Just Another New York Story

I’m writing this piece from my combination office/bedroom, the location where I’ve spent approximately 90% of my time since the beginning of our collective corona-induced psychosis. My office/bedroom/dining room is located in Manhattan, the iconic centerpiece of an iconic city that’s been ravaged by this pandemic so thoroughly it would make Genghis Khan jealous. My office/bedroom/dining room/writing chamber/new best friend is the enclosed space from which I’ve laid idly by as the city I chose to start my adult life in has closed up, emptied out, and radically changed over the last two months.

Taxis racing down the street in the middle of the night. Boat rides in Central Park. Wealthy power suits on Wall Street, working class heroes on construction sites, the subway trains that carry them both where they need to be. Museums, bars, restaurants, cafes, the hum of window unit ACs in the summer. Dreams coming true and dreams being brutally crushed, usually multiple times over in the same lifetime. The Statue of Liberty’s guiding light. The Freedom Tower’s solemn magnitude.

Statue of Liberty

There are many places where many people are experiencing variations of the same slow-burning crisis, and there are many (~95%) situations far worse than where I find myself. Where I find myself is staring down the fact that the 6-7 years I’d planned on living in the city may be better spent across state lines. For myself and the countless others who came here in search of their New York story, the reality of city life was enough of a shock to the system. What we’re facing as we now move into the world of coronavirus is a new reality, an unexpected alteration of what previously seemed to be an established truth. What this disruption means for the city that never sleeps is yet to be seen, but I thought it would be worth an exploration. Another story from another part-time writer sitting in his New York City bedroom. A clichéd exercise, done under extraordinary circumstances.

The Fantasy

From the first steps off the plane at John F. Kennedy Airport at the age of seven, life in America and life in New York felt as though they were the same concept. When my mom first told me were moving to New York my mind exploded with skyscrapers and hot dogs and the Statue of Liberty; when she explained that we were going to be living in a place called Hastings-On-Hudson I had slightly less imagery to work with. It was New York, of course, but it wasn’t New York City, the iconic metropolis with too many people and even more noises.

The first time I saw the city itself was exciting in all the ways a new experience is for a child. Everything was big and scary and fun. We went to Times Square and avoided the angry men in smiling costumes asking us to pay them for pictures. I finally got my hot dog; I found it underwhelming, but still enjoyed eating it. There’s satisfaction in discovering the full extent of the thing even if the thing underwhelms, to secure the knowledge. My mom wanted to walk by Broadway and see the theaters, which is the first time I learned there was a Lion King musical and the first day of my obsession with seeing it. Big and bright and very much slightly dirtier than I’d imagined, but in a way that added to a strange beauty. I fell in love with a snapshot image pulled right out of a postcard.

Visiting New York City: Times Square | Source: © Lonely Planet/YouTube

Whatever you think of when you think of New York City, you’ve more than likely been exposed to enough imagery that cliché ceases to be an appropriate term. America’s largest city has been a mainstay in global culture for over a century, standing as a capital of finance, fashion, entertainment, culture and just about every other category except average apartment size. The seemingly eternal waves of tourists navigating their way through Times Square are a testament to the staying power of the city’s brand. New York looms large in the American imagination through force of magnitude.

Busy, tough, ambitious, completely devoid of common courtesy but in an admirable way. The people on the street with people to go, places to be, and taxicabs to steal.

From the immigrants arriving through Ellis Island to the runaways and artists of the 1960’s to the young dreamers of today, the young and hungry and seeking have flocked to New York and etched their narratives into the concrete. There’ve been so many stories about and set in New York that it has its own niche fields of study (this is the part where I try to find a funny way of confessing that I binge watched Girls last month and still have no idea if I liked it or not). When Harry Met Sally… paints a portrait of New York love adorned with the amber leaves of Central Park. Seinfeld and Friends are two halves of the same syndicated coin, portraying the misadventures of the young professional class with minor differences in tone. New York is Taxi Driver and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s Mad Men and Broad City. The mythology of the city is built on a collection of characters navigating messy lives in a messier town, and even if you’re sick to death of their stories, they’ve no doubt left an impression.

