morning, hands shaking from the cold, I accidentally dropped my A/C unit out the window, crying as I thought I had crushed the neighbor’s dog three stories below. If I had only reached out for help, or annoyed our landlord more to finally turn the heat on before early December.
It’s hard not to feel isolated in those moments, sinking deeper into yourself, wondering why exactly you forked over that brokers fee in the first place. These past two years have been an exploration into what it means to have such extreme anxiety and dips into depression. I have felt so very alone, pacing the apartment and rubbing my legs until they’re bright red, waiting for the waves of a panic attack to wash over me and finally die down. It has taken four months, emails to sixteen therapists, to finally get an email back from one that is willing to listen. Every time I think I have a handle on my anxiety, I’m doubled over in front of my apartment, scaring even the biggest of guys hanging around outside as I begin to hyperventilate. Although I spend less time remaining in bed, watching the sun fade to darkness on my bedroom walls, it’s a long journey I’ve just started to walk.
Maybe I will grow tired of it all one day, unable to deal with the constant noise and grime.
But each time I walk to the subway and look down the street to view of the Empire State building gleaming like solid gold in the setting sun, I know that time is not now. The past year has been peppered with little moments that leave me feeling at peace. To have the opportunity to rollerblade with a somehow unobstructed view of Manhattan in the setting sun and in the same beat of feeling so in love with this place, I manage to fall on my ass. There is a sharp note of laughter that leaves me, as if New York City herself needed to remind me of where I stood. Steeling myself to get back up, I am once again knocked over, feeling as if this was some sort of lesson I needed to learn. New York City can be a beautiful, yet brutal place to live at times, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep showing up to get what you want out of it.
A bad New Yorker, and an even worse traveler?
My second year here has brought less exploration to new rooftop bars in the Lower East Side and more time stepping foot into other countries. Traveling to eleven countries in the past year, I couldn’t tell you the best coffee shop in my neighborhood to sit and work at. I’ve found myself anxious at the thought of attending a writing group down the street, yet book flights to distant lands without much research prior. It can be easier to feel invisible in a new country than potentially noticed in a place that thrives on the idea of being seen and heard.
Even today as I collected my thoughts on a walk, a man began yelling in my direction, ripping me out of my bubble. It was nonsense, telling me to keep walking and to get the fuck out of this neighborhood. How I was a piece of trash for even existing. All pleasant things, really. Smiling as I walked a little faster, it further enraged the man until I could hear his shouts turn to mutterings.
It was a swift reminder one needs to constantly be on guard, donning a hard exterior when stepping foot outside. Living in a place with constant motion and noise, it’s easy to become more aware of your surroundings, giving a wide berth to mattresses on the sidewalks (hello, bedbugs) or men with wild eyes on the subway. Yet with this constant need to keep a certain amount of walls up, I find myself missing out on opportunities to engage with others when I travel, assuming they want something, or are setting up a scam. In a place where there is more exposure to those who are unwell or unkind, it can be difficult to see how many people are good in this world while exploring elsewhere. Does this environment create a “bad” traveler, one that is already shy, but now is even more guarded and cautious of the world around her?
In the next year, I want to work to keep my arms open to new adventures inside the city, as well as elsewhere; to take a page from Anthony Bourdain and listen without judgment while truly hearing the stories from every walk of life in my travels. I have less of a desire to cross neighborhoods and to-do’s off a list for this place and greater interest in simply experiencing more. To focus on connection and conversation. I want to be a better friend by attending more events that would normally leave me complaining about navigating night service on the trains. By setting a goal to say yes to more, New York City begins to feel less lonely and more connected.
Finding solace in returning.
No matter how far I dare to roam, I will always find comfort in the sounds of entering back the realm of New York City once more. The blaring of horns can be heard even before reaching the final set of doors at JFK to the outside world. The chance of being run over by a taxi is ever-present, despite the signs and cross walk. I can’t help but smile. New York City, and everyone in it, will wait for no man. There is always comfort in being enveloped by the chaos and familiar unfamiliarity of this city once more. It is a brutal place to start out, but satisfying when it can be achieved. There is no certain future for any person nor place within the city, but those fleeting opportunities and moments are what make this place unique. And when I begin to itch to check prices on a new flight, I know this city will have some new surprises in store when I return.