I arrive on July 27, 2011. The city bustles — everyone on top of each other, clawing toward whatever it is they’re looking for. No one acknowledges my existence. I don’t expect them to.
I move in with a retired couple in their late 60s. I am 26. We share an adjoining bathroom; in the shower, there is a stool so they can sit. No one is caught with their pants down.
My roommates have a house upstate, where they spend half their time, including my first night in New York. Alone in a room without Internet or cable, I try to convince myself that I’m excited to be here. Later, I joke that I cried myself to sleep that night. I didn’t. But the emotions weren’t far off.
I start grad school. I learn that my professor once lived in my building. On the same floor. In the same apartment.
I visit the Church of Scientology in Harlem. It isn’t as weird as expected — but still pretty weird. At the Met, in front of a Gustav Klimt painting, I shake Paul Giamatti’s hand. He has big mutton shop sideburns. I go to Rucker Park the day after Kevin Durant drops 66 points in front of a frenzied crowd. I hope for an encore. He doesn’t show up. Neither do any other NBA stars.
I feel pangs of withdrawal for California. Eventually, I reach a low point. So low that I write a shitty first person essay about being homesick. Somehow, New York is lonely even with family and friends nearby.
I sweat. I sleep through a hurricane. Autumn does something beautiful to the trees. I feel the legitimate cold. Still, it is one of the mildest winters in years. I concede that Californians really are pussies. But so are New Yorkers when it comes to earthquakes.
The best and worst thing about the City is its scale and density. New York grants me anonymity, and I feel both powerless and emboldened.
At first, I don’t mind tourists. Then they become the worst. I weave through them in Times Square and Soho, and I’m kind of an asshole about it, too, walking aggressively, huffing and puffing, accidentally brushing shoulders. I do this partly because I am annoyed that they are in my way. (I have places to go and things to eat.) But I also want them to know that I live here. It makes me feel like a New Yorker, even though I’m not. (10-year rule?) It is my way of screaming, “I’m not a tourist and you are inconveniencing me. MOVE.”
I people-watch ALL THE TIME. So much pretty everywhere. I crush on a girl, but I’m too much of a ween to do anything until it is too late. Turns out: it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I eat alone in an Upper West Side restaurant and ask out my waitress. A month later, I go on a date with a girl who once dated a Laguna Beach cast member.
I feel pressure to dress better and be fitter.
I walk into a clothing store, see a shirt I like, look at the price tag, calculate how many meals that could get me, then walk out.
I lose five pounds. Part of this is vanity, but it’s mostly because I walk a ton and don’t have time to eat regularly. But when I do, I eat some of the best food of my life: thin slices of raw beautifully marbled steak topped with fresh sea urchin at Takashi, uni spaghetti at Basta Pasta, live octopus at Sik Gaek, smoked sturgeon at Barney Greengrass, Chicken Paitan Ramen at Totto, Pork Chop over Rice at Excellent Pork Chop House, Tofu Ribbon Salad at Yunnan Kitchen. I burn my mouth with the delicious hell juice that is Mamoun’s hot sauce. Sometimes I get drinks and appetizers at one place, entrees at another, then one more stop for dessert — all within walking distance. This is how I do New York.
I eat lots of pizza — from utility to gourmet — and discover that the pleasure I get from it is limited. A slice from Lombardi’s or Sal and Carmine’s is good — among the best in the city — but it’s not Death Row Meal good. Pizza does the job, just don’t expect it to change your world. Same with burgers. (See: Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern.) Ditto with takeout Chinese. Good Mexican food does not exist in Manhattan.
I get food poisoning from a sketchy slice of pizza from Gray’s Papaya. It was only a dollar and I was drunk.
One day, I open my closet and see a cockroach. It is huge. I’m talking military experiment big — the size of a mini Almond Joy. It perches on the collar of my favorite shirt and its antennae bob — one up, one down, alternating — in search of food. I recoil, talk myself out of burning the entire apartment down, return with a wad of tissue, and grab the sumbitch. I feel resistance as it clings to the fabric. Down the toilet it goes. “We’ve never had them before,” my roommate says. Sure. I learn to live with them.
I also learn to live with constant noise: the dull hum of traffic, sirens, the same woman screaming at my building at 1 a.m. every other night (until she stops showing up. I hope she’s okay.) The housing project next door plays all the jams. My upstairs neighbor, a retired opera singer, teaches lessons on the weekends. She also brings bed bugs into the building.
I am the only person ever to not like Sleep No More.
I hate myself for forgetting to Instapaper an article before a long train ride. Why isn’t there cell reception in the subway?
I wait four hours in the rain outside the Roseland Ballroom to see Beyoncé. Worth it.
The midtown Barnes & Noble, where I am reading, suddenly fills with delirious teenaged girls. I am confused. Turns out, it is a Kardashian Sisters book signing (minus Kim). Kourtney waves at me. One girl, crying, says, “I can barely walk,” after getting an autograph.
I shake Mos Def’s hand in SoHo. He and the woman he is with are wearing all white. They look pretty fly.
Outside Minetta Tavern, I take a picture with Kristen Wiig. (I’m a celebrity whore.) She is extremely nice. And adorable. We’re best friends now.
In the world’s worst sales tactic, a man selling candy on the street calls me Jeremy Lin.
After a night of drinking, I fall asleep on the train, as usual. I wake up at 103rd street. I never miss my stop, ever. It is MAGIC.
I get my graduate degree.
Summer arrives. Subway stations become saunas. Dirty, rat infested saunas. I take three showers a day.
I waste hours in Washington Square Park, reading, people gazing. On Sunday night, I listen to Michael David Gordon sing and charm a crowd. I think to myself: Every New Yorker needs to experience this.
On July 19, 2012, I move back to California.
It is 77 degrees. I drive a car with the windows down. My family and friends smile when they see me. Mom makes a home cooked meal. San Jose is decidedly not lonely. Still, all I think about is New York. I’m suddenly snobby, judging, comparing everything to the City. I tell myself that this feeling will pass. I tell others that it’s an adjustment. I worry. This seems unhealthy. I hope this is just a phase and not a sign that I made the wrong decision. One night, an especially good night, I realize I made the right choice. I still miss New York.