I arrived in New York on the hottest week of the hottest year. My third day here was a hellish, sweltering sauna of humidity and high temps. Rolling over in bed is enough activity to baste oneself in thick, sticky stew. Eventually the sweat and the humidity converges into the same juice: a sticky, swampy tug of the tight nooks that unerringly wards off movement. The great outdoors resembles a convection oven, with steamy hot winds rolling over dirty pavement that smells like sewage, burnt to a cast-iron black. For my fourth day, I just decided to stay inside.
I came from the longitudinally hotter and more humid Atlanta, but don’t remember it being this bad down South. That’s partly because air conditioning is far less popular in New York, where it only gets this hot for just one week or so out of the whole year. As it so happens, I landed on that one week, so expectations were shattered. