Most people in New York have a half-life, an expiration date, an unknown period of time before they will say enough is enough, a moment they will concede to the city’s toughness, its cruelty and hardness, and start saying their unsentimental goodbyes. For my mom, it was about an hour after she arrived for her first visit. We got separated on a subway platform, pushed apart by post-work people unloading off a train, all tired bodies wrapped in puffer coats and weighed down by grocery bags. I spotted her first and called her name, but she didn’t hear me. I could see her twisting this way and that, trying to find me, the panic rising in her eyes. It was the last time she would make the trip.
For my ex-boyfriend, it was about a year. After living in San Francisco for a few years, I was offered a job in New York and so we went. We arrived in the dead of November. We didn’t have the right shoes or warm-enough coats and we spent our nights huddled in a drafty apartment eating delivery and watching Netflix on the couch. It wasn’t the life either of us had pictured, but I was convinced the city would soon reveal its charms. He couldn’t wait for it; he packed up his things and our cat. She didn’t like New York either. She refused to drink the cloudy water that dribbled from our faucet, sniffing it a few times before looking at me unhappily and skulking into the bedroom. After they left, I cried for weeks, but eventually, surprisingly, relief bloomed in my bones, replacing the inconsolable desperation that had settled in there before. It felt like, now I can start living my life in New York.
When someone is done with the city, they don’t have to tell you. You can read it in their eyes, their shoulders, and the slow, shuffle-y way that they walk. They aren’t trying to keep up with anyone or anything anymore.
I saw my friend Jay’s moment unfold before my eyes. It came in the middle of that interminable winter, those endless months of freezing wind, piles of slush and cold slices of air on tender, sun-starved flesh. No one could register anything on their faces and limbs but the bitterness of the weather. It pressed us all into defeat. Sometimes people didn’t even register that any other humans were alive. They crashed into your body and stepped on your feet in a hurry to get out of the cold. But who could blame them?
I met Jay on my first adult visit to New York and Brooklyn. I’d come before as a kid, with my sixth-grade class. We rode the ferry to Ellis Island and saw where the people arrived and underwent inspection to see if they were fit to enter the country. On the way back to Manhattan, I leaned my face over the side of the boat, watching the lines it cut through the water and feeling the spray streaking salt on my cheeks. My glasses slid down my nose and off my face so fast it didn’t even register until they disappeared out of sight and into the river. For the rest of the trip, I couldn’t see anything, just smears of blurry lights and rain-bright streets. When I got back home to Virginia, my mother asked me how I liked the city. I told her it was beautiful.
When I came back a decade later, I was in town to visit my best friend and former roommate from college. She was living in Greenpoint with her boyfriend, a film guy named Jay who wore a weathered leather jacket, took us to noisy concerts and small art shows, and bought us shots of Jameson watered down with ice. He was fifteen, maybe twenty years older than we were. The first Sunday I was in town, he woke up early and ran out to get meatball subs from an Italian place nearby and bounced on the balls of his feet while I bit into the soft bread and seasoned, tomatoey meat. He gallantly traded sandwiches with me after I found a bit of bone in mine. He was a good guy. I came to love New York quick and hard, like a new crush, and it was mostly because of the way Jay loved New York and the way he showed us how to live in it.
Even then, the city was speaking to me; I just didn’t know how to respond yet. I didn’t even know the city had a language, its own form of nonverbal communication that let you know whether you were in the right place at the right time. There were so many distractions to keep you from noticing — the heat, the cold, the bad smells, the good smells, the rodents, the piles of garbage and the inescapable presence of people, everywhere — it’s not surprising that it’s hard to find the calm, the beauty, the enjoyable mired in all of it. But the city was remarkable at making up for itself. I remember once hugging a friend outside a subway entrance, both of us woozy with booze and just holding each other, hard, and happy, before pulling apart to see Cuba Gooding Jr. standing about a foot away, swaying and grinning in our direction. We all burst out laughing before going our separate ways. The high from moments like that could last for weeks, maybe months, lifting you up over the grossness of everything else, and in New York, those moments are never in short supply. Getting up at dawn to go to the Rockaways on summer weekends was one of the first secret pleasures that I discovered here, the way the subway could transport you somewhere so wholly different, full of surfers and hot dogs and moms dunking their babies in warm, frothy water. It was so absurdly different from the city landscape that it was practically perfect. Once, on a too-hot summer night, we jumped from a dock into Jamaica Bay in Queens, as glittering planes lifted off overhead. Our splashing activated the bioluminescent bacteria that lived in the water, which groggily came to life, streaking the water with glowing patches of blue-green light.
