In what almost feels like another lifetime, I lived and worked in New York City. It’s something I think about a lot, especially when people here in France ask me where I’m from (the suburbs of Boston, technically) and what I miss about my hometown and city (not much). I do miss a lot of things about New York, however, even though I only lived there for about three years.
New York City is crowded, people know this. But if you haven’t lived there you might not imagine that the line at certain grocery stores looks more like the line for a popular amusement park ride. It’s so loud that when I was living there and traveled up to Massachusetts to visit my parents, my ears would actually ring at night because they were unaccustomed to the relative quiet. It’s a magnet for a very specific type of overachieving, dissatisfied, self-absorbed, borderline sociopath, the type of person who verbally abuses coffee shop baristas and barks into a phone while their small child tugs at the hem of their shirt and the strings of my heart. Ready to move there yet? Well…
It smells of trash, exhaust, and burning, and it’s overrun with vermin: huge rats, horror-movie-fast mice, cockroaches, and Donald Trump. It’s so expensive that I once used cheese as a unit of price conversion in conversation with my brother and he told me it was the most Liz Lemon thing I’d ever said. So extreme is the economic inequality in NYC that many apartments sit empty as distant assets or “pied-à-terres” for their wealthy owners, while people who actually work in the city must commute for hours a day from more affordable, far-flung neighborhoods. If you walk around NYC on a hot and humid day, you will develop a thin film of sooty debris on your skin; if you get caught in a downpour, the shoes you’re wearing will smell like garbage until the end of time. It is so unforgiving and alienating a place that crying openly in public is unremarkable behavior.
All of this amounts to a place that, logically, I should despise. I am crowd-averse to the point of near-phobia, I have a low tolerance for loud noises, and I have contempt for those who pursue ambition at the cost of integrity. Not a huge fan of cockroaches, either.
But New York City is the only place I ever miss like a person.
What I’ve described above is just one side of a pendulum’s swing, because New York is a city of mad extremes and living in Manhattan was a thrilling dream as often as it was an exhausting nightmare. The sheer scale of its skyscraper canyons is enough to strike you dumb as you look up… and up… and up. Inside a vehicle, your view of the steel summits is obscured because they are that high. Every corner recalls a million fictional moments from page and screen, creating an eerie but somehow comforting sense of déjà vu. There’s a frenetic energy, a palpable, irresistible force into which you’re plugged, becoming one node in a vast pulsating network of souls: the city feels so alive that I used to imagine putting my ear to the sidewalk and hearing a heartbeat. Coming back to New York after time away, I relish the moment I emerge from underground and am hit all at once with the rush of it, standing stunned for just a moment before I dive into the current.
A solid test for whether someone truly loves New York: tell them to picture the first time they glided over a bridge into Manhattan, and watch their eyes– do they light up? When I return to my own bridge memories, my chest aches as the city glitters in my mind’s eye, an impossible jumble of marvelous structures on a slivery island. I don’t think the inarticulable hunger to be part of it will ever go away.
Tourist New York is horrifying: Times Square, the Empire State Building, Times Square, various insufferable theme restaurants, Times Square. Most people who’ve only experienced Tourist New York say they could never live in New York. People who’ve only experienced Tourist New York and say that they would love to live in New York are unlikely to be people I want to spend much time with. Before I was a resident, I didn’t understand the hype; I couldn’t imagine making my daily way through the throngs. But we are incredibly adaptable creatures, and somehow I got used to it, began to feel exhilarated more often than I felt overwhelmed, found sanctuaries within the city where I could go to regain my sanity even when my crazy neighbors were screaming at each other or partying to weird Ukrainian music heavy on synth drum or having even weirder sex through the paper-thin walls: corners of Central Park where the soundtrack was more chirping birds than chirping alarms or crossing signals; neglected, warm rooms in the deeper parts of behemoth museums, farther than most tourists ventured; the river-sprayed waterfront with its grassy pocket parks; lesser-known bookstores. Some of what I got used to wasn’t the kind of thing you want to get used to, of course– there’s a reason New Yorkers have a reputation for jadedness, cynicism, and anxiety– but the coping habit of finding humor in the most horrible and disgusting things is something I really appreciate about New York culture, and it made me tougher.
When I reminisce about New York, I don’t just think of the hard parts or the way the city, like so many of its coastal counterparts, has become increasingly impervious and indifferent to those with humble wallets. I think of being young in Manhattan, and my little rent-stabilized studio in Yorkville just a few blocks from the East River. I think of the fireflies that light up Central Park on hot summer evenings like particles of fairy dust, of warm gooey cookies bought from my favorite famous-but-nondescript bakery, tucked into a tiny basement kitchen next to a bodega. I think of conversations with strangers that never felt awkward, of a culture that is gruff and brutally direct but at the same time sincerely helpful and cooperative. I think of the convenience of being able to get exactly what I want exactly when I want it, of 24-hour diners and the way furniture on a curb always vanishes in the night like magic. Of metal carts selling breakfast on cold winter days, the smell of the coffee somehow grungy and hearty at once in the frigid air. I think of teamsters and drag queens and one-dollar pizza, of people dressed so sharply they might have stepped off the pages of a magazine, of a grid system that ensures you always know exactly how lost you are and the hilly land beneath the concrete that from uptown affords an illusion of looking down upon the skyscrapers at the bottom of the island. I think of the roaring subway, each train so fast and long that the first time one rushed past me into a station I felt an instinctive jolt of panic.
I think of the view from Long Island City, from Fort Tryon, from Astoria, from the waterfront in Brooklyn, of the key lime pie being sold from a garage in Red Hook and the Polish street signs (quickly vanishing) in Greenpoint, of the guiltless joy of hipster-mocking. I think of the perfect bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, greasy in its paper, and of music blasting on the sidewalk in Washington Heights and East Harlem. I think of the jaw-dropping, timeless, starry blue ceiling of Grand Central Station and the eerie quiet of the North Woods, of stumbling onto film sets and street fairs and parades and marathons, so much going on in the city that huge events sweep in and out like weather. I think of watching 1 World Trade Center rise from the dust, of secrets and short-cuts and the tacit New York understanding that you are to act as though any celebrity or naked shouting person passing you on the street is just another face in the crowd.
Can you tell I’m feeling particularly nostalgic this week?
I tore myself away from NYC for many reasons. The city is like a drug– when you live there, it feels like the center of the universe, and I wanted to see if I could live somewhere else again. With space and time, I know the answer is yes, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing New York. I miss kicking a Saturday off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then wandering across the park to read at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. I miss sitting in my favorite people-watching spots, going to see obscure films that only New Yorkers seem to get excited about, attending free writing and language groups, playing whiffle ball and drinking with strangers through a recreational sports league, gushing about books with a delightful book club of ladies I met through a college classmate. I miss strolling the city and treating it like a campus, walking to friends’ apartments or running into coworkers and shop owners I knew on the street in a way that was so oddly small-town.
Most of all, I miss walking out my door and knowing that anything, really anything, could happen that day. But the pendulum swings, and I know that for now I’m content to miss NYC from a distance.