A few months ago I wrote a pair of posts reflecting on what I’ve learned in five years as a New Yorker:
- Five observations after five years in New York
- New York tourist tips gleaned in my five years in NYC
But I have to give it up to Sarah Hepola for writing a piece with an almost identical theme — lessons learned in five years in Manhattan and Brooklyn — that goes so much deeper emotionally into life in NYC.
She writes on The Morning News about basics like the importance of wearing comfortable shoes and that the subway might smell but it’s mostly pretty safe.
Then she also shares the ways that New York challenged her heart and sometimes made her feel not up to the task. For example, while I wrote that New Yorkers being rude is a myth, Sarah takes that thought to the next step:
People complain New Yorkers are rude, which is imprecise. New Yorkers are some of the kindest, most good-hearted people I’ve ever met. But New Yorkers are busy, and they cannot tolerate dawdling. And that’s a challenge, because the city is a choose-your-own-adventure game of constant decisions: Cab or subway? Express or local? Highway or side street? Which do you want? Answer now!
At first, I found this crippling, because I was obsessed with making the right decision and felt like I kept whiffing it. I lived in the hipster Brooklyn neighborhood of handlebar mustaches, when I would have been happier in the bougie neighborhood of spendy trattorias. I went to the dive bar, when all I wanted was a craft cocktail. This kind of thinking will make you miserable, because you will always feel the life you deserve is not only out of reach but being enjoyed by thinner, smarter people down the hall. But eventually, I realized there is only one bad decision, the decision I moved to New York to avoid: Doing nothing at all. That is unforgivable.
Then last week, as I watched a girl on the crowded rush hour subway fighting back tears, and I choked back my own empathetic response, I thought of this powerful anecdote of Sarah’s:
New York is a lonely place. But in New York, you’re never alone.
I called my mother once from a stoop right outside a Starbucks in the East Village. I was having a hard time—missing home, unsure of my path, and wanting some boy who did not want me—and halfway through a walk, I had crumpled into sobs, and there was simply nowhere to hide so I just sat there, tears streaming down my face, as pedestrians passed me by. Sometimes they would look at me, and look away, the expression on their faces never changing.
“This is such a cold town,” I said to my mother, in between blowing my nose. But it took me a while to learn their reaction wasn’t a sign of disrespect or indifference, not the way I took it anyway. New Yorkers are unshockable, it’s true, but they also know that no one gets private space, and the best they can do is to leave you alone and at least pretend you have privacy, even if the crowded sidewalk affords you none. When I see someone in tears on the sidewalk, my instinct is not to rush over and help them—what would I do, anyway?—it is to offer them the dignity of not staring.
Early in our time in New York, I cried on the sidewalk with the most powerful, overwhelming sense of loneliness, and thought I was crazy to feel that in a city of 8 million people. Now I am grateful to know I’m not the only one who can feel alone around so many other people.
And though Sarah has decamped NYC for Texas, when I saw she’d written about New Orleans, I couldn’t help think we might be kindred spirits and wish we could have brunch to discuss what New York has taught us.