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The Worst Thing About New York City – kate

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View from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo by me. Also my Facebook cover photo for like, 2 and a half years.

Some people will say it’s the smell. Other’s swear it’s the rats. Many tourists lament that it’s the horrible attitude just being here for more than a week elicits in a person, from the snarky put-downs to someone speaking too loudly on the subway to eye rolls and loud sighs when a group of three takes up the whole goddamn sidewalk. I always find myself vehemently defending New York to my extended family at Thanksgiving against these excuses, explaining over and over again that public transit isn’t so bad, and I love living with roommates, and once you kill one cockroach it gets a lot easier. And then, I will have a day like today, where I try to walk to work and have to step over streaks of human shit and a freshly bloody tampon in order to cross the street and make the light in time. This is when I doubt everything.

But that all comes with living in any city, that thin layer of grime that coats every surface and you can never wash off: Los Angeles is heavy with air pollution, Paris is covered in cigarette ash, and in Chicago, I once held onto a stairway railing and smushed my hand into someone else’s old gum. It’s just human nature: you shove millions of people into the same urban landscape, and things are bound to get gross. And like any other bad thing that could lead to a good thing, you get used to it, because at the end of the day, you like being able to say, “I live in New York City.”

And you’ll think all of this when you give the homeless man his dollar outside the Starbucks, or when you have to push past thirty Midwestern families by the Today Show just to get to work on time, or when a stranger in the park tells you he Googled the book you were reading just to talk about it with you. When you’re showing an out-of-town acquaintance around your neighborhood and accidentally step in some garbage, you’ll be able to shrug it off with a laugh. You will be on your own in Central Park and stumble into a particularly beautiful sunset, in a strangely quiet moment, watching the yellows and reds dip below an indescribable, perfectly balanced mix of technology and nature, humanity and Earth, and you will feel so happy to feel so small. Maybe, it will be so breathtaking, you’ll even forget to take a picture. But, then you’ll take one anyway.

But that’s just it, the worst thing about New York City: you will be on your own. And some days, this is freeing. Being able to openly weep in Prospect Park and having nobody care at all is liberating to our egos and cathartic to go through. But on the bad days, the step-over-shit-and-tampons days, this will be devastating. To have millions of co-inhabitants around you and not ever see any of their faces again once they take their stop before you on the subway. To have your closest friends up and move to California or Westchester or Europe and you just stay. To meet so many people more interesting and experienced and cooler and richer than you because that’s just who this city attracts. To never want to buy that nice painting off of your aunt because you know you’ll be moving in a year, somewhere bigger or smaller, you’re not sure yet, and don’t want to risk the attachment. To be sitting on your bed in the only place where you can always be doing something culturally invigorating and realize you can’t muster the courage get out of your building. This is loneliness at its peak, becoming an Everest that you will always be climbing so long as you’re a New Yorker.

It’s been almost five years and I still struggle with the inferiority and solitude that comes with living here. It takes a long time to build a community within the homegrown neighborhoods of New York City, communities that have been cultivated for so long that they’re imbedded into the city itself. But I’m a transplant: I arrived into an already existing world and was shocked at how much work it would take to mold myself into it. Even within the block parties and neighborly hello’s of these boroughs, there are moments of quiet and emptiness. When it’s 2am on a Thursday and the only reason you know other people still exist is because someone, no matter what, is always outside. This is why we have to savor our usuals: I commute with the same group of people everyday to work and know none of their names, but I would notice if one got off a stop too late. New York figure heads like Pigeon Guy and The Green Lady have become icons of a city that’s yearning for consistency. And I feel connected in knowing that, as I walk the streets and duck under scaffolding from the rain, that every one of us has thought about what we’d say if we ran into Brandon Stanton (although it seems like he’s hardly in New York anymore). There will be days when the only person you speak to is your bodega owner and roommate you hate, but once in a while, you look up at the Empire State Building, a building that’s on thousands of people’s bucket lists and vision boards, and you’ll feel the same way you did on your first day.

Under the Manhattan Bridge in summer. Photo also by me.

I write all of this and feel very pretentious and self-serving, lamenting about how lonely I am when, in actuality, we are never truly alone. I will always have people to call, to visit, and to eat doughnuts with. And there are much, much worse places to be in September than a warm, dry, comfortable apartment, writing and typing into the ether. But my loneliness here is valid, just as the joy, anger, gratitude, and pride of being able to live here is. And I will continue to feel, in my moments of intense sorrow, and will always think in disbelief that, “I live in New York City.” But whether that’s positive or negative, I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure.



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