A modern guide to living in NYC – Sarah McBride
10 easy steps to conquering friends, finance and apartments with mice.
It was Saturday 21st September and I was wandering around Williamsburg, taking some time to myself amongst the madness of trying to consciously uncouple myself from NYC. With 2 weeks left before relocating to London, I needed some time to reflect. I had somehow survived a full year of pretending to like dogs as much as everyone else, and had successfully sustained myself on a diet of Joe’s Pizza and Sweetgreen salad. It was the most intense, emotional and formative year of my life.
As I walked along Berry St, I took in the familiar and surprising sights of the neighbourhood that, after 5 apartment moves, I had started to call home. The familiar: cars blatantly ignoring cross walks, piles of trash and discarded furniture lining the pavement, what can only be described as a giant lion-turned-dog outside of the Blue Bottle coffee shop. And the surprising: a new Warby Parker store covered in a spray-painted mural, a vintage truck selling bouquets of flowers, a poetry stand.
What I started to note in my head then, and I’ve actually started to write down now, is a list of all the things that got me through that year. I am in no way qualified to offer advice on how to live in NYC (the majority of the time I was hanging on by a thread), but I hope this post serves as part-guide to you, part-therapy for myself, on a year of living in the Big Apple.
*cringes at section title*
Loneliness in NYC is a very particular kind of loneliness and a feeling I had never truly experienced until I went to New York. The city is abuzz with things to do, bars to hop, memories to be made. But I had jumped on a flight from Ireland with no family and all but two friends on the other side. And so the first few months of my new adventure were filled with a constant awareness of all things I could be doing, all the joy I could be sharing with other people, if only I had some friends.
Until I found my tribe. *cue Seth Godin YouTube video*. Above and beyond the places, opportunities and daily happenings that make NYC, well, NYC, it was the people that made my time in the city so special. Read points 2,3,4 for how that happened [NOT CLICKBAIT].
There I was, in peak lonely boi hour, a few months in to this adventure and living in an apartment with no hot water in the depths of winter, and tweeting every moment of it. And then an angelic being who went by the Twitter handle of @singareddynm slid into my DMs and said that she would “love to swing by Betaworks” and with that, we were off to the races.
You see, Nikita isn’t just any angelic Twitter DM slider, she is a force of nature. Nikita knows literally anyone doing anything vaguely interesting in the NYC tech scene and is constantly intro’ing people at events or holding her own legendary Tweetups (with help from Yoni + Reggie + Rainbow team) so that people with the same interests and working in the same industry can get to know one and other.
The people I met at these events went on to be some of my best friends in the city. They became the people I could turn to to mull over career questions, discuss outlandish t-shirt company ideas with or just count on to meet me in Washington Square Park after work because I needed a slice of Joe’s pizza and a chat about life.
Warning: this point may only apply to the people with an Irish passport. Please note, this doesn’t apply to the many Americans I met who also claimed to be Irish because a third cousin’s sister’s babysitter’s brother married someone who immigrated from Ireland (I jest). But my Irish passport served me well during my time in NYC thanks to the expansive crowd of Irish expats dotted about the city and the never ending stream of J1-ers.
Despite being from Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland, depending on your persuasion), I was warmly welcomed into the pockets of Irish friendship groups who, invariably, all knew each other. The familiar accents, stellar craic and shared appreciation for putting potato into bread quickly kept my homesickness at bay and made for some of the best (and wildest) memories I have of the year.
Being Irish probably ensures the best craic, but this advice should hold true for any nationality and addition of any vegetable to bread.
When the cold weather shifted and NYC finally unfroze from the depths of Winter, I joined a field hockey club. Every Friday I would leave work and make my way through the West Village, hockey stick in hand and drawing curious looks from people passing by. Field hockey is by no means a popular or even well-known sport in NYC, but I still managed to find the best damn team on the east coast to play for: Greenwich Village Field Hockey Club.
The club drew a mix of expats, Americans, and even folks from Northern Ireland (Gordy), all of whom had played at the top of their game for school or club teams. The standard of the players was humbling, for I was rusty, but they were forgiving and, most importantly, a group that welcomed me with open arms. Hockey became a guaranteed thing to do every Friday and the club began to feel like an extended family when mine was so far away. Playing matches also gave me an opportunity to see other parts of New York State and question why I hadn’t tried to get into a US University when we played against Yale and they totally stuffed us.
You can probably take it for granted that if you are living and working in NYC, you are probably of the disposition to go after every opportunity. But truly, it blew my mind away. Working in NYC was like accessing a new dimension in my brain, like uncovering a new lens on the world.
Because the best of the best are in NYC. And they are either one degree of separation from you and the people you work or socialise with, or they speak at events that you can get tickets to (or better yet, get a job at Betaworks, and these people are literally speaking at your office every week).
It’s a place where the energy, culture and ambition of everything and everyone around you somehow reduces your inhibitions. For me that was learning how to reach out to people I respected and have coffee with them, doing an actual presentation in front of actual people (on GIFs, which is a very serious business), interviewing the founder of Barkbox about building a venture-backed pre-IPO business, and making t-shirts with AI and launching them on Product Hunt.
New York has the energy, people and resources to make it a playground for those wanting to push themselves harder than they have before.
The biggest lesson of all was learning what the f credit is. And why it’s so important if you want to move to the US from another country. Not having a credit score meant I couldn’t sign a proper lease and so led to 5 (five) apartment moves in 12 months. I spoke to my bank manager 2 weeks in to living in NYC, who thankfully convinced me to start building credit from that day and so, in a bitter sweet moment mere days before I left the city, I finally got a credit card. And now I am in London it is totally fecking useless.
