I’ve always loved cities. I love the hustle and bustle, the cool architecture, the colorful street art. When my husband and I made the decision to move from suburban Monmouth County, New Jersey, to the crown jewel of all American cities last year, it seemed like a dream come true. From the very beginning, I knew that there would be sacrifices. Steep housing costs and cramped living quarters were just the beginning. In preparation, I got rid of as much furniture and as many books, clothes, and knick-knacks (or “tchotchkes,” as they call them here) as possible. Moving day came, and when the movers couldn’t fit our beloved couch up the stairs of the new Brooklyn walk-up, I sensed that this would be just one of many sacrifices to come.
Indeed, living in New York would require more than the standard adjustment period. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and not one of them has had quite the same palpable heartbeat as New York City. For someone as sensitive as I am, this can be draining. At other times, it’s wildly entertaining.
For so many reasons, the people-watching in New York is second to none: it’s diverse, fashionable, and, at times, heartbreaking. There are rich folks and homeless vets, recent immigrants and blue-blooded New Yorkers, broke creatives and Wall Street traders all occupying the same space and learning to cohabitate with one another. Sometimes we do it gracefully, exchanging small smiles and polite “pardon me’s” on the subway, other times we pretend that each other doesn’t exist. At times we find ourselves in precisely the right place at the right time, like the time a wheelchair-bound man surprised me by asking me to help him with his winter cap.
“It’s cold,” he said, as I pulled the woolen cap down over his ears with such maternal instincts that it surprised even me. I walked away feeling like, “Yay! I’m not a robot, I’m a human being capable of kindness.” So often I walk around with a stoic look on my face, not cracking a smile, avoiding eye contact at all costs, or staring into my smartphone, that making this sort of human connection is a welcome break from protocol.
* * *
Not that anyone is trying to eavesdrop, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I’ve learned that if I keep my headphones out of my ears, I’m likely to hear snippets of some pretty hilarious conversations. Only weeks after moving here, I overheard a little girl telling her mother, “When I grow up, I want to take some medication that will turn me into a unicorn.” I tried hard not to snicker as I thought about how that sounded like a serious hangover in the making.
Lucky for the little unicorn-to-be, New York has the best recovery meetings in the whole damn nation. Every hour, on the hour, support groups convene for artists and alcoholics and drug addicts and the like, and probably for recovering unicorns, as well. There are meetings in every borough, and they’re open to anyone who claims a seat. Little girl, we’ll save one just for you.
* * *
I hadn’t been in New York 2 months when I decided to order my first official street fare: a chicken gyro sandwich from a halal food cart in Brooklyn Heights. I sat down with my meal, my stomach grumbling and mind abuzz with concerns that perhaps I had made a terrible mistake. As I was about to take my first tentative bite, my friend Donna called and I answered. I was admittedly nervous, and I told her as much. She wished me “bon appetit” and “good luck,” no doubt sharing in my skepticism. Some 10 months later, halal street food is a regular part of my diet. Not only is it delicious and filling, but it’s practical for people like me on a budget.
* * *
During my time here, I learned the hard lesson that “if a subway car is empty. there’s probably a very good reason. Proceed with caution.” If you do stumble upon an empty subway car — especially during rush hour — it’s either because some drunk has passed out and peed himself and the urine has trickled into a narrow stream across the center aisle, OR someone has just farted a big juicy, noxious fart and the smell of rotten eggs has spread throughout the entire vicinity, OR there’s a pile of bright orange vomit beneath one of seats and it, too, has fouled up the whole area. Maybe some combination of the above. Metro transit is not for the faint of heart.
* * *
In New York, comfortable walking shoes are a must. Just yesterday I looked at the pedometer on my phone only to see that my steps had totaled 11, 000 — roughly 6 miles. It wasn’t even that I was trying to get the exercise. A few blocks here, a few blocks there, crossing the subway station, browsing three floors of Strand Bookstore — it all adds up. And if you’re wearing rust brown suede boots with adorable tassels but absolutely no arch support, I don’t care how cute they look: you’re going to be sorry by the end of the day.
* * *
On a busy New York street, you’d be wise to keep walking briskly or to move out of the way. If you want to stop and text someone or snap a selfie, you’d sure as hell better step out of the middle of that sidewalk, or someone is quite simply going to plow into you and make no mistake, it will be YOUR fault. So step aside and let the nice people pass. Find a lamppost to press yourself up against. You might be here for awhile.
* * *
Final word of advice: when you’re in New York, don’t forget to look up! Bright lights, towering skyscrapers, blue sky–it’s all here. Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. You’re in New York, baby.