I’m yet to meet a New Yorker that can unequivocally say “Yes, I definitely would like to spend the rest of my life living in New York City.” There is a tacit acknowledgement that a New York lifestyle isn’t entirely sustainable; that we’d never want to raise children here, that we’ll either burn out, or find ourselves craving the nourishment of different priorities. Living in New York is, essentially, like living in an alarm clock; eventually it’s going to start screaming at you to wake up, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself relentlessly hitting the snooze button.
For the first year that I lived in New York, everything was simply marvellous. Most of the time I was too hungover for words, and I’d often find myself with only $10 and a whole week between me and my next paycheck. I shared mattresses on the floor in crowded lofts, lived in neighborhoods where I couldn’t walk down the street alone at night and scraped together pennies just to buy stale cups of lukewarm bodega coffee. And yet nothing could kill the buzz of being in New. York. City. Repeat: everything was simply marvellous.
I don’t know what changed; when exactly I started noticing the pungent, suffocating smell of the street. I assume it was always there, but I was so wrapped up in my New York fever dream I barely noticed the writhing squall of rat rising up from the trash, the piles of rodent bodies breaking apart and, viciously rabid, chasing each other across the sidewalk for scraps. Because New York doesn’t change–there will always be the crazy man on the subway, reeking of whiskey and a decade of unbrushed teeth pointing at you accusingly and brusquely demanding, “Russian or Jew?”–but we change within it. Where once being caught on the J train in a snowstorm over the Williamsburg bridge for 2 hours, smoking cigarettes with carriage strangers and people breaking into song while you shook a maraca was once a romantic adventure, now, under a new, shrunken perspective, it’s not so much a nuisance as it is a splitting open of the ground beneath you, swallowing you whole.
New York, for the most part, is an awful, horrible place. There’s not a moment of silence or an island of reprieve. The weekends see drunks littering the streets, and the mornings after see the streets strewn with the previous evening’s vomit and debris. There’s intense, sometimes third world poverty here; crime; catcalling; and sometimes just general rudeness and an unwillingness to have a neighbor’s back. It’s a callous, cruel town where everyone has an agenda, and by and large that agenda is individualistic and materialistic. There are few parks, or even tree lined streets, if you’re one of the masses that can’t afford prime real estate. Apartments are old and leaky with mould growing from the ceiling, and the city is infested with wildlife that is just as ruthless and parasitic as the succubus of humanity that exists here.
It might be time to go. Time to go to where there is grass, or ocean, or a space where the screaming mass of 8 million isn’t constantly bearing down on you. God just somewhere I can plant a vegetable patch, or let my cat outside without fear that he’s going to get cat rabies from one of the ten strays on my block, or tortured by some bored kids, or stolen by someone in need of a pretty cat. Somewhere where the night isn’t punctuated by couples fighting on the street outside my window, sirens wailing, locals blasting wall shaking bass from their cars; somewhere to sleep from sunset to sunrise and wake up feeling the infinity of a fresh awakening.
But then–through the stench of urine and sweaty feet–you’re running for the subway and the person in front of you holds the door so you can make it with a antelopian leap.
You’re crying on the street–because you’re tired and your feet hurt and you don’t get paid enough for this shit–and a woman hustles past you, briefly squeezes your elbow and whispers “he’s not worth it” before disappearing back into the throng.
You walk out of the Strand cradling 3 books that smell like old yellow paper and you paid less than $20 for them.
You’re with your friends and it’s warm or cold, you’re drinking beer or hot toddy–it doesn’t matter–and in the candle light you laugh all night, and on your way home you eat that burrito (you know the one) while you’re half drunk and sleepy on the side of the road.
You’re shooting down the BQE in Brooklyn towards Dumbo and as the car takes that labyrinthian loop raising you up above street level, and with the windows down and the wind racing at your face, your periphery is filled in by the southernmost tip of Manhattan, all lit up, the sun setting pink behind the silhouette of sparkling buildings.
And you hit snooze.