(to provide what might actually be an actionable takeaway amongst this stream of conscious rambling, I am told that if you are planning to move to the US you should get an AmEx card in your home country and start building credit history. They will recognize it in the US and save you 12 months of using a secure card.)
There was something so temptingly dangerous about living in the heart of capitalism. The Starbucks coffee in the morning on the way to work ($5), the Sweetgreen salad for lunch ($15), the quick dander around Sephora after work ($50), the Wholefoods stop on the way home ($40). I spent like crazy. I became a hyperconsumer of stuff in NYC.
I’d like to think that part of it was because I was in the centre point of a burgeoning new wave of startups and high-growth consumer companies that were started in New York. Maybe, as a student of marketing, I could pass it off as “market research”. But regardless, name the D2C/ fitness/ healthcare/ beauty company with venture dollars and Gin Lane branding coupled with convincing subway ad, and I probably tried it: Care of Vitamins, Rent the Runway, Classpass, DryBar, Glossier, Hello Fresh, Barry’s Bootcamp… the list unfortunately goes on.
Had I been there for more than a year, I probably would have re-calibrated my finances, rather than taking the YOLO approach that over-indexed on vitamins, expensive workout classes and the WholeFoods olive bar. May this serve as a lesson to you AND a lesson to myself.
Due to my lack of a credit score and absence of friends/family network, I lived in 5 different apartments in the space of 12 months in NYC. My final apartment, which felt most like home, quickly faced a rodent problem, upending any sense of stability that I’d be searching for for months on end. Moving countries and leaving your family is tough. Starting a new job is tough. Surviving a NYC winter is tough. Trying to make friends is tough. Trying to date is tough. But all those things combined, with no centre anchorage of a warm, comforting and steady place to call home, really set me up for a bumpy ride.
And so the gym and my various over-priced fitness classes started to become my sense of stability. They got me up in the morning and didn’t give me time to get anxious about the obstacles I’d face in the city that day. They gave me a guaranteed boost of energy and buzz of endorphins that I’d carry with me into work. They were guaranteed to have hot water (which, for apartment #2, was my only source of hot showers). Turning to fitness, for many people, becomes a coping mechanism. I didn’t become as maniacal gym buddy, but it sure helped.
I hope that anyone moving to NYC in the future doesn’t have to face the same obstacles I faced and will have a lovely, mouse-free home to go home to every night and ride out the bumps of everyday life. I was fortunate to have sufficient financial means to afford decent housing at all, even though I had to move every couple of months. I had friends who helped me load all my belongings into an Uber and reassemble my furniture. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the US credit system is broken and the requirement of a credit check and/or guarantor to secure rented accommodation is both unfair and outdated. I can only hope that the system will change.
Growing up in a small town in Northern Ireland, there was quite literally nothing to do. In New York, the variety of things to do and places to see was truly overwhelming. My best memories range from doing the routine to the obscure: weekly pizza at West Village Joe’s with Gordy, a date to a private comedy performance in a penthouse in LES with [redacted], a surprise birthday trek in Harriman State Park (thank you, Patrick), ending up in a goth bar somewhere in Bushwick, eating the best Cacio e Pepe of my life in Upland, the grilled cheese tour of Williamsburg rooftop bars, spike ball in Central Park…
Advance warning that I have made no attempt to write the rest of this section in comprehensible prose, it is merely a list of things to do to enjoy yourself:
- 🍻Bars: Manhatta, Brass Monkey, Loosie Rouge, Duff’s, Freehold, Night of Joy, Barcade, Kind Regards, Pianos, The Flower Shop
- ☕️Coffee: Butler, Grand Daddy, Partner’s, Oslo, Devocion
- 🍽 Food: Dough Vale, Aurora, Upland, Dudley’s, Shoo Shoo, Cotenna, Buvette, ABC Kitchen, ATLA
- 🍕Pizza: Joe’s (duh), Artichoke (duh), Simo’s, Paulie Gee’s, Shelter, Emily’s
- 🤸♀Things to do: day trip to Beacon, The Frick Collection, electric scooter around Greenpoint at sunset, walk the High Line, play shuffle board in Fat Cat, go to a jazz bar in the West Village on a Monday night, literally do nothing but in Domino Park
When describing life in NYC to friends at home, I compared it to living life on a treadmill, the speed and incline of which you have no control over. The pace of the city and the stamina of the people around you can be additive or destructive, depending on how you harness or control them. Sometimes it would feel like I could work forever and never have to sleep and sometimes it felt like the pressure to constantly juggle work, side projects, social life, exercise, healthy eating, and dating was overwhelming. And yet everyone around me seemed to be managing to juggle them just fine.
I came to learn of the darker side of NYC, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes to keep the machine ticking: substance abuse, cut-throat working culture, burnout, savage dating convention. This is by no means representative of the majority of people or situations I experienced, but is worryingly pervasive nonetheless. It was a lesson in “you really can’t expect to have it all”.
So: know when to leave the party, when to have an early night, shop somewhere other than WholeFoods, look for your next gig, leave the city for a week, leave the city for a while… know your limits and know when it’s time to go home.
In NYC, knowing your limits means knowing yourself and what you are searching for. Many of the people I met came to NYC in search of something — a more interesting life, a career, a partner. I came for the career opportunities, but along the way learned a lot about myself and (with a little help from US immigration), knew when it was time to leave.
One day, I hope to return to continue my NYC story. Because, as my friends reminded me during teary goodbyes, NYC isn’t going anywhere. And when I do return, I’ll be ready to take on whichever new challenges this city throws at me and revel in the opportunity, privilege and energy that living at the centre of the universe provides. (And, hopefully, not have to move apartments 5 times again.) 🗽