It is a trope as old as the city itself: a wide-eyed kid from some small town gets off the train, plane, or out of the car their parents dutifully drove up from that small town, and their eyes grow wide and they take a deep breath and they say to themselves, “I am home.” And whether a montage or a musical number follows, the wide-eyed, small-town kid takes on New York City. They find a home, they make friends, they stumble through odd jobs and dingy laundromats and $2 bodega egg-and-cheese-on-bagels. Something is always driving them through this strife, whether it’s a dream or an idea, or something that stuck in their head once upon a time in pop culture. They saw Rachel, Kurt, and Santana do it on Glee; or Hannah and her friends on Girls; or Carrie Bradshaw or Holly Golightly, the ultimate of haphazard, glorified single New York City girls, and so they decided they could do it, too.
But they didn’t realize exactly how hard it is.
I heard the title of Taylor Swift’s new song, ‘Welcome To New York,’ before I heard the song itself. (A Spotify devotee, I cannot remember the last time I bought a CD or music beyond my $10-a-month subscription, and though Swift’s music is infectious, I don’t quite feel compelled either which way by her to preorder her new CD, 1989.) Immediately, I rolled my eyes. I imagined the worst. I imagined ‘Brooklyn Girls‘ gone twee, or maybe a song about a love that went sour on the city streets. (Anyone who’s lived in New York has one of those stories, about the streets that haunt you and the restaurants you can’t visit anymore and the neighborhoods you stay away from for fear you’ll run into your ex. Live here long enough, and this city becomes a heartbreak ghost town. It’s too small not to.) I imagined Jay-Z shuddering, the Beastie Boys rioting, and Frank Sinatra rolling over in his grave.
So I found a link to the song (it accidentally leaked in full on iTunes in Russia a few hours before it was set to be released) and listened. It was not that bad. Really. I concede that. It’s catchy and infectious and everything Taylor Swift knows she’s good at producing. She is a pop star, with an impressive roster of accolades and awards. I’m not sure she even really knows how to make a not-digestible pop song, and that is fine.
But once I’d heard the song, my first thought was, “Oh God, kids are going to listen to this song and think it’s a sign that they should move here.”
My friends and I — most of us transplants ourselves, so I understand the mild hypocrisy circulating here — have a theory. We see these people — whether they’re college kids, or fresh-out-of-college kids, or simply people who always wanted to move here and had ideas of the kind of people they would be or how they would find themselves and reinvent their entire worlds and make a change here — and we make bets on whether someone will last two years in this city or not. Two years is plenty of time: to move twice, or renew your lease on a tiny, overpriced walkup once; to get your heart broken a few times; to spend a few nights out until 5 am because you can; to find a favorite coffee shop, a favorite brunch spot — to find yourself, really. But two years is also enough to run your finances into the ground; to realize that the amount of sleep you get is nowhere near the amount of sleep you need; to begin to resent your superintendent on a cellular, spiritual level; and to really begin to miss wherever it is that you came from.
Two years, we say. And we can usually tell, and we’re usually right. Who makes it or who doesn’t. Whose ideas of the city were realistic, and who had pipe dreams. Who wanted the glitz and glamour, the neon signs and fast-paced crush of everything, but didn’t want to work for it (these are the ones who never make it); and the people who understand that to actually earn these things that Hollywood promises, you have to work hard. You have to work a lot. You have to work long hours. And you will be tired, and whether or not you think it is worth it, is wholly up to you.
Because New York doesn’t care. New York does not love you. I cannot stress this enough. New York is a city that has seen untold millions of people: tourists and transplants and natives in rent-controlled apartments passed down from generation to generation with obscenely infinitesimal rent (but even then, those contracts are being torn up and their tenants kicked out for glass-box luxury high-rises), all sandwiched together in subway cars that smell like rats and B.O. and worse. If you want to keep up with the crush, you had better start running. No one will hold the door for you, no one will understand why you’re late on rent, no one will care. Because they know that no one cares about them, either.
If this sounds cynical, I don’t mean it to. I love this city. And I understand why Taylor Swift wrote this song. She is a deeply personal songwriter, and has famously put a considerable number of men on blast for how they broke up with her, how they played with her emotions, and how they are never, ever, ever… well, you know. I tend to write about things inspired by what I observe in my life, or in my friends’ lives — it’s only ever a jumping-off point, but I take creative liberty from there, as I’m sure Swift does, too. We are both nearly-25-year-old females living in Manhattan, but with roots elsewhere. (I was born and raised in Los Angeles, another city Swift knows well; she hails from a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania.) We both have cats (though I do not carry mine around the city as Swift does, as I’m sure mine would claw my face off if I tried) and while we both regularly work out, the only time I have my photograph taken when I leave the gym is if I’m taking a selfie (and I do not look a fashion plate if that happens, either); Swift, however, has paparazzi following her every move. And they will. Because she is a celebrity, and it’s only natural we’re curious about what her world is like.
