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New York, New York

Robert Moses, The Panorama of the City of New York, 1964. Courtesy the Queens Museum.

Here Is Everything I Learned in New York City

Five years in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Several violent attacks—in other cities. A daily attempt to be the best, which is never a good idea. Nine lessons from a mini-lifetime in the Big Apple.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

Yes, there are women who walk around New York in five-inch stilettos. There are also people who like to have sex hanging from a ceiling with a ball gag in their mouth. This world is strange and mysterious. But New York is a walking city, a city of derring-do, and you don’t want to be limping behind.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for What You Want

When I first came to New York, I was intimidated by delis, which is a little bit like being frightened of lawn sprinklers. But my heart would pound at the counter as I approached, feeling the impending pressure of a public decision.

“Whaddaya want?” the man would ask me.

“Um, what do you have?” I’d ask, accustomed to a detailed list of signature sandwiches from which to choose.

The man would look at an expansive glass case of cold cuts and cheeses splayed out before me with a gesture that suggested: What do you need, lady, a map? Ordering a sandwich at a deli is, technically, the easiest way to order a sandwich, because they will make it exactly as you want it. But I spent so much of my life suppressing exactly what I wanted in favor of what was available that I had no idea how I liked my sandwiches. I preferred to take other people’s suggestions, and then, when they weren’t looking, pick off the parts I didn’t like—which is an apt metaphor for my life at that time.

Sometimes I panicked. “I’ll take a pastrami on rye,” I said once, because it sounded like something a Woody Allen character would order, and god forbid the old lady buying cat food behind me should think of me as anything less than an authentic New Yorker.

You can ask for what you want and suffer the possibility of judgment, or you can pretend you want something else and almost certainly get it. It’s remarkable to me how long I chose the latter.

I was embarrassed to ask for what I really wanted: Ham and American cheese on white bread with spicy mustard, which is possibly the least exotic, least adventurous, did-you-order-that-for-your-invisible-seven-year-old-child request you can make at a deli.

But in life, you can either ask for what you want and suffer the possibility of judgment, or you can pretend you want something else and almost certainly get it. It’s remarkable to me how long I chose the latter.

When I finally asked for a sandwich as I really wanted it, the man behind the counter simply nodded. “That all?” he asked.

My face prickled with embarrassment. “Should I get something else?”

He shrugged. “It’s not my sandwich!”

And that was the thing: It was not his sandwich. Why on earth would he care what kind of sandwich I ate, and if he did care what kind of sandwich I ate, what the hell was wrong with him? “I feel self-conscious for such a boring order,” I told him.

He smiled. “You’re an easy order.”

And from then on, we were friends. He knew my order, because few others asked for it. In fact, you could say it was my signature sandwich.

Be Decisive

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.

The Subway Is Very Safe and Very Smelly

A few months after arriving in New York, I read Sophie’s Choice, which features a horrific scene in which the lead character is shocked when a stranger sticks his finger in her vagina on a crowded subway during a blackout. This never happened to me. Not even close. I was never even groped on the subway, despite many warnings I would be. My nostrils, however, were assaulted countless times.

Some Dudes Have Strong Opinions About Your Body and What They Would Do to It

Though the subways are harmless, getting to them can be threatening. A 10-minute walk to the Williamsburg JMZ train from my apartment was a gauntlet of wolf whistles and come-ons, most of them involving my tits and someone else’s dick. It was, in a word, horrific, and it was the kind of treatment that can turn you into a bitter person who despises men and dresses in Michelin tires—or, it can compel you to get an iPod with noise-canceling headphones and tell everyone to fuck off. I strongly suggest option two.

New York Is Not Dangerous

I would like it on record that while living in Dallas, my car was broken into three times. I have been robbed in Ottawa—in Canada—and, rather violently, in New Orleans. Several of my friends in Austin were the victims of break-ins.

And yet, in five years in New York, I was never once the victim of a crime. However, dozens of strangers politely cautioned me to zip my purse, not abandon it in a shopping cart while I ogled some frozen yogurt, or scooch it closer to my seat at the dinner table in a restaurant, which always struck me as condescending and patriarchal—perhaps another way of saying they were right and I was wrong.

