A New York state of mind.

I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past month – some for fun, vacation time, but also trying to get myself a new job. And if you’ve read this blog, you know New York has been wearing on me over the past 6-8 months. It’s an exhausting, difficult place to live. I had to deal with a terrible commute. I missed my friends in other cities. So when I lost my job, feeling the way I’d been feeling about New York, I thought, ok, this is the time for a change. One of my friends even reminded me that I’d told her – way back in April – that I was up for leaving, just too lazy to look for a new job. Well, now I had no choice.

So I spent a few days in DC, where I used to live. When I left, it was to go to school, and while I was 150% sure about my decision to go to school, I was less than sure about leaving the city. I loved it there. For most of my first year in Amherst, I ached to go back. I jumped at the opportunity to do an internship in Northern Virginia, and I always suspected I might make my way back there eventually. I drove my Massachusetts friends crazy with talk about how much I’d enjoyed it there.

When I was back there a few weeks ago, I felt at home. I felt at ease. I knew my way around, I was with friends I’d known for years, and everything felt comfortable. Within a few hours of arriving, I thought, there is no way I can live anywhere else.

Then I went to Boston.

I had started feeling the pull of the city when I was in high school, and I applied to Boston College. Unfortunately, that’s the only school in Boston I applied to, and when I was wait listed, I elected to go elsewhere. My best friend went to Boston University, and I made a point to visit her once a year and often felt a pang of regret for not applying there, or any of the other schools in the area. It was a city I always thought I could live in – I just never made it there. Life took me in other directions until I found myself in western Massachusetts – certainly not Boston, but close enough to feel its pull once more – and following grad school, I began to visit friends in the city once every few months. I fell in love again.

Boston is more manageable than New York. I have a social system I could drop myself into easily and feel established in the city. It’s a beautiful city. It feels more similar to home than any other city I’ve lived in. I could get back to skiing again, something I desperately miss. For the first few days of my visit, I thought, ok, never mind… I want to live here.

Then the hurricane hit.

A natural disaster is the last thing I’d expected to pull me back toward New York, but as I sat in my friend’s Boston apartment – stranded here because my Monday morning bus had been canceled – I felt an odd mix of emotions as we watched CNN. I was worried for my friends back there. I was in awe and disbelief as I watched the flooding and power outages and the crazy videos that felt more like a post-apocalyptic movie than real life. And I felt a sense of ownership – that’s my city that this is happening to, I know those streets and bridges and subways – and then a sense of pride – that’s New York, and we’re powering through this, and we’ll be fine, because we’re New Yorkers.

I felt a little bit left out. Crazy, I know, but hear me out.

The thing that makes New York New York is the sense of community – that we’re all in this crazy city together, and that no one from outside New York can really get it. You often hear people say they love to visit the city, but could never live there. We are the ones who choose to live there. We choose to deal with all of the annoyances and challenges and pay exorbitant amounts of money for tiny apartments, just for the chance to be there and exist in that specific city. And we bond over that. We know that despite the differences we have with our neighbors or coworkers – different political views or religions or sports allegiances – we all have to work together to make New York work. New York would fall apart without cooperation – it’s too crowded, and Manhattan is too small, and there’s too much going on. Living there, I know that I’m not going to get my way all the time. Hell, I know I’m not going to get my way most of the time. But we all make it work.

My dad, last time he visited, made a comment about how he’d hate not being able to go anywhere he wanted whenever he wanted. His point was that, in suburban Pittsburgh, he can hop in his car and drive wherever he wants to go, and he doesn’t have to worry about anyone else’s schedule or needs or route. I looked at him and replied, “I can go anywhere I want to go, whenever I want to.” I can get on a subway or a bus, spend $2.25, and go literally anywhere in New York City. I take my Kindle, I sit on my subway or bus, and I deal with the people and the schedule and any delays that might pop up. It might take longer than me hopping in my car, and it might be more crowded on a jam-packed train than in my car, but I get there. And I get there along with the millions of other people who, at any moment during any time of day in any borough in New York City, are working to get to where they need to go.