Living in New York felt like I was back in school learning to read and do math all over again, and not just in the memorization of all the subway lines and street signs so I could navigate the streets and stations with the deliberate movements of a local. Quickly sizing someone or a situation up became crucial for social interactions and for avoiding embarrassment, like understanding the intention of the person beside you at the bar or quickly (and accurately) coming to the conclusion that the reason people were acting strangely about the person you were talking to who looked vaguely famous was in fact that they were someone famous.
The calculus and physics of knowing where to walk and at which exact moment to avoid clipping strangers came first, although not easily. I remember clotheslining a little boy on a sidewalk in the West Village with the strap of my purse. It looped around his neck and yanked him off his Razor scooter. I whirled around and knelt down to see if he was okay. “Oh, he’s fine,” his mother said, tugging him up and along.
My first few months in New York, I couldn’t figure out how to walk through the turnstiles that line some of the exits from the subway stations. Not the smaller, waist-high ones; those are idiot-proof. The full-height ones. Those are six or seven feet tall and installed to prevent people from jumping over to avoid paying the fare. I understood how they worked, as a concept, but every time I lined up to walk through, I would watch the person ahead of me enter the steel trap, panic, and then hustle myself in behind them, two bodies pressed into a space designed for one medium-sized person. The second or third time it happened, I shuffle-apologized myself through the turn with a woman who threw me the most exaggerated look over her should that simply said, Girl.
I would hear that voice in my head again and again over the first few years I lived in New York. One time the lurch of the train tossed me into the lap of a petite woman who was reading a book. I laughed and apologized. She was not amused. Again, there was that look. Girl. It came again and again and not necessarily from women. When I stopped too abruptly on the street or changed direction, disrupting the flow of the people moving around me, or didn’t have my credit card at the ready at the deli or couldn’t find my ID to show a bouncer at a bar. That look, it was always the same. Girl.
Cataloging New York’s taxonomy of sounds and smells came later, like knowing immediately why one car on the subway was emptied of passengers when the others were at capacity. Learning to discern between types of screams — which tenors meant playful and which ones meant horror — took longer, but the skill would almost always be the most useful. The art of ignoring took longer to perfect; I wasn’t used to the dead-eyed stare you give when you don’t want to be bothered or something weird is going down and you don’t want to be involved.
I didn’t understand it until it happened to me, until I was causing the crazy on a sunny afternoon in the East Village. I stood under a tree on First Avenue, sobbing, mouth open wide but silent. I was on the phone with my dying father, who had called to tell me about his day. But he couldn’t get through a sentence; he struggled to catch his breath, and as I stood on the street, listening to his ragged, painful attempts to inhale, the hordes of fresh young bodies talking, half running, enjoying the day punched me in my chest until I was crying, half hunched over, facing the street. I couldn’t move or figure out where to go, but people parted respectfully, peacefully, giving me a shadow of space in a city that has so little. One stranger paused behind me and briefly rested a hand on my back before quickly moving on down the street. It felt full of compassion and recognition without any obligation or acknowledgment required in return and I welcomed it.
Months — or maybe years — later I was waiting for a train, silently making a list of the errands I planned to run that day, when a woman started screaming. The pitch sang of pure pain. My eyes focused and I saw a young girl wailing and holding her mouth. She had somehow gotten injured while getting off the train. She fast-walked toward me; I could see the water welling in her eyes.
“What just happened?” she moaned. When she opened her mouth to talk, I could see that her teeth were red with blood and her lip was rapidly swelling in size.
I confessed I didn’t know, that I hadn’t been paying attention. “But you were right there,” she shrieked, taking a step toward me.
