I came to New York City sheltered and narrow-minded. I came selfish, invincible and not the least bit shy. I was dropped off at a dorm room in Washington Square Park with visions of success and my daddy’s credit card.
I had never met a homeless person. I didn’t know how to use the subway. I constantly forgot where Lexington Avenue began, but it didn’t matter because, as far as I was concerned, there was nothing to see beyond 14th Street. I was certain that the best slice of pizza could be found at a little spot on Bleecker Street, but its proximity to the NYU campus was my only argument for that.
During my first year in the city, I called home crying often. I didn’t like the stink of garbage or the noise of traffic. I missed having a bathroom all to myself, finding my laundry fluffed and folded at the foot of my queen-sized bed and “borrowing” $20 from the nearest parent.
Here’s the ever-reliable reality about this city: It takes you in—no questions asked. New York knew me before I knew it. It knew that within my suburban, white-privileged, little body, I had a pretty good heart and a willingness to grow. New York knew the humble beginnings I came from—that my family history came complete with legendary loves, epic losses, colossal mistakes and first-generation triumphs.
Here’s the ever-reliable reality about this city: It takes you in—no questions asked.
This is the city where my cousins owned a Jewish deli in Brooklyn Heights, and my great-grandfather started a taxicab company with his brothers. It’s where my father’s parents found refuge after the Holocaust in a Queens railroad flat.
It’s where my mother’s parents met while attending my alma mater, writing for the NYU Commerce Bulletin. Legend has it, they met when my grandfather was smoking a pipe in an editor’s meeting and my grandma growled, “Put that thing out or I will.” Soon after, they wed at The Plaza (of course).
The city made my father’s first apartment a basement in Gramercy where expired milk was a refrigerator mainstay. He played at CBGB but would one day trade in his 1963 Gibson guitar and hair that fell beyond his shoulders for a girl from Scarsdale whose sweetness stole his heart.
New York would teach my mother to use chopsticks at the rowdy Japanese Pub on East 86th Street and convince her to try sashimi at a delicious dive on Irving Place. She’d join the 80s movement of wearing sneakers with a suit, as she commuted 30 blocks down Park Avenue to work at McCall’s Magazine, in the iconic Helmsley Building.
Sometimes, the city dared you. My dad would pose as a member of the press to ensure his bride would get the not-yet-available, next-season wedding gown she ached for, after spotting it in a shop window of the Garment District.
Sometimes, the city urged you on. One day this same upwardly mobile pair took off for the suburbs to raise a family of their own, but they’d return often. On one special occasion, they took their 6-year-old daughter to slurp down soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown before treating her to her first Broadway show. It was “Annie Get Your Gun,” starring Bernadette Peters, and it changed the kid forever.
Sometimes, the city took you in. Maybe it was my belly filled with dim sum or the rush of envisioning myself receiving Ms. Peters’ ovation, but one way or another, that day, New York City chose me. In the years that followed, I chose New York.
One way or another, that day, New York City chose me. In the years that followed, I chose New York.
Slowly, I learned that the Q train crosses town at 42nd Street and that the best pizza belongs to the boroughs, not Manhattan. I discovered that Grand Central will always take my breath away twice—once from the ceiling and again from the oyster bar—that the ferry to Staten Island is the best way to see the Statue of Liberty and that sometimes, the finest furniture can be found curbside on the first day of each month.
I figured out that you get pastrami at Katz’s, lox at Russ & Daughters and that the streets become a choose-your-own-adventure-ride in The Village. I mastered the art of having a meltdown in public, which—when done correctly—brings out a surprising amount of goodwill from strangers. I saw that I could take rejection like a champ, talk to anyone from anywhere in a way that could lead to coffee and that connection is when the dear seamstress at G’s Cleaners asks to re-attach the missing button on your coat because “it’s too cold out there not to be covered up.” I came to know that the noise of this place is like jazz. You just need the right ear to hear the music.
I learned that I could survive a hurricane in a one-bedroom apartment with a boy I hardly knew. We would fall in love, right on the corner of Houston and Allen, and he would ask me to marry him there, too. Together, we’d binge every single episode of “The Office” through a pandemic and it brought us closer—and not just because our bellies were taking up a bit more space, thanks to a newfound love of sourdough.
Every day I hear of another friend leaving town. Their reasoning is always a bittersweet variation of the same theme. Maybe they’ve reached the end of their financial rope, or it just doesn’t make sense to not have a backyard anymore, but suddenly, the apartment that used to fit all their stuff, is now too small to keep collecting memories and Amazon deliveries.
New York City is always sort of threatening you to leave. It throws obstacles in your path, tests your loyalty and pushes your boundaries. This pandemic is one of the biggest hurdles yet. As I hear of these goodbyes, I can’t escape a sense that the virus has won; the deserters raise their white flags and retreat. It’s a reality my husband and I may have to face as well. Can we stay here?
As I hear of these goodbyes, I can’t escape a sense that the virus has won; the deserters raise their white flags and retreat.
This city used to be for the artists, the immigrants and the dreamers, of which I am (almost) all three. In recent years, it has become harder to afford living here without the mythical rent-controlled apartment, a salary that sits comfortably in the top five percent or a trust fund (of which I have none). I’ve been unwavering in my belief that living to your last dollar is worth every bit of what you get in return, until “my last dollar” started to veer dangerously far from being just a figure of speech.
If we choose to stay, does that make us stubborn? Or does it make us New Yorkers? Maybe they’re one and the same. Maybe New York City has a way of staying with you, whether you leave it or not.
This city raised us. It made us the people we are. I’d say the most amazing thing about New York is that, regardless of the time spent here, a piece of you has been left behind—another note in the jazz, a vibration in the footsteps, initials carved into sidewalk, or maybe, just a memory of the young couple who started their lives together within the walls of a cramped Williamsburg home.
Maybe New York City isn’t chasing us away after all. Maybe she’s just making room for her next story.
How has the pandemic affected the place you call home? Have there been a lot of changes or people moving?
Image by Kelly Fiance via Pinterest