This post originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.
One of the things I’ve always liked best about New York are the intimate glimpses into strangers’ daily lives I am given. In the subway, at Trader Joe’s, walking down Fifth Avenue, there are people. In New York, people cry in public, display affection, scream and smile and laugh. About what, you can never be sure, but the raw emotion is on full display, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. Sometimes the streets are crowded with strangers; sometimes the city feels eerily empty. But there are always people. Alone, together, weary, elated, contemplative, vacant, the list goes on. I watch them, imagine what their lives are like.
In my four years living in this city, I have become an anthropologist of sorts. I studied the people when I wasn’t studying for class. I still study them. You can learn a lot about a city in four years – hundreds of pages could be written on the subject – but in four years, you’ve hardly learned – let alone seen – everything.
There are certain things about New York, both the city and its people, I have come to appreciate as the time has passed. It’s a city of contradictions. New York celebrates its history as it boasts its modernity at the same time. For every state-of-the art skyscraper built, there is a 19th century Gothic style courthouse turned into a public library. Walk through the city and you will be treated to stunning visuals. An aimless spring stroll through the meandering West Village streets is one of the most romantic and beautiful treats to the eye. But the sights aren’t always stunning in a good way. A similar walk through industrial Brooklyn elicits wonder that such desolation coexists with the cultural epicenter of America.
People are another eccentricity of New York that will continue to fascinate me. I live for the moments on the street when strangers ask me for directions. For a non-native New Yorker, it is self-validating. It is pride-inducing. No matter what my mood or feeling towards the city (we are in a tumultuous love/hate relationship), someone assuming you know more about this maze of concrete than they do is an ego boost. You are one of us, New York coos in your ear when you successfully direct a southern tourist to Houston Street, subtlely correcting their mispronunciation from hue to how. When someone asks me for directions, it implies that to somebody, I am a New Yorker. I am not an oft-complained about tourist. I am not a temporary transplant from some small town. I am a New Yorker.
Calling someone a New Yorker holds much more potency than, say, a Californian or a Philadelphian. It rolls off your tongue far better, for one. But realistically, there are few other places where a geographic location is associated with a persona. Here, the possibilities are endless. New Yorkers are young and old, successful and struggling. They are artists and bankers, nannies and doctors. And so on, and so on.
There is no typical New Yorker, but love them or hate them, you have to admit it: New Yorkers are on a different level than every other citizen. Whether this level is superior (better dressed, better spoken, better street smarts) or inferior (ruder, more rushed, more jaded) is up for debate. But that distinction between a New Yorker and everyone else is significant, regardless its tone.
If there is one thing I have learned about New Yorkers, it is that we all came here from somewhere else. New York and all its history, eccentricities, and beauty, is anyone’s for the taking. But at the same time, it isn’t a city for everyone. Some will stay – forever, for months, for years – but plenty more will leave. To be a New Yorker, you have to learn that for every grand spring morning, there’s a bitterly cold winter. For every peaceful day in Central Park, there’s a loud rally in Union Square. Don’t try to see the stars at night; the glow of the skyscrapers will dilute the view.
If it sounds like New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that’s fine. Because it isn’t. Illusions are made to be broken. I came to New York naïve and full of fantasies. I would be like the Olsen twins. I would be like Carrie Bradshaw. I would wine and dine and write madly late into the night. My life would be fabulous and the city would embrace me. Welcome home!, it would cry.
But New York is not like that. My first semester here was one of the coldest, a winter where the snow refused to melt until April and the New York Times ran a headline boasting a record 12 days had passed without snowfall. It’s impossible to look and feel glamorous when you slush along dirty New York streets in rain boots and a down coat.
I have been stuck under the East River in delayed subway trains; I have been nearly run over by cyclists. Cab drivers have taken me on long, winding routes through stop and go traffic, ending in a $20 fare that should have been $7. I’ve dealt with grocery prices just as high as the noise level. Strangers on Broadway have seen my underwear on particularly windy days.
Now, I walk the city streets, lost in my own thoughts. My heartbeat and footsteps fall into rhythm with the music pulsing through my headphones. Christmas lights still glitter in the trees that line Park Avenue, a touch of magic in the dull, gray sky. I love New York. I love New York. I love New York, I repeat, like a mantra, almost as if I’m trying to convince myself that the words I speak are true. Do I love this city? Do I really? Or do I just tell myself that I do because I am too afraid to leave?
The prospect of leaving fills my heart with panic and despair. To leave is to give something up, and I’m not certain I’m ready for that yet. This love/hate relationship is far from through. There is still so much to do, to see, to accomplish. I know that the good, the small beauties of the city, outweigh the bad, at least for now.
Like Joan Didion in “Goodbye to All That,” I may not be from here, but I finally reached the mirage that I had been dreaming about since childhood. I can only be so lucky if I later reflect on this time – both the moments of excitement and moments of boredom – like Didion:
“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”