I remember the first time I set foot in New York. I was on my obligatory 9th grade government field trip, where a group of brave teachers and parents agreed to schlep in a greyhound bus with 100 kids and McDonalds for the road. That trip was mind-blowing for me, we saw the wreckage of Ground Zero, we stood in the vast vaulted hall of Ellis Island, and had a tour of City Hall. Well, most of the students toured City Hall. My mother surprised me, not for the last time, by suggesting that her charges sneak off with her for pastries in Little Italy. I would like to say that I remember what we ordered, but I don’t. I remember licking chocolate off of my fingers on the bus ride back to Maryland and being certain that one day, I would live in New York.
There is a picture somewhere of me leaning on the railing at the front of the New York Sights boat that took us around the harbor, in a very Titanic moment, with a boy that I didn’t realize had a crush on me. More’s the pity.
During college application there was little question that I wanted to come to New York City, though I gave some other notable places like Boston a try. I eventually chose a university known for their (formerly good) basketball team, diverse student body, and decent financial aid packages. Though the steep price of my education would later come back to haunt me, it didn’t matter, I was in New York City.
My first day was an exhausting blur. I met my roomies, who were huge weirdos but exciting in that we were not related and they did not grow up in “South County.” I don’t remember much of my first semester – there was relatively little partying, some cheap and appropriately awful tequila, and realization after realization that New York City was not just big, it was enormous. It was incomprehensibly vast. It was mind-numbing. It went on forever, and it was not just full of college-girl dreams.
A woman I knocked into outside of the notoriously busy Union Square Whole Foods shouted at me not to steal her apples when I bent to help her pick up her bags. Chinatown smelled weird. It took 1.5 hours on a good day to get back to campus and the Q46 was devastatingly unreliable. I began to miss home. I began to miss my family. Three months in New York and I was breaking up with my first love, sick with the flu, and miserable. A similar sadness crept over me three months into my second semester, and my third. I noticed the pattern: three months of gorging myself on the delights and charms of the City and I was exhausted. Or overwhelmed.
One night, I participated in something called a Midnight Run: students spend a few hours making bagged meals, and sorting various donations of essential toiletries and clothing into bins. They take these items, along with a big tub of hot coffee and another of hot soup, to various locations in Manhattan and distribute them to persons affected by homelessness. Students were encouraged to sit and share conversations with others, and I remember talking to a man who had two degrees in art history, and a woman who had a doctorate in psychology. I majored in Sociology and Photography. I was petrified. I was scared. I hated seeing this pain, this destitution among people. The idea I’d had about New York changed fundamentally on that evening. I suppose you could say, it stopped being a city of dreams for me, and started being more of its true self in my eyes: a place of contradiction, of staggering wealth and inequality. It became itself, simultaneously loved and reviled by many.
I see it in the students I teach today, at that very same university. We talk about the “Three Month Sads.” It’s an interesting trend. We talk about the love and hate we have for this place. They love the diversity, too. They love that it is close enough to home (Long Island for many), but away from the control of parents: they are exploring their freedom, they are learning to fail. They hate hearing about the complicated parts, the messy bits. They are aghast when we talk about inequality. They are uncomfortably quiet when native New Yorkers discuss how they have been targeted by the NYPD, how they grew up poor, how this city can be dirty and unjust. They begin to confront privilege, excess, and responsibility. What to do with it is their choice.
I see New York changing in the students who, like me, did not grow up here. It is as if it moves from the City of our dreams: a fantastic place that symbolizes freedom, rebirth, opportunity, luxury, wealth, or fame and into a real thing. A thing made of concrete and steel, built on the backs of exploited and marginalized people, where innovation brought us marvel after marvel of public water, to the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Empire State Building. We cannot possibly know every side of it, every secret corner, but we begin to see the truth.
My experience of coming to NYC and of learning to love it despite its ugliness, is a decidedly privileged one. Though I never had a tremendous amount of financial support to fall back on, I had the unfailing devotion of my family, and the benefit of student loans to help me ease into supporting myself completely. I have been able to create a living situation that is affordable, and which I can pay for with many different kinds of work that are available to me. I know English, and am white. I experience the offerings of this place based on that. I experience my own struggles, failures, and growth alongside that of 8 million others. Each and every single one of our paths is different, and challenging and rewarding in their own deeply personal ways. This is why my love for New York City continues to grow despite all of its darkness, it has room for all of us and we have the power to shape it. Built on us, built by us.
I have lived here for almost eight years now, and the old pattern eventually shifted so that now I get homesick for Brooklyn instead of Maryland when I am away. I don’t want to move after three months, and I don’t pretend I’ll ever run this town, or even make a lasting mark upon it. New York has revealed pieces of itself, and I’ve gone digging a fair bit to. Turning fever-dream into an understanding of the millions of real dreams that combine here to create this place. A place I can say I love, and don’t hate; but where I understand why some people do.