Note from the author: this brief essay was written in April, 2013, six months after I moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York.
New York is indeed a colossus–one whose ability to break a person’s will is resisted only by some unknown forcefield or deflector shield; some people’s shields are stronger, less cracked, than others. My shield remains in its infancy, and it only can take so many impacts before I find myself drained, before the mere idea of riding a subway train triggers a panic attack.
Beside a styrofoam cup, its coffee guts running from its mouth, a yarmulke lies discarded–crumpled by a disenchanted fist, perhaps left behind for the secular lights of the city across the East River. The weather warms–finally–but I’ve mastered the icy, straight-ahead stare one must adorn while navigating the streets by foot. In this apartment, I’m only assaulted by the car horns and ambulance sirens and occasional expletives espoused by pedestrians, either fed up with the B47 arriving late or disgusted with some deeper humiliation.
Sometimes, the crowded bodegas and random police presence at subway stops (to say nothing of the police cars & vans hauling away the handcuffed) are too much to bear. To make matters worse, I’ve written so little since moving here; never in my life have I felt so defenseless against the cacophony, the hoard.
I can stay inside my apartment only for so long before I go mad, become overtaken by backward thoughts–retracing my steps, remembering how–and why–i ended up in this city: remembering employment, remembering my hometown, my family. And yet, I can’t recall a time when, since moving to New York six months ago, I’ve longed to go home.
At times however–regardless of where I lived–I’ve missed elements of southern New Jersey, my homeland: the familiarity of the streets; the night silence backed by a soundtrack of crickets and wind chimes; the rural sprawl, where real estate developers and chain store corporations struggle with the vast, spacious farms and flatlands.
These elements are missed as one wishes to dust off a photo album buried underneath a sofa or beneath a stack of vinyl records. I wish to experience parts of my home again–a far cry from homesickness and its principal symptom: that burning itch to return home, and stay there, as if home itself has not changed, as if my new surroundings have not forever altered me.
I’ve been told that it takes a year here to acquire one’s bearings, to get a sense of the land and people, to become acquainted with the familiar. Every day, I breathe a little easier, or find the will to blast through the panic, the anxiety. Life in the city is a constant set of calisthenics meant to strengthen, or break, one’s coping skills. To live here is to cope, and find that balance between comfort and the awareness of one’s surroundings–to whistle while disembarking the subway while checking (occasionally) to see if you’re being followed. Everything here is a threat to your body.
The line between a young upstart raiding the borough of its riches & the old man mumbling madness to himself while slumped on a bench is thin, so thin. My time here has been arduous, has tested my patience, my capacity to lose and gain and lose as this place, more than any other place I’ve lived or visited, changes–and activates change–at a rapid, demanding pace.
Narrow apartments with walls too thin to blot out the porn audio and rapid-fire phone conversations in French; the ceilings creak with footsteps; the landlady below fries plantains and makes all our stomachs stir. Shootings outside bodegas; people on the block at 2 am, on the hunt for a sandwich; a baptist church receives new coats of paint–egg white to brighten the surrounding somber stone and brick of apartments and more apartments and storefront businesses seemingly under new management every Monday.
New York has, as a matter of self-preservation, forced me to find silver linings and small successes whenever possible. I am alive. I’ve lost weight. My health–physical and mental–has improved, strengthened. I enjoy Brooklyn’s offering of strong coffee and tight-knit neighborhoods. I am not impoverished; I am not homeless. I avoid Manhattan at all costs (this is, I assure you, a success). I have experienced only a fraction of the sounds, the beauty and the art of this borough. Most importantly, the winter loses its might as the April daylight lingers longer and longer; my first Spring here is about to begin.
The trick to living here, if I’m in any position to offer advice on this matter, is to know who you are. New York will not transform an introvert into an extravert; it will not end ennui or depression; it will not apply a salve to anxiety: the colossus pulls forth all the elemental forces inside your spirit. Sometimes, retreat is the better part of valor and sanity–and sometimes, the city calls with a “come hither” siren song to come out & play, to participate. New York heightens the senses and you will hear what your body & mind says. Listen carefully.