5 Realities About The NYC Nightlife | Source: © Comedy Central UK/YouTube

As I became engrossed in American culture over the years, a new image of the city developed into the gold standard in my mind. I wanted to live a very specific variety of the New York fantasy: a young man fresh out of school moves to New York and finds himself making the most of his 20s. For a kid growing up in an over-parented, comfortable but financially frugal family, the idea of being young, dumb, and flush with disposable income in New York was intoxicating. My parents had drilled the idea of academic work as a step to a good job from my earliest years but my dreams of rooftop skyline views and [insert second anecdote] refocused my ambitions. I worked hard in school to earn the opportunity to work hard in the city. I wanted to be one of those young people racing from place to place, with too many things to do. Nicely-lit sitcom after nicely-lit sitcom instilled the idea that New York apartments ranged from extremely comfortable to extremely comfortable for wealthy people, a range I aimed to be right in the middle of. I wanted to be in the middle of the action so badly that it didn’t even matter what the action was.

[The] young and hungry and seeking have flocked to New York and etched their narratives into the concrete.

Beyond the superficial trappings of attractions and apartments and entertainment, what I really wanted was the thing that I’d been denied by a distance of roughly eight miles: to be a New Yorker. It’s one thing to exist somewhere and it’s another thing entirely to be a part of something. Existing is easy, so easy you don’t need to think to do it; being a part of something is a process of understanding and re-understanding what that relationship means to you and those around you. It’s that feeling when your team loses the big game and you have to make yourself remember what you’re fighting for. It’s the knowledge that your place of worship is truly a sacred space, separate from the standard physical reality. It’s believing that your time spent living somewhere is a time spent contributing and receiving experiences.

My idea of a New Yorker was an amalgamation of television tropes and bad jokes, but at the time it was my greatest aspiration. Busy, tough, ambitious, completely devoid of common courtesy but in an admirable way. The people on the street with people to go, places to be, and taxicabs to steal. What I really wanted, the real fantasy, was to move to a place that would transform me through mostly manageable hardship. If I could become a New Yorker, then I wouldn’t have to be an immigrant kid from Yonkers anymore, and I would have some version of myself to look back on before I came a man-cave dwelling father. There would be a part of my life where I shared in a coveted experience and developed a personal narrative.

The Reality

Every time I remember that the idea of a subway commute excited me, I hate myself. Not pity, not laugh at, hate. Some idiot occupying my body and corrupting my mind actually believed that an underground train car was a good place to be in the morning. I was indifferent to the subway when I moved back home in May of 2017; after months of living at home with my parents and commuting via the Metro North I was eager to acclimate to my twenty-five minute, three-transfer trip. August 30, 2018 marked the last time I considered the subway to be anything less than an enemy. The practice runs were an exercise in self-deceit; half an hour at 2:00 P.M. on a Saturday and half an hour at 7:55 A.M. on a Monday are universes apart. You try to think of ways to make it better; you pop in those headphones, get out that book, stare on the floor as a homeless man walks by. It’s bearable, and you suck it up because it’s not like you have any other options. You signed up for this, now sit there and take it. You’ll have extra time to consider your choices during the perfectly-timed track delay.

7 Train

The classic image of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object is usually reserved for the great sports rivalries or half-baked political analogies. As my interaction with New York City nightlife transitioned from happy hours and the occasional Midtown outing to a weekly prospect, I found that the unstoppable force was social obligation and the immovable object was fiscal responsibility. Of all the nonsensical things I’ve been made to do in my life, paying $18 for a whiskey ginger is classified as a low point. Everyone told me that going out in New York was expensive but no one told me that it was “go fuck yourself” expensive. Lest you think this was just some kid living above his means, believe me when I say we slummed it as often as we balled out. When I discovered that going out in Bushwick meant twice the alcohol at half the cost I quickly became one of those Manhattan residents who pride themselves on open-mindedness regarding Brooklyn. That was fun, for a while, but like everything else the bright color fades away and all you’re left with is a late credit card bill and a bacon, egg, and cheese-induced gut. Time to (finally) put that overpriced gym membership to good use.

