In three days, I’ll be packing my bags to leave New York City for California. Now, to be clear, I am not a scorned ex-lover of the city, fed up with the noise, the stalled subways, or the stench of baking trash. I’m not running out of here in a huff, throwing my fist up at the bike messenger that side swiped me or the cab driver that laid on the horn as I crossed the street with a walk sign. I’m not even resentful of the things the city has demanded of me — and there have been some doozies.
New York asks you to not only tolerate it but to love and be so grateful for your 240 square feet at 70% of your salary. It demands that you be okay with being shoved into a subway car like cattle, unable to slip a piece of paper between you and the next person. New York asks so many things of you at once that it’s not uncommon to see men and women openly crying on the street, because they know all other New Yorkers can relate to the days when the city has made them feel that way.
But in spite of all of this, I, like many others, never stopped loving the city, never stopped fighting for its approval. And so, inspired by Starz's new series Sweetbitter and my impending move, I started to think about my early days in New York and what exactly it was that kept me, blow after blow, fighting to be here.
When I arrived in the summertime eight years ago, I felt like the luckiest 21-year-old imaginable. A family friend had allowed me to house-sit her two-bedroom apartment inside a musty pre-war townhouse on the Upper West Side. My rent? Send the owner the mail and water the irises in the window box off the living room. I was insanely grateful; talk about beginner’s luck. After lugging my four suitcases up the stairs, I sat perched on my bed and thought, I’ve got this. The next day, I would start an internship at a high-level fashion magazine and the following day, a well-paying job at a high-end boutique, at which I’d make commission. Three days at the magazine, four days at the store. I didn’t know enough then to realize that 11-hour days, seven days a week, might be a tad tiring.
My first day of work, I made my way through the Times Square subway station to the iconic building the magazine was housed in. When I exited the elevator bank, I was met by a stylish and surly guy, the “head” intern. He greeted me with a limp handshake and a quick, disapproving once-over that felt right out of a movie. As he pointed out the kitchen and the copy machines, I tried to subtly wipe my sweaty palms on my silk dress. “How long are you with us?” he asked, clearly highlighting the line between me and the “us” to which he belonged.
He proceeded to plop down a large book of pages held together by a plastic spiral. “Guard this with your life,” he said. I learned that this was “the book”: a mock-up of the magazine constructed for the editor-in-chief to take home and review every night. My job would be to keep the book updated to the minute, by printing out the layouts and pasting them into the pages of the book. As they were closing the September issue, it was close to 600 pages. Roll on, peel off, print, trim, glue, place. The first time he came over to inspect my work, he looked horrified. I felt my heart drop through my stomach and onto the floor. “Your lines are crooked, the paper is sticky, and do you not see the board?” I had missed a whole section of advertising. I didn’t even blame him for his frustration. I ground my teeth and said I would redo it carefully, peeling the first page off and promptly slicing open my finger. Blood immediately started pouring out, each drop of red blooming on the white pages. He turned purple; he tried to take a breath and when he couldn’t, he told me to go home for the night — he would finish it himself. I cried in the elevator.
That night, exhausted and overwhelmed, I met a group of my friends for dinner. We had all just graduated and were feeling collectively shell-shocked. Together, we reminisced about the earlier days (only a week prior), and somehow, the knowledge that the city was simultaneously testing all of us lessened the knot in my chest. After a few too many drinks, we ended the night watching the sunrise over the city. And we felt lucky that the city had granted us access even for the night, that we would get another chance the next day.
We felt lucky that the city had granted us access even for the night, that we would get another chance the next day.
After an hour of sleep, I woke up and began the first day of my second job. I had worked retail before and knew I was good at it. I was practically buoyant walking to the subway. But that confidence was shattered the second I arrived. I was escorted to the storeroom stairs, missed the first step, and fell all the way down.
I ended up dramatically splayed at the bottom. The five other staff members that witnessed it froze and then lightly laughed uncomfortably. A man who I would later learn was the top sales associate greeted me with another half-hearted handshake and waltzed right past me, taking the stairs two at a time.
That night, my friends and I met up at a dive bar where we could barely afford the $6 drinks thanks to our essentially nonexistent incomes. There, I was approached by a beautiful man who would later become my first bona-fide, New York City, real-deal relationship. After trading a few songs on the jukebox, I learned that he was a musician who was preparing to go on a reality TV show that fall. I would spend the rest of that summer chasing after his acceptance, in addition to New York’s. And this was just my first two days in the city.
As the summer went on, I got better at making “the book” and even received praise for making the process more efficient. At the store, I styled celebrities and models and became one of the highest sellers. But I would also get slapped by a stranger in a crosswalk, get flashed by a man on the subway, and lose my cell phone down a subway grate. Oh, and that fall down the stairs? That wouldn’t be the last time.
I ended up leaving both jobs at the end of the summer, taking a position at a nonprofit I deeply admired. I also got my own apartment, a sixth-floor walk-up we would call the “penthouse.” That same week, I watched the musician fall in love with someone else on national television; caught not one, not two, but three mice in sticky traps; and forgot my best friend’s birthday because of a work deadline. I fell down more stairs and then watched a beautiful sunrise over the Rockaways from the A train.
I fell down more stairs and then watched a beautiful sunrise over the Rockaways from the A train.
I realized so many things in those early days in New York, but the most important was this: I could get old enough to know better, to do better, to, hopefully, be better, but my life as a New Yorker, my life as a human being on the planet, would never stop being a constant stream of peaks and valleys. Major setbacks would, if I were lucky, be served with a side of small victories. I also knew that, for the most part, things could have been a lot worse. While the lows certainly felt low, I also knew New York could beat someone down far worse than it had me.
So as I packed up my last box, writing “FRAGILE” in huge letters, I decided something. In my next adventure, I would become better at seeing the upside, at looking for the little things to be grateful for, at finding the balance. New York has a truly unique way of delivering frustrations, blows, and even downright insults at the worst possible times. But it does so with a little bit of sweetness — with profound slivers of hope. These experiences are living proof that the only way to survive New York — or life, for that matter — is to find the ever-fleeting middle ground, your very own sweet spot.