There comes a time in a girl’s life in which she has to come to terms with her relationship with the concrete jungle where dreams are made of: New York City.
Will she be the bright-eyed ingenue taking the Hudson River line up over the GW bridge where Manhattan is laid out before her, welcoming her with open arms, and endless possibilities among the glitterati? Or is she the struggling grad heading there to escape the mind-numbing blandness of her small-town ‘burbs, twitching in anticipation for a chance to slide into the grind, talk about the real things, and find her people? Maybe she’s the bustling writer, ready to jump into the hustle, the endless cups of black coffee, thriving on the frenetic energy of the pounding city, eager to add her strident heels to the cacophony. Some girls may just be a passerby, taking in the skyline, the shopping, and basking in the glow of 48 hours before she can go back home and attest, “This is not my life, and it was marvelous.”
For an East Coast girl, the trip up the Northeast Corridor is a right of passage. You pop up for a school trip or a show, don’t sleep for 24 hours on someone’s boyfriend’s cousin’s couch in the boroughs, and leave poorer than usual, equally wound-up and run-down. In your five minutes of downtime spacing out on the Subway, you wonder how one place can possibly contain so much and whether you’ve got what it takes to make the jump, to be a New Yorker. You contemplate your whole existence between stops: wandering Washington Square Park as you rush to your next class at NYU, being able to brag about a delightful spot for drinks before dinner that no one knows about, and wondering if you’d ever be able to perfect the art of simultaneously being completely nonchalant and supremely worked up about something.
My first few high school trips to the bright lights of the big city went much this way. I was wide-eyed staring up, up, and up at the seemingly never-ending skyline, taking in the prerequisite Broadway matinee, and scrambling over the rocks in Central Park. I gaped at the Starbucks every five feet, nearly died not-even-jaywalking across the street by an errant cab, took a cruise by the Statue of Liberty, and got vertigo standing atop the Empire State Building. I tripped over Columbia’s obese squirrels and pictured an existence as one of the cool kids.
It’s a delightful daydream of the ultimate great perhaps, but for some it becomes their reality. They throw themselves into one of the most demanding job markets, accept shoebox apartments and interminable commutes as a fact of life, and don’t blink at the sky rocketing prices of everything. Soon they become the person their friends like to namedrop for knowing such-and-such and how they attended so-and-so’s rooftop party, and did you know they were at NYFW? To those of us on the outside, New Yorkers live in another world. Whether they work in an office with a famous avenue for an address or they’re one of the millions working minimum wage hustling for their big break that will likely never come, their reality is still a million miles from ours. It’s the world’s biggest microcosm– self-sustaining, self-sufficient, and self-indulgent in its self-sacrificial love of itself.
Each subsequent stop I’ve made in New York—for weddings or work—have shown me that I missed my fleeting chance to grab at Manhattan’s coattails. For a brief moment in my idealized youth, in the deepest recesses of my maybe-it-could-have-beens, I could see my life intersecting with New York. Laid out before me was J-school, long walks through the Upper West Side in the autumn, and a future Kate Spade life folding out before me. But while I stood still, New York kept moving, speeding by faster than an Express train downtown, passing before I even knew if I’d like to get on.
We were a missed connection that was never meant to be. The years passed and we’ve awkwardly met again, this time as begrudging semi-strangers contemplating disdainfully, “What was I thinking?” Nowadays I stand in The Strand and am overwhelmed by the crowds; I walk through Greenwich Village and its lovely brownstones and think “I’d rather be in London’s Marylebone.” The prices that once felt like the mandatory pound of flesh entry-free into an elitist world now seem like an offensive over-priced lie, selling a sub-par fantasy that will never be real. It’s Jay Gatsby’s “green light, minute and far away” never able to quite be captured, always moving farther away, a bit more unattainable no matter how hard you yearn for it even when you’re standing within it.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped reaching for New York and began longing for England’s distant shores. I visit New York now when necessary and bypass it for London or Edinburgh anytime possible. Instead of feeling alive amidst Manhattan’s fleeting humanity, I feel trapped, unsure, and doubtful. Perhaps it’s because New York will never need me nor will it remember me; Broadway traffic will never part around me. Instead, New York will forever be the judgmental boss who deigns to let you work for them and forgets you as soon as you leave at night. It makes me feel faceless in a sea of faces, while the countryside, mountain cliffs, and seashore, with their sparseness of humanity makes me feel infinite.
And so I look at New York from a distance, awed and puzzled by those within it wondering how they made such a seemingly impossible relationship work. But it’s fine, because long ago New York and I came to the mutual realization that we’re just not that into each other.
And anyway, London is always calling.
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