The river separating Brooklyn from Manhattan doesn’t run nearly as deeply as the borderlines we encounter on the street. Economic segregation is as much as part of the city’s DNA as anything else and is only growing stronger with age. The fantasy is that living in a shitty apartment with roommates you barely tolerate and rent you can just afford is some kind of rite of passage before you stabilize your life and earn your prize. The myth is that surviving the ordeal of starting out fresh in the city makes you special, different from everyone who couldn’t hack it or never had the imagination to try. The reality is that like everything else in life some people are privileged and fortunate and successful and talented enough — allocate those traits in whatever way makes you feel comfortable — and the rest fail for reasons that they might not have control over. The difference between New York and everywhere else is that the enforcement mechanisms of late-stage capitalism are celebrated as part of the city’s unique personality. People are sold on the idea that pseudo-hardship is the beginning of their life’s movie while generations of local residents have been underserved by the city government as they suffer in real poverty. The urban hustle is treated as a character-building exercise and naked ambition is the singular objective good. If you’re not living in the office, networking at happy hour, and grinding on that side hustle in spare time, then you might as well give up your spot. As a piece of well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out advice, this ethos is fine; as a cultural cornerstone, it’s a cancer.

Is New York City an Empire in Decline? | NYT Opinion | Source: © The New York Times/YouTube

Accepting the reality under the fantasy is a challenge but a doable one. You get used to things, you drop certain notions and adapt. Moving to New York was never going to make me different, because, in spite of the stories we’re told, a change in geography doesn’t magically re-orient who you are. No matter how great a day you have here there’s no closing track at the end before the credits roll. It’s a unique and difficult environment to experience the highs and lows of young adult life, and an even more difficult environment to experience real hardship, but there is a sense of common purpose and shared identity. I no longer believe there’s such a person as the New Yorker, but I do believe that part of who I am at this moment is a direct result of my decision to be one of many New Yorkers. More simply, I believe I made the right choice.

It’s strange how something can be true yet completely temporary.

The New Reality

Two roommates.

Four family members.

One long-distance relationship.

Five cancelled travel plans.

More Zoom calls and Facetimes and phone calls than I would ever possibly be comfortable with under any circumstance.

If someone told you with your full confidence that everything was going to be different, your mind would race to think of all the different things that could actually change. Some are big, some are small, but they’re all relevant enough to you that the idea of them changing sparks the imagination. The other common reaction is to imagine a completely different reality altogether. A different planet or dimension or the same world after an apocalypse-level event. Your mind would respond this way because the concept of “everything” is one of those seemingly simple ideas that confounds us. Think of how many things are in everything, really take a second and try… it’s hard, right? It’s much, much easier to think of a few distinct things changing or to think of the entirety of everything being wiped and away and replaced.

Existing is easy, so easy you don’t need to think to do it; being a part of something is a process of understanding and re-understanding what that relationship means to you and those around you.

When I say everything in the world, in this country, and, obviously, in this city has changed, I mean everything, the incomprehensible everything. Despite what your least favorite family member is listening to on Fox News or reading on Facebook, the coronavirus pandemic is as real as the third glass of wine I just poured to cope with another day of working from home. It would be enough to just talk about the number of dead loved ones in their graves and suffering victims in hospital beds, but the fact is that we’re numb to these numbers that only scratch the surface of our suffering. Unemployment has skyrocketed as jobs that are not all guaranteed to return have vanished. Many of the 100 million+ Americans who rent property are caught in what will inevitably become a mass eviction phenomenon, putting people on the street and in need of help. People are suffering through a level of uncertainty normally reserved for wartime. The simplest social interactions and pleasures of life are now family health decisions. Going to the grocery store is three steps removed from standing in the bread lines, and in many places it’s not even that many steps out. An invisible killer is going around and we’ve all been told that our best chance of minimizing death is to maximize our isolation and collective anxiety.

