On my 8th anniversary in NYC, I’m adding my voice to the ever-growing lists of love letters that this city receives from people like me who call it home.
Day one in NYC
Eight years ago, I packed up all of my belongings, and my parents drove me from Lansdale, Pennsylvania to Astoria, Queens, where I met my new roommate, Liz, for the second time. After a year of applying unsuccessfully to any job opening I saw in NYC, I finally decided just to pick up and move, even without a full-time job waiting for me. Needless to say, my parents were more than a little dubious. Rent was $1800 a month for our two-bedroom apartment on the first floor, and since I had the bigger room and bigger closet, my share was $1000. Our living room was so large that we fit three couches in it with room to spare. (In retrospect, I wish I had known to take more advantage of this space, as I have only downsized in the years since.)
As soon as my parents left, I opened my bedroom closet to find a gigantic roach. It was about the size of my palm, and as soon as the afternoon light struck him, he scurried into the living room in plain sight. I screamed. My poor suburban cat fled — petrified. After a frantic few minutes, I somehow managed to trap and contain the monstrosity in a tupperware container.
Panicked, I decided that the best thing to do would be to take it outside, far away from my apartment. So I put on my flats and took off down Broadway Avenue toward the “N” train subway stop. Every so often, I would peer around a building, looking for a dumpster or somewhere else to stash my bug. But I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, so I started soliciting guidance from strangers: “Excuse me, I’m new here. I caught a roach. What am I supposed to do with it?”
Finally a man twice my size caught wind of my conundrum.
“Whatcha got there?”
“Um, I just moved into my apartment and there was this giant roach inside. I was too afraid to kill it so I’m looking for some help, I guess.”
“It’s still alive?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, gesturing toward to tupperware. He motioned it toward him, and I passed him the box.
And in one streamlined movement, the top was off, the roach was on the street, and then it was smashed under his shoe. I screamed again. He laughed.
“New York life lesson number one,” he said, handing me back my tupperware. “That’s not a cockroach. It’s a waterbug.”
The first 12 months
Year one in New York was about as stereotypical as they get. My roommate and I were unlikely friends, bonded only by our shared circumstances that trapped us both in Queens, far from where we each preferred to be. Sometimes we hosted parties or made artwork together. Other times, we kept our distance. She moved away to San Francisco four or five years ago, and I haven’t seen or heard from her much since.
On weeknights after my shift at the magazine (where I made $14/hour), I would expertly navigate the Midtown East bar scene, keeping my eye out for happy hour attendees who might offer me a drink on their tab. My pinnacle achievement from this period was the night I managed to get myself invited to join a business meeting with two strangers at Smith and Wollensky steakhouse, where I was bequeathed an entire steak dinner and as much red wine as I could drink. Not a bad deal for a 24-year-old.
On the weekends, I used to pretend like I lived in Manhattan and take the subway in super early, then wander around as if I lived somewhere below 14th Street. But since I was broke, I desperately needed spending money. So on Saturdays I would stockpile my granny cart with extra new release books that published sent to our magazine, then resell them in bulk at the Strand in Union Square to earn about $40-$50 cash. Then I would wander through neighborhoods and parks until I wore myself out. Too tired to return to Queens, I napped in parks quite a bit during this period.
After about a year, I learned why people don’t like being in first-floor apartments that face the street traffic. My bedroom window flanked the building entrance, and with every new arrival, the buzz of the front door would reverberate my bedroom at all hours of the night. Not to mention that Liz’s dog and my cat never managed to get along. So two years later, I moved to Brooklyn. Two years after that, on my four-year anniversary in NYC, I finally landed an apartment in Manhattan with my now-husband, Jason Crystal. We’ve been living on the Upper West Side together ever since.
Eight years in
To celebrate my eight-year anniversary, I took a long walk through lower Manhattan, pausing to appreciate moments in each location that have collaged themselves in my mind over the years. Union Square, after all, isn’t just Union Square. It’s the site of my first and only silent rave (an Improv Everywhere stunt), the park bench where I let a stranger profusely apologize to me as a proxy for a girl who he bullied all through high school, and the farmer’s market with the best lavender lemonade in the summer. On the North side of the park, inside the Barnes and Noble, Jeffrey Eugenides autographed my copy of The Marriage Plot, which I loaned it to a coworker and never got back. On the West side, Jason and I had an early date at the now-shuttered Republic Noodle, where their noodle photographs implanted themselves into our imaginations for years to come. Three blocks South, I took my first yoga classes at OM Yoga (also closed), and three blocks East, friends and I played a drinking game at The Blind Pig that concluded with one of my roommates spending the night in our bathtub.
All the streets are full of little moments from times gone by. A breakup at Yum Yum Too in Hell’s Kitchen, then a makeup in Central Park after a late show at the Delacorte Theatre. There was the era I frequented French Meetup groups and learned all of the city’s best rooftops and the era of ramen, soup dumplings, and karaoke with coworkers. There was my short-lived writing club at a bar in Brooklyn and my slightly longer-lived, multi-season commitment of a community choir in Astoria. My East Village evenings phase. Then my West Village one.