People who visit New York claim we’re rude. I strongly dispute that claim. We know what we want, and what we need, and we go get it. But we also need to worry about the needs of others much more than most people in most areas of the country. We just have to, because we are never alone. And you know what? We make it work. And sometimes we’re even nice. Just recently, I was running to catch a subway to get to a meeting I was already running late for. My MetroCard didn’t have enough money on it, and seeing how flustered I was, the woman behind me swiped hers to allow me to catch the train. She didn’t need to do that, and I’m not sure I’d always do that for someone else, but she did. And I’ve seen hundreds of smaller moments of kindness or aide during my two and a half years there. We know that, while we try to go out and get what we want, we also have to make sure everyone else can get what they want as well – the crazy experiment of housing millions of people on a narrow island just wouldn’t work otherwise.

Today in New York, my friends are sharing a common experience. They are in their own apartments, but they’re all in it together. They were emailing yesterday about open grocery stores and coffee shops. They were comparing notes about where the water was rising. They aren’t family, many of their families are hundreds or thousands of miles away, but they’re looking out for each other as much as a family would. And that’s something I don’t know if I can leave. I know other friends in other cities will claim to feel shared experiences with each other, but I’ve lived other places, and New York is just… different.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me I was more New York than DC. We’d been talking about how desperately I wanted to move to New York during my last few months of grad school, and that with everything else going on in my life, New York became more than a location. It became a state of mind. I saw it as somewhere I could reinvent myself, where no one would know what I’d been going through. I saw it as a place of possibility, where something epic could happen any minute of any day. And I saw it as a place where tough people lived, people who weren’t defeated by whatever life handed them.

I don’t know where my next job will take me. Barring some serious movement on the job front, I’m due to head back to Pittsburgh for awhile in mid-November and enjoy the holiday season at home. And next time I visit DC or Boston, I will probably feel that pull again that each city has on me. I’ve always said I’m not a New York lifer. I know that, deep down. But after the past 24 hours, I’m not sure I’m done with it yet either. I wish there was only one place I wanted to live – it would make decisions so much easier. I wish I could combine all of the qualities I love about the cities I love into one megacity. But that would take away the things that make each place unique.

Whatever happens, wherever I end up, I am proud of myself for living in New York. The city has kicked my ass more times than I can count, but I keep fighting back. I will always value the experiences I’ve had and the friends I’ve made, and regardless of where I live, I will always leave a piece of me back in Manhattan. I think everyone who spends some time there would say the same. It’s a city we all share.

Stay safe, New Yorkers. I can’t wait to get back tomorrow.


5 thoughts on “A New York state of mind.

  1. Well-written, Bren. You have put into words what most people think about but rarely express. Every crossroads in life (and there are far more than we ever expect when we are kids) requires an immense amount of thought and reflection, and even still, you realize very quickly that there’s no simple “right” decision. Whatever (literal) direction you end up going, I’m sure it will end up being the right choice for you, simply because I don’t think you can make a wrong choice – These are all great places and I have no doubt you will end up making the most of your life wherever you go. Hopefully this also motivates your readers to take stock of where they’re at and helps them to assess their life decisions with the same thought and care you are.

  2. I hear you, B. Ever since I’ve moved away from New York, it’s felt like there’s unfinished business I need to get back to there — despite living in some other amazing cities. Every time I turn on the TV, it seems the world is revolving around the Big Apple, and I want desperately to be taking part in that life. But, the fear is always that I end up back there and still have that feeling of being unsettled. Part of me thinks it’s just part of being young and figuring out life and all that crap, but alas, I guess I won’t find out until I move back. 🙂

  3. When I left NY to go to grad school in London, I thought I had had my NY experience and that I would either stay in London or possibly move home to Philadelphia, but there is something about this city that keeps pulling me back, no matter how frustrated I get living here sometimes. I hope you make your way back here soon, we will miss you when you go back to Pittsburgh!

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