“I know,” I replied. “But I didn’t see what happened,” I said, moving away. There were no limits to the sudden acts of cruelty that erupted in the city, often without warning or explanation.
But even with that, even then, the feeling that anything is possible, that anything could happen at any given moment, thrilled me. It probably should have terrified me, and certainly some things did: the disappearance of a sweet boy named Avonte Oquendo, followed by the discovery of his dismembered remains; living below crazy alcoholics who beat each other in a stairwell and called me the n-word when I threatened to call the cops; picking up the pieces of the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Sometimes, the horrors of city life that seemed too terrible to be endured became manageable once you realized they were universal experiences. Hearing that other people had dealt with mouse infestation or felt the furry scurry of a rat over their sandal-clad foot made those quiet horrors much more bearable and, at times, felt like hallmarks of a true, authentic New Yorker, who could deal with those things and emerge unscathed.
But beyond all that, there was still a sort of sweetness, at least for me. Things like passing a bottle of ice-cold champagne among four friends as we raced down the frigid and near-empty streets of the Lower East Side one night right after New Year’s, or getting the exact same thing from the same Midtown food cart so many times that the vendors started having my coffee ready the moment they spotted me heading their way. Seeing people give money to buskers and the homeless and then, later, keeping a little extra change in your pocket so you could do it yourself. Watching a sunset on a roof somewhere and seeing the whole mess of the city in all of its entire broken and glorious splendor. Having someone knock into you and apologize in such a kind and genuine way that you start doing it yourself, tossing quick little “sorrys” when you accidentally cut off or brush into someone and become amazed at how different the city becomes as a result of that one small thing. My favorite thing in New York is the way people who live here give and ask each other for directions on a daily basis. It’s the purest transaction, one that never asks for anything but a quick and honest reply. People who stick their heads in a train and ask where it goes almost always get an answer that doesn’t expect a reward; it’s an incredible thing to witness and is better than some of the forced politeness of the West Coast and other places that I’ve lived.
In the beginning, New York always felt like the set of a movie. I shared a cab with a cute-enough guy who asked me for a date instead of my half of the fare. He took me to a steamy oyster bar and told me his favorite thing in the city was the choreography of people moving about in Grand Central Station. He smiled dopily at me and swayed his hands around in his imitation of a symphony conductor while I tried to keep the expression on my face in neutral. But then, once, I was passing through Grand Central Station after a meeting and saw the matrix of people dotting that beautiful marble floor and saw what he meant, for a brief moment.
There are some universal truths that possess people living in New York, making them swear by a certain restaurant’s dish, certain art or film openings, extravagant bars of locally made chocolate or bath soap, the view of the city from this rooftop or that, a karaoke night at some out-of-the-way sailor bar. But these phases are more than temporary trends, they’re a way of making life in the city more livable — and often lovable — by carving off the best pieces of city living and presenting them to others to sample and enjoy, as a way of balancing out craziness and the hardness that can occupy too much of our time.
In the 1994 romantic comedy It Could Happen to You, Nicolas Cage’s character, a police officer, gives Bridget Fonda’s character, a waitress, half of his lottery winnings as a tip. The entire city falls in love with their story. It appears all over the local papers and there’s even a moment in a hotel where two bellhops exclaim that they’ve run into the cop and the waitress. I remember hating that part in the movie, thinking that there was no way that an entire city could be so captivated by their story that they would be recognizable on the street.
But of course they would be and of course we would know them — this city loves a good story, inexhaustible tidbits of small talk that coffee-cart guys tell their regulars and that people gossip about at dinner parties and work. These were the things I wanted to explain to Jay when I saw him on the train, when he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and said that he was leaving for good. This would be his last year in New York, which was, by then, my fifth. I wanted to remind him about catching a glimpse of the sky at sunset, infused with soft blues and blazing oranges, remind him about nights that took a wild surprise turn and left you exhilarated and reinvigorated about the promises of love and life and the meaning of it all.
I wanted to tell him that maybe he’d just forgotten how to speak city and that maybe it would come back. But he just chewed his lip and shook his head and got off at the next stop and I got off at mine.
Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted with permission.