This is why we follow her on Twitter and Instagram. And because she is a celebrity and I am not (and I do not want to be) her world is going to look infinitely different from mine. Her life will look infinitely different from yours, too, if you choose to move here.
Taylor Swift has probably never had to sell her shoes to make rent in her TriBeCa apartment. If she is ever locked out, I’d imagine her best friend Karlie Kloss has a spare key. Taylor probably doesn’t have to think twice about whether that iced coffee will overdraw her account, and all the crop top combos in the world probably live in a custom-built walk-in closet that rivals the size of most New Yorkers’ living rooms. New York was waiting for Taylor, as her song suggests, because she is a multi-millionaire pop star, and can afford to bend the New York minute to her own time. New York has not, however, been waiting for many other people.
Because New York will not wait for you. Everyone here has been someone else before, sure, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been blinded by the bright lights. We all have at one point or another. If we are not from here, that is why we moved here. But our eyes adjusted, and we realized that there is so much more to this city than what is sold on TV or in movies or on postcards. There is pain and struggle and strife and deciding you are hungry enough to wolf down a $1 slice of pizza on a gross, grimy subway and not care about who else was in the car before you. Like any true love, Swift says, it drives you crazy, but you know you wouldn’t change anything.
New York is a lot of things: heartbreaking and wonderful; soul-crushing and invigorating; able to remind you on even your worst days when you’re broke and sad and homesick and sure that moving here was a mistake, that if you just look up and see the skyline or the park, you’ll remember that this city also contains a lot of magic. But it will not, and does not wait for you. It waits for no one. That’s why people who thrive here are so fast-paced themselves. We multitask. We hold six conversations at once while checking our phones and get mad at tourists who walk slowly and four-wide on sidewalks and people in other cities think we are rude. And yes, maybe we are maladjusted in terms of proper etiquette for any other city (and our zip code and collective way of acting does not excuse us from being assholes) but the point of the matter is, we survive. We have learned how to keep up with New York. And it is exhausting and tiring and painful and heartbreaking, but somewhere along the line, you decide if it’s worth it or not.
I came to this city seven years ago, a wide-eyed kid on a college scholarship. I had only really applied to New York schools, so I knew I was going to end up here one way or the other. And, inexplicably, I stayed. I have been excruciatingly homesick more times than I can count; I have driven a massive U-haul through Manhattan on a Saturday; and I have woken up in Brooklyn on my friend’s couch even though I live an endless amount of subway stops and a whole other borough away. If I had listened to Taylor Swift’s song before I moved, I would have had an entirely different idea of what New York was, or who I would be when I got there.
I have grown harder, I wear more black, I drink more coffee. But I also find little moments of escape — in a book in a secondhand shop, in two-dollar tacos with friends, in birthday dinners and comedy shows and walks in parks, and, yes, in pop songs I listen to on the subway on the way to and from anywhere. I will probably add ‘Welcome To New York’ to a playlist sooner or later. (I resisted ‘Shake It Off’ as long as I could, but I succumbed to “this. sick. beat” eventually.) But while there is no place quite like New York, that does not mean that New York is the right place for everyone.
Visit New York. Visit somewhere else. Find what drives you, and what makes you feel like you will give 100%, and then some. Where would you want to be sleepless and tired and overworked? Would you want to be those things at all? Ask yourself before you move to New York, or to Los Angeles or London or Paris or anywhere in the world you think holds the key to the rest of your life. Chances are you could adapt to any city if you tried.
But that’s just it. You have to want to try.
I went on a trip a few months ago. I spent two weeks back home in Los Angeles, and I stayed with my parents and fell into a lot of the same old routines I had there once upon a time. But when I returned, my friend asked me what it was like. I’d been toying with the idea of moving back, as I do every few months, but when I told him what I found at home, I surprised even myself.
“I realized I needed to be here, in New York.”
“Not a lot of people say that,” he said. He’s right. He, for example, knows he will move away eventually, probably to a piece of land upstate where he can be alone — the only thing New York cannot give you is “alone,” and I can tell he needs it. Some people itch for alone like trying to hail a taxi in the rain at rush hour. I, however, hate being alone. I can’t stand it. Maybe that’s my defect. Maybe that’s the defect of everyone who lives here, or moves here, or dreams of being here.
There’s enough room here for you and me, Taylor. We live in two different worlds within the same New York. But the people you’ll lure here will live in my New York, not yours. And though I know you don’t know what that’s like, it would be the kind thing to warn them of all the struggles in store for them on the other side of that plane ticket. But I guess a lighthearted pop song will sell more records, regardless of whether the promises loaded in the song are attainable or empty.