The Streets of New York City Under Quarantine | The New Yorker | Source: © The New Yorker/YouTube

It’s hard for me to think about the tragedy I’m witnessing without thinking of another one, one I narrowly avoided. Before my permanent move to the United States there was a short stay that ended in September of 2001 and saw me leave for Nigeria the day before America changed forever. I got on a plane September 10th, with no knowledge of the way this date would now be enmeshed in our cultural consciousness. I was a young kid, and so no one told me what had happened — for good reasons I suppose — and by the time we made the big journey I still had no idea what 9/11 was. I was eventually told on the one-year anniversary (my second-grade teacher must’ve loved that one), and I grew to view the events of the day the same way many others do around the world and the country, as national and geopolitical history.

The events of 9/11 changed New York in ways that require more deep exploration and thoroughness than this piece allows for, but the pandemic has quickly become as powerful a catalyst. Two decades ago, the world looked at a city where evil took root and saw a resilient community fight back with compassion. They saw people come together and provide support, strength, and solidarity when they could have devolved into fear and hate. Cities have the unique power of making humans acutely aware of their need for interdependence, and living in New York forces this on you regardless of choice. People here know that they need each other, and in that simple truth, lies the answer to how we’re going to make it out of this. New York is prepared for the long haul; it’s the short term that’s going to hurt.

9/11 Memorial

Overpopulation is part of New York’s charm; as of March, it became its curse. A city of this many people in a country that was barely prepared to handle testing the population of a small Washington town was never going to fare well. Those who could afford to get out made the journey, fleeing upstate to the mountains and eastbound to New England’s safety and leaving the rest of us to wallow. The restaurants have their chairs stacked up, the bars have their taps dry. The streets, once teeming with life, are in a vegetative state. The weekly and daily social activities that served as cornerstones of our lives have been removed and replaced with virtual interactions.

The new reality of New York City is a carved-out husk. The grandness of the city skyline used to be a reflection of what was going on below, but in this new world it’s nothing more than a deception. We miss the energy of the crowded streets. We miss the symphony of car horns and sirens and construction sounds from buildings that will never be completed because everything is always growing, always changing, always evolving. We miss the stage upon which we’ve been promised an audition, a chance to perform the roles we’ve trained for. We miss knowing that no matter what happened in our small, insignificant lives, the city we lived them in would continue on without us.

Maybe this is over in a month. Maybe this is over in thirteen. Maybe everything is permanently, unalterably screwed and this piece won’t be anything more than one man’s attempt to cope with being stuck at home in his Manhattan apartment. I told myself that I’m getting out of the pandemic prediction game permanently, but it’s too tempting. It’s hard to think about what’s going to change next, so instead I choose to think about what’s changed for me at this moment. I had an idea about what a New Yorker was based on fiction; I stopped caring about being a New Yorker and focused on surviving once I started my life here. As this pandemic continues and the city changes with it, I find myself thinking about what being a New Yorker means again. I think of what it means to care for strangers in an uncaring economic and social environment. I think of the joy and affirmation that comes with a place where you find your people and create your memories. I think of every time I felt like moving back to Yonkers would be better than all of this and slapped some sense back into myself because that’s what needed to be done.

People here know that they need each other, and in that simple truth, lies the answer to how we’re going to make it out of this.

New Yorkers aren’t special because they live in New York, New York is special because it brings out our best and worst qualities by design. This city is built to survive everything short of an earthquake and a global pandemic won’t be what ends it. Everything’s changed here and no one knows when “normal” comes back or what it even looks like but everyone knows one thing: a city that doesn’t sleep has no fear of nightmares.

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