After I told a coworker recently that my one year anniversary in the city was coming up soon she said, “That’s great! If you make it through a year, then you’ve got it. It’s a hard city to live in, and the first year is the hardest.” I think I’ve written a little about this, but I don’t think I’ve ever directly spoken about why it is that I hate New York a little less with every day. It would be more romantic to phrase it as “I love New York a little more with every day”, but I don’t think that quite captures the amount of animosity I had for the city when I first moved here. Because I absolutely hated it.
I had never wanted to live in New York. I hated it when I visited as a child. I remember staying in a hotel with my parents and filling up on a free complimentary breakfast in the basement to try and skip lunch to make it to an early inexpensive family dinner. Six years old and my strongest memories were the agitation I felt from my parents about the cost of things, the dirtiness of the streets, and the treacherous fast-paced sidewalks of Manhattan.
I still hated it when I visited as a teenager. The crowds at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the pushing and shoving and noise-making. My mom and I shivered in the beds at our hotel and the management claimed, that while the heaters were broken and they didn’t have any more blankets, they certainly didn’t owe us any refund. Whenever my friends would talk about going to New York City for vacation or about all the beautiful movies, songs, TV shows, and every other kind of art and entertainment created in or about New York, I would think I don’t understand how you can love a place like that, why you would ever want to live and create in as exhausting a place as that.
Before moving to New York, I lived in a small rural town in Fukui Prefecture, Japan, which is 43rd of 47 prefectures in rankings of population. I drove to my work through beautiful rice paddies flanked by mountains. In the morning, the mist would roll off the mountains and the sun would reflect in the paddies, outlining the shapes of ducks and other wildlife. I ran through my small neighborhood each night, encountering only a few cars and one or two people on the roads. The cicadas were the loudest sounds of the night. I rode my bike to the grocery store and got my coffee ground at a small cafe next door where the owner always tried to ask me questions about where I was from. I loved trying and failing to be understood in a mix of languages. I loved the careful curation of the countryside and familiarity of living in a small town in Japan and having the freedom to explore outside of it.
When I told people in Japan that I was moving to New York, many of them said “that will be a shock to you, after living here for a year!” I believed them, but at the same time, I didn’t really process it. I thought I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. I’ve always tried to deal with things one at a time. First I had to pack, first I had to clean my old apartment, first I had to say goodbye, first I had to visit my family in New Orleans, first I had to unwind and become familiar with America again. There were so many first things I had to do, that I completely pushed from my mind that it was New York I was moving to. New York, my old nemesis.
I think one of the reasons I hated New York was that people seemed to take for granted that it was the most amazing city in America. I always seemed to be hearing about it. I suspect one of the reasons is that it’s easy to talk about. Like Paris or London, everyone understands when you talk about wanting to experience a place like New York. You have the knowledge of famous places like the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 9/11 Memorial in common. You can talk about famous sites and shows on Broadway and Saturday Night Fever and you’ll be understood. If, however, you were to talk about your favorite places in Hannibal, Missouri, not as many people will have a lot to contribute to that or want to listen for very long. It’s easy to talk about places like New York.
I’ve always wanted to talk about smaller things. When I’m asked about my favorite parts of New Orleans, I might hit on some major attractions like Café du Monde or the French Quarter, but what I really want to talk about is walking along Bayou St. John and seeing the moonlight flicker over the nutria as they linger near the waters. I want to hear you talk about the sitting on the levee wall of Orleans Canal, your legs dangling over the earth as you listen to the rolling call of late summer crickets.
When I’m asked about my time in Japan, instead of talking about weekends in Tokyo, I want to tell you about a little bar by the train station I ran by every night and of the thick layers of smoke and camaraderie of drunken neighbors I felt through those windows, how I wanted to go there, but could never quite bring myself to interrupt that moment in time—the outdated wooden panelling, the lacy barstools, the clouded glasses, the bottles of Suntory whisky. I want to hear about the cloud you once saw outside your classroom that looked like a crab claw wrestling the evening sky. These little pieces are so much more a part of our defining experiences than the famous sights and rehearsed sounds.
When I first got to New York, I didn’t give it a chance to give me those small moments. I felt confident I knew it’s character and all it had to offer, and I didn’t want to absorb one bit of it. But that wasn’t fair of me. I’ve given every city I’ve ever lived in more of a chance at a place in my heart than I ever gave New York. I gave Chattanooga a place, I gave Minneapolis a place, I gave Sakai City a place, but I thought, I might live in New York, but I’ll never love it.
It’s just not true though. It rubs off on you. Once you have one friend, and then two, and they say “Hey, this is a great place! Let me show you…” And weeks turn into months, and the heat of the subway platforms is still unbearable, and the old lady that shouts as you as you try to move out of her way is still grating, and the cockroaches and rats that scurry across your path are still very much there, but suddenly you’re laughing about it. It’s funny, isn’t it? That one time you lost your monthly Metrocard in a theater and they wouldn’t let you back in no matter how hard you cried? That one time you were threatened by an irate passenger on the subway who felt you had wronged him by unnoticingly letting your canvas bag bump against his knee? It’s funny how old these memories are, and how they just don’t matter as much as they used to.
Then there are the many times on the subway when you’ve been approached for money by people who are in hard times and it feels like everyone is suffering and there is no happiness. You’ve been sending out cover letters for months and you’ve gotten no responses. Your student debts loom and it seems like it’s the city’s fault. Some friendships seem so superficial here. And how many times do you see the homeless and have to interact with people that, in your worst moments, you’d rather forget? It seems like too much to face your own troubles and fears and recognize, also, that others are having a worse time and need your help. How difficult it is when you say you don’t know how you can help. Do you feel these things? Do you feel how hard it can be to live in a place where it feels like no one notices? Do you feel the weight of sadness at being unable to solve a city’s problems? Yes.
But, can you see past the grit and see there is more to a city than it’s problems? Every place is full of hardship, even if it’s behind closed doors and you can’t see it, it happens there too, as it happens here. Just as New Orleans is more than its crime rate, more than its hurricanes, more than its history, New York too is a small place full of little everyday experiences that are worth its pain.
The way everyone steals discreet glances at that young dad with a baby girl in his lap on the subway, as she plays with his sunglasses and he cradles her tiny feet in his hands. The way a woman drops down to hold another woman who has fainted in the subway car during the morning rush and shouts “Does anyone have any water? Any food?” And water bottles and granola bars are passed down to her as she asks “Are you okay? Have you eaten anything this morning? Can you drink this?” The way a group of European tourists approaches you for a photograph and some of their excitement at being here, being right here, rubs off on you.
The apartment complex behind you is full of people watching the Fourth of July fireworks and they all start singing the Star-Spangled banner and their voices are shockingly powerful against the blast of fireworks. The woman at the laundromat asks you to help put a big hoop earring into her ear and then gives you a Dunkin Donuts coupon and tells you to be sure to use it before it expires in a few days. A girl shouts “I love your dress!” as you pass her in Bryant Park. Someone picks up the sweater you dropped on the street and runs to give it to you. The sunlight flickers on a stony park bench and a donut crumbles in your hands, falling over the chessboard top of the table where a group of neighbors will later gather.
On a cold February day, as you huddle your nose in your scarf, breathing in the sharp air, a woman will shout at you “Keep yo’ head up!” and you will smile at her, not sure if she meant it as a critique of your danger to others on the sidewalk when you are not looking, or if she meant you should stay strong under the pressures of New York and face forward, head up, to its challenges. And you realize it’s all a matter of how you look at it.
It’s all a matter of how you look at it. That’s New York.