New York

Nearly every writer who has spent time in New York has written a whimsical ode about his or her tumultuous — but loving — relationship with the city.

E.B. White wrote in “Here is New York”: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

Truman Capote wrote in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: “I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”

Joan Didion wrote in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: “I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”

So it does the world no good for me to compose a piece about New York, especially when I feel as though I have no right to call New York mine. I did not grow up in the city; I just came of age in it. I did not fully engage with the city, nor did I ever embrace being called a New Yorker.

But every time I hear that a friend is moving to New York — or even just visiting — I feel a pang of saline jealousy rise up from my stomach and into my tear ducts.

I fought a lot with New York. There were late-night subway rides back to Harlem, which took upwards of an hour from Brooklyn — and far longer if you fell asleep on the train and ended up in the Bronx. There were those Friday nights you ran out in your PJs to the local bodega — which made you vulnerable to not just the wind, but also the gorgeous, dressed-up people going to clubs who judged you with a quick glance. And there was of course the landlords, who refused to turn on the heat until snot froze on your upper lip.

Maybe New York and I were never a perfect match. I’m OK with New York not being mine. But I just can’t bear the thought of New York being someone else’s.

In a previous post, I quoted Barack Obama talking about the loss of anonymity being an “unnatural state” — he said, “You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it.” And I can’t help but think being in New York is exactly that: unnatural. Homo sapiens did not evolve to live in such a way. As my father said when I lived in my 250-square-foot, basement apartment: “You have to start living like a human again.” To survive in New York, I had to adjust time and time again, and perhaps even compromise any expectation of comfort. That might be what I gave to that city, and in exchange for what? Opportunity? Excitement?

There are a lot of terrible people in New York, as evidenced by the man who spit on a random woman in the subway one night. But terrible people often give an opening for good people to step in, like the dozens of New Yorkers who offered that woman a tissue, hand sanitizer and even a shoulder to cry on as tears welled up in her eyes. By the time she got off the train, she was smiling.

I don’t want to make it seem like Boston is a bad place, because in fact I enjoy it here. It’s just that when I drive home at night, I’m not awestruck by the surroundings that inhabit me. Up until the day I left, New York gave me chills. Driving my U-Haul up First Avenue on onto FDR Highway — out of New York, possibly forever — I thought about the first time I saw New York City. It was from the airplane, flying in for my freshman year of college. I looked down at the buildings and thought they were big, but nothing too overwhelming — but then the plane tilted away from Brooklyn and toward Manhattan, where I saw these jagged pieces of metal, glass and concrete shooting up from an island; I could not comprehend such scale that my mind saw them as miniature models.

Of course all these effects are man-made constructs, and this location is only as important as we make it. But if we’re willing to stack so much stuff in one place, it is probably one hell of an important place.

There were a lot of things that made New York a very hard place to be, so often I found myself sacrificing social gatherings in order to simply keep sane. But then, as surely every young New Yorker has experienced, there are moments when you have to take inventory of your friends — even if you haven’t seen any of them in weeks — because you’re about to have a breakdown, and my goodness is New York a lonely place to have a breakdown, especially if you’re 12 subway stops away from the nearest person who would care that you’re crying.

When I left New York, I assumed the city would freeze behind me and the grid would be left perfectly the same. But today I learned that the first diner I ever went to — University Diner — is closing. It was a terrible diner with overpriced soup and it deserves to close. But the fact that it is closing means the city has experienced time in the same way I have, which disappoints me.

When I go back, I’m not scared that I won’t recognize the city. I’m scared the city will no longer recognize me. That talk is flowery, so the very concrete way to put it is this: When I go back, how many subway stops will I have to go before I find someone who cares that I’m crying?

So I guess much of this is the people who live there, the people who have been frozen in my memory as my fellow New Yorkers, and the fact that they may not be there or they may be quite different — no longer starving artists, but successful entreprenuers.

I keep telling myself the next paragraph is my last about New York and that this essay needs to end — especially since all these sentiments have been expressed before by other people. But I’ve kept going because I’m convinced the more I write about New York, the less likely it is that it will forget me.

6 responses to New York

  1. Grace

    oh new york…

  2. jen

    i love this. and once again, i love your writing.

  3. jase

    Beautifully written Alvin, totally resonates.

  4. So well written! I tried NYC– thought I’d be there one full year, lasted 7 months. I gave it a 5 out of 10. Love to visit; hard to live there, though.

  5. Steph

    New York is unique (tongue-twister!) place, with the power to crush your soul and save it even in the same day. I love living here. But I do think it’s because of the people “who would care that you’re crying.” If all my friends were to up and move to San Francisco, I’d probably follow them.

    • Alvin

      I think I agree. The only thing that holds me back from saying it outright, though, is thinking back to all the times I walked by the East River alone, feeling the rhythm of the city around me.

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