Over an Eggs Benedict brunch recently, a close friend visiting from Chicago asked me if she should move to New York City. I immediately thought Ok, here’s a smart woman, she has done well for herself so far. She isn’t any more or less risk averse than any other people I know. She is an open, curious and sweet person, and fairly adaptable. But also, it’s about the third time she’s ever brought this up in any serious way in the two decades or so that we’ve known each other. So what was this really about?
We went on to discuss the usual litany of variables: Manhattan(city) vs Brooklyn/Queens/Bronx, Staten Island/New Jersey (suburbs), renting vs owning, subway vs car, and to some small degree diversity vs conformity (uniformity?). The more we talked, the more I realized she had the facts, she had already done some thinking. Now she was maybe talking with me to validate whatever decision she was about to make, or had already made privately.
So my advice to her began with this story about my first trip to New York City, from Atlanta:
It’s the winter of 1993. I am invited to be in a show at a gallery on Wooster Street in SoHo and my mentor in art school decides that I absolutely must attend the opening reception. So she and her husband, in an act of spontaneous generosity, buy me the plane ticket. Yes I’m lucky but, like most foreign students fending for themselves on slightly above minimum wage, I’m still also very broke. And about 20 hours before take-off, my plans to stay with a friends of a friend’s friends fall through.
But I decide I’ll show up anyway and “figure it out” when I get there. In what turns out to be a small miracle, I run into a completely unrelated acquaintance within the first three hours of being in Manhattan, while eating a falafel and walking around rudderless with my luggage trying to “figure it out.” She sees me first.
“Hey, is that you? Oh my god! What are you doing here?”
“Wait, what are YOU doing here?”, I remember responding in filmic surprise.
“I live here now, I’m at NYU now.”
“Well, I just got here. I’m going to be in a show in SoHo this Friday but right now I’m kind of looking for where I can stay until then.”
“Oh easy. You can stay with me…”
“Sure, I’ve my own studio. So you can, like, pay for the Blockbuster rental and pizza for the next few days or something…”
Everything is sorted in those first few hours following my landing in New York. It feels like I’ve passed some kind of karmic test. I spend the rest of the week with interesting people, running into famous art people and unwittingly walking through the East Village neighborhood that would eventually become my home.
When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is.
Now, connecting the dots back to that first trip almost 25 years ago, here are some notions, developed from having lived here for a while that feel fairly constant :
NEW YORK CITY AMPLIFIES EVERYTHINGThere is an intensity in Manhattan that isn’t anywhere else in the United States. You feel the change in energy as you come into the city, or when you leave it. Everything is magnified here. Good days here feel incredible and amazing. Bad days here are devastating. This might be because unlike most other cities, in New York you are surrounded by a diverse crush of humanity: “regular” people, highly-paid and stressed-out corporate workers, street musicians trying to make rent, a homeless population with mental health issues, they are all here interacting with you. And I haven’t even mentioned the tourists yet.
HOME IS SANCTUARYSo it logically follows that home is not just a place for your hat, but for the mind it protects. You come home to step off the velocity of the city, to spend time with the special he or she in your life, and talk about the crazy things you saw today on the subway platform either on the way to—or the way back from—work. More than just a place to shower, eat and sleep, home is the sacred “recharging device”. Here you can expect to heal from the toss and tumble of everyday circumstances and failed negotiations, both with yourself and the people in your life. It’s an important thing.
JUST SAY YES, THEN GET IT DONENew Yorkers are nimble and adaptive, ready to rise to the challenge at work, play, relationships, commutes, and whatever else. Here everyone knows that saying you can do it doesn’t mean you’ve done it before, or that you even quite know how to do it…yet. It just means you’re going to answer confidently in the affirmative and then adapt, improvise, find the resources, kick some ass and get it done. Often on deadline. Because unless we don’t want to work with you, we just don’t say ‘no’ here for lack of experience. That would be off-brand. Plus, if you say you can’t or haven’t, there’s someone behind you ready to take over, thank you very much.
THERE’S JUST ENOUGH TIME TO THINK THINGS THROUGH, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO BE INDECISIVEDecide. What. You. Want. In jobs, hobbies, entertainment, relationships and lifestyles. Very quickly you understand that you simply cannot have it all, that life is about making some hard choices about where your time, energy and money should go. If you’re a creative professional especially, often you have to decide between working on your novel/ script/ painting/ website and going to see the work of someone else who is (often)world-renowned, important for your work, or on their last tour. The abundance of high-level, world-class options forces discipline.
Get used to it.
NEW YORK IS ABOUT DECISION AND CONSEQUENCESmall things can have ripple effects and more often than not, you’re dealing with a defining moment : either you define it, or it defines you . Once you make a decision on something, perhaps a job or a relationship, things play out fast. That’s the good news. That’s also the bad news. The key is to learn from your mistakes, adapt, and iterate.
“NORMALITY CREEP” IS REALAfter you’ve been here for a while, you get the picture, and so do the New Yorkers around you. It starts to show with small things like you talking about missing having a yard, or seeing childhood friends, or proximity to family. The city feels too congested, and you openly yearn for greener pastures. A patch of big land would be nice, you say. As a compromise to your New Yorker self, you let everyone know that perhaps when the lease is up you might consider a move ever so slightly outside the city but still have access to the city. Well, this is how a gradual exit from New York begins. Time’s up! That’s what that is and contrary to what diehard New Yorkers like to say, it's not a bad thing. It’s just a slower version of packing up at the end of your lease, and heading back home or to a different place altogether. And it’s ok.
A NEW YORKER SIMPLY ISAnd in summing up what the New Yorker personality is, there isn’t one. There’s no visible “type” that is better suited to be a New Yorker. It doesn't matter where you're from. It doesn’t even matter how much money you have or make. It’s not about how you look. While a youthful attitude and a high level of stamina can bring a distinct advantage to your game, it’s not about how “aggressive” you are because that can’t explain how so many quiet, introverted friends of mine have thrived here. But when you land here, you do pick up on New York as a distinct flavor of humanity within a larger recipe of human consciousness. Or you don’t, and that too says plenty.
New York City can push you to be the hardest, rawest, most naked version of your character, just to survive. I've seen it happen time and time again, and it’s not always the best version of anyone, certainly not what I see as wealth of spirit very often. From the moment I first landed here in 1993, I was immediately in love with the city. At the time, given how new it all was, I thought it might just be infatuation. One week in the city, the bad air and crazy people will take the shine out of it, I thought.
But the chance meeting with my friend would be one of many similar events. I’ve noticed over time there’s a thing about how things “happen” in New York. Very often at the last minute, Lady Luck makes her decisions, and favors you. A safety net is miraculously there to catch your fall from something fatal to your career or circumstance, or from an exit out of New York.
By the time I finally decided to live here, I realized there was a pattern both in how I saw the city, and how the city had been treating me. I had listened, kept my mouth shut and seen that I’m at my best when I am in New York, more than anywhere else. I'd already been anywhere else. So I had decided that if I just work hard, kept a kind of faith in providence and stayed attentive, I might see grace at work, through the work.
So far so good. And that’s basically what I told my friend as we ate.
She insisted on picking up the tab.
PHOTO: Couple, New York City.