Progress in New York demarcates itself in strange ways. My first roommate and I once spent an entire summer Saturday knee-deep in clothes at the Housing Works warehouse factory in Queens, where we crammed a paper bag full of as many clothes as we could for just $10. To avoid the risk of bedbug contamination, we were sure to bring a change of clothes, drop off all newly acquired pieces directly at the laundromat, and discard our “scavenging outfits” completely before re-entering our homes. Today, I find myself doing the inverse — making monthly trips to our local Housing Works storefront to donate excess wardrobe items.
When I first lived here, as a mere intern at a fashion magazine, I frequented Canal Street shops and still remember the day I bought my first knock-off purse, a Coach bag that I acquired by sneaking behind the secret walls of the storefront shops. But then police cracked down on Canal Street, and my friends and I were snuck inside not a secret corner of a shop, but into the back of an unmarked van to purchase our knockoff bags. This scared me away from the whole concept. It would be many years before I would sport another brand-name handbag, a Marc Jacobs. But I didn’t buy that one on Canal Street; it’s from Bloomingdale’s.
Certain places in New York City have so much internal significance that they have acquired “landmark status” in my life. The sushi place in the West Village where we had our first ever omakase meal, the sports bar where all Northwestern fans congregate for football games, the thrift store where I found an exact replica of the yellow dress Kate Hudson wears in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, that little French cafe in Hell’s Kitchen where Jason’s parents and my parents met all together for the first and only time.
I can’t walk by the Beacon Theatre without remembering the time we had the privilege of attending the Tony Awards there, just like I can’t walk past the Met Opera without smirking about the New Year’s gala that my friend and I managed to crash for 45 minutes. No matter what show is playing at the Public Theatre, when I walk by I still see in my head the old Hamilton logo on all of the banners out front. I have so much nostalgia of those moments in the lobby, when I would wait for Jason at the end of each show, and watch the audience stream out silently, in tears, then greet all of the cast members who would linger in the lobby. That was the best part of the show at the Public — it was such an intimate setting (and nobody back then knew what to expect) that people were just in shock and awe at the end. Sometimes there wasn’t even applause.
Sunrises and sunsets
Before I moved here, people would ask me, “Why New York? What makes it so great?” My answer was always the same: “Because you can get anything you want, wherever you are, no matter what time of day or night it is.” That remains one of the greatest parts of this city: Unlimited opportunities and invitations. But the longer the live here, the more I am learning: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
I’ve been pushing myself constantly for eight years. I’m a New Yorker, after all. If you don’t push yourself, the city pushes you right back out. And in a city that’s constantly growing, changing, evolving and under construction, how can you not also seek out progress and upward mobility in your every action? I haven’t ever known anything less, never given myself the opportunity to look for an upper bound, so instead I convert every day into an avalanche of to-do lists, meet-and-greets, and appointments.
After all that, it’s easy to forget why I came here in the first place, hard to remember what it was like when I did not work on the weekends, and nearly impossible to clear my head enough to enjoy the city’s quirky parts. After so many years of pushing so hard for the next job, the next apartment, the next step in the relationship, the next anything…eight years later I’m realizing that I’m certainly still here and doing much better than standing still. So only now do I ask myself, “Do I dare enjoy this moment? Is this enough?”
A couple of months ago, I took a wrong turn in SoHo and stumbled upon a church I had never seen on a quiet street at sunset. As New Yorkers know, the light at sunrise and sunset in this city is something else. In the mornings, if you’re an earlybird who gets up with the sun, you will see a city transformed, a quiet reverie of an ecosystem working at only twenty-percent capacity. You can tiptoe your way around the neighborhoods and inhale deeply as you watch the world wake around you. The sun warms the streets and adds vitality to the storefronts, the coffeeshops, and the sidewalks as the traffic sounds grow from a hum to a thunder. It’s a beautiful thing to experience. New York really sparkles at sunrise.
But at dusk, New York is downright dazzling. Sunsets in New York make the reds of the brick apartment buildings glow like a color you may otherwise only see in Edward Hopper painting. White buildings blush pink and the geometric shapes and lines of the architecture take on a new sharpened clarity. Each street becomes either a tunnel of light or a lens, the shadows casting themselves on buildings like spotlights that make any structure shimmer. You can’t help but catch your breath as you notice the taxi-cab yellows bathe into the crisp color palette, and the soft lights silhouetted in dozens of building windows flicker on one by one. Your coat, your shoes, your hat, your skin all become engulfed in the orangey aura of sunset, and you are at once one with the city and the sky.
My favorite place to watch the sunset in New York City is from the top terrace at the Whitney Museum, overlooking the High Line, southern Manhattan, and New Jersey. When the light hits just right, the buildings emanate golden yellows and clay reds, and when the sky is crystal clear, the blues and whites dissolve into purples and oranges and you can live for a week in a single moment. But on that particular night in February, I was meandering through Soho, biding time before meeting Jason for dinner, when I realized that I was truly on that corner for the very first time. The street was quiet and empty, save for a single car, and the sunlight dazzled off the windows, reflecting across the street and around the corners of the skyscrapers in the distance. I looked up at the brick structure behind me, admiring the way the fire escape hugged the building tight, then I took a deep breath and smiled. It’s such a delight to live in a place for eight years and still find new corners to explore. Only time will tell what the next eight years will bring.