Stop Trying to Be the Best

New York is a city of strivers notorious for their competitiveness, but what I found instead was a kind of relief from the constant pressure of exceptionalism. I will never be the most talented writer in this town, the most successful, the richest, the prettiest—nor will I be the least successful, the poorest, the ugliest. Trying to be better than everyone else is a loser’s bet, a surefire recipe for misery, because it’s just too tough. Instead, you must strive to be something very different: Be yourself.

Cabbies Are the Greatest People on Earth, at Least for Fifteen Minutes

I recently heard two Californians discuss how anxious and uncomfortable they become when cab drivers talk to them. That is understandable, but it is also a huge missed opportunity. Some of my favorite conversations have been with cabbies, because there is a curious intimacy that develops when you both know you will only share 10 blocks together in this lifetime.

The other day, I was sour and exhausted from moving out of my fourth-floor walkup when a wiry guy with an enormous, Will Oldham-style beard picked me up from Chelsea, where I was anxiously running last-minute errands, to take me back to my apartment in the West Village.

“You look mad,” he said, as we idled in traffic and I stared at the clock on my iPhone as though it were a ticking bomb; time was slipping away, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

David Drebin, Gotham City, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Contessa Gallery.

“I’m just anxious,” I said. “I’m moving to Texas today.”

“Texas!” he said, and hit the steering wheel with excitement. “You’re done with New York?”

“It’s too crowded. It makes me irritable. I’ve been here five years. I’m exhausted.”

He nodded. “I will tell you my secret plan,” he said, with one eyebrow raised, talking to me now through the rearview mirror. “I am going back to the Balkans. You would not believe how quiet it is. The country—it’s nothing like this.” He said this as an enormous truck turned the corner and nearly sideswiped us at the intersection. He did not blink. “But I put my time in here. I made money. I learned two languages. I speak six languages now. You did your time here, too.”

I did. I learned no languages, except maybe to speak Cabbie. “The city will always be here for us, if we want to come back,” I said.

“Exactly.” As he dropped me off outside my tiny, charming, impossibly cramped West Village apartment—the last time anyone would do this—he turned around in his seat. “Good luck in Texas.”

“Good luck with your secret plan!” I said.

He smiled at me and I noticed, seeing him face-to-face for the first time, just how bright and sparkling his eyes were. “Be patient—and tough.”

It’s about the best advice anyone has given me, and it’s exactly what New York taught me. To be patient—and tough.

Summarizing What I Learned in New York Is Impossible

I learned how to live in 200 square feet of space. I learned not to blink at loud noises. I learned what pierogies were, what chicken biryana is, what an egg cream and tagliatelle and knishes and rice balls and fish cakes should taste like. I learned how to use a power drill and hang shelves in an apartment. I did not learn how to walk and text at the same time, because if I had, maybe I wouldn’t have dropped and cracked my iPhone (twice). I learned that cats can have supernatural powers of comfort, and that to give someone your full and undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts you can offer. I learned to avoid the subway at rush hour. I learned to tip cabbies and servers well. If you see something, say something. Buckle up. Stand clear of the closing doors.

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.

I stared at the clock on my iPhone as though it were a ticking bomb; time was slipping away, and there nothing I could do to stop it.

“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.

“How is New York?” people would ask me.

“It’s lonely,” I often said, and it’s true that being in a city this monumental, this antic and buzzing can kick up in me a melancholy deeper than I’ve ever felt. But it can also kick up an exhilarating sense of possibility, a peace that comes from knowing your place in the world is small but entirely your own.

Looking back, I see that for all the times I complained about living alone in New York, I never really was. There were, of course, the friends whose couches I crashed on, whose liquor cabinets I raided, who kept me company whether we were solving life’s biggest puzzle or watching bad TV.

But there were also neighbors who watched out for me, and guys who worked at the corner store; friends who took care of my cat when I left town; the baristas with their endearing banter and dedication to espresso brews; the strangers who would help with a heavy bag, give me directions. This is all we can ask for, really. In life, we are alone. It’s good to be surrounded by people who can help us find our way.