Three years ago today, I stepped on a plane and left Chicago—the first home I ever shaped for myself—for the unknown wilderness that is New York City.
With the hubris of a 25 year old, a promising job opportunity, a paper thin wallet and a clutch of friends, I chased the dream of making it as a writer in NYC.
I was a naive cliché, deriding a young Didion for writing her famed Goodbye to All That essay. I thought to myself, “Maybe you couldn’t hack it, Joan, but I will!” I had seen Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty, after all. I was plucky as fuck, pluckier than all those underdogs combined. I’d be fine.
I wasn’t fine, and it, NYC, didn’t become fine for a long time. So many trials, so many fuckups, so many lifetimes.
There was the time I walked to a job interview from my roach-infested rental at 125th and St. Nicholas to Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. I could only afford one $2.50 train ticket on the MTA, and I’d rather ride back than walk back. It took me the whole previous day to scrounge up that change. That rainy morning, I set off down the length of Manhattan listening to the most upbeat music I could muster on my cracked phone. My only meal for the day was a Tupperware container of three bean soup. It exploded in my leather messenger bag at 110th Street and Malcolm X.
With copies of my resume covered with legumes and bag dripping with broth and rain, I sat on a soggy bench and cried. Eventually, I started walking again. I had 2.5 hours until my interview.
I got the job.
There was the time I got tricked into taking coke by an overeager bar friend who unexpectedly climbed into my cab with me. In the time it took me to react, he had already powdered my nostrils. One minute, I’m craving the greasy flavor-hug of the 24 hour Popeyes Chicken, the next, I am bleaching the walls of my white-washed bedroom at 4:45 am.
I hated not being hungry. I still crave that chicken.
There was the time I worked at a cafe in Chelsea. They claimed “organic” and “local” ingredients, but these arrived in boxes of questionable origin. Roaches lived in the shitty automatic espresso machine. For weeks, I avoided the coffee by surreptitiously drinking the bougey cold-pressed juices. I didn’t know employees had to pay full price ($10 or so), but damn it if I didn’t look and feel great. On my last day, I took my allotted lunch in Madison Square Park, when part way through, I got a phone call. The manager demanded that I return from my “unauthorized” break and cover the shift of a coworker who didn’t show up. While I was fielding this call, a squirrel stole the top slice of bread off my sandwich.
I hung up, got on the subway and never looked back.
In three years, I’ve traversed three boroughs, endless couches, six apartments. There were the nights of fighting with cabs to take me home over the bridge, any bridge. The bridge to nowhere, the bridge to go fuck yourself. There were the nights of ramen, red pepper flakes, garlic, ketchup and duck sauce with a can of tomatoes for good measure. The nights of stretching a $5 Lil Caesars Hot-and-Ready pizza over the course of days. Or treating myself to a $25 platter from Dinosaur BBQ and make it last a week. Days and days of nothing but eggs, made every which way.
And then there are the other times, the shinier ones. Like when a friend and I watched a half naked Russian model finger the shit out of a blue electric violin at Kim Kardashian’s (first) wedding party. That time a friend and I were late to brunch because we decided to follow Jake Gyllenhaal four blocks. Working backstage at Fashion Week. The countless shows I cried through: Pig Pen Theater’s The Old Man and the Old Moon; Bedlam’s Saint Joan and Hamlet; Mark Rylance’s turns in Twelfth Night and Richard III; NPH in Hedwig. Every flavor explosion of a meal, every operatic glass of wine. Hell, every time I cried because of something beautiful.
My glowing favorite: running hand-in-hand through the West Village with the boy I’d soon fall in love with because we were late to Carrie: The Musical.
At times, this city is a piece of shit heartbreaker. If New York were a person, it would dump you via emoji, or put out a cigarette on your neck because why the fuck not. But this city only ever gives you as much as you can handle. For the shitty days, weeks, seasons New York dumps on you, it also provides honest-to-god magic.
For me, these magical moments are always small but potent. Getting free coffee and chocolate from an empathetic barista when my credit card declined. Living room dance-wiggling to Robyn with great friends, rosé in hand, mind and heart light. Or, after months of dating duds, one chance date with a cute, well-read Bourbon drinker. We moved in together last week.
I know that I won’t ever be completely happy here. That’s because of all the clichéd reasons you’d expect: it smells, it is loud, it is fucking exhausting, it is expensive. But it is also aromatic, energetic, life-affirming; I am richer for it. A job, a home, a loving partner: I have all the trappings of happiness.
“My kind of town?” Not forever, no. But as I’ve once heard, if you can make it here, everywhere else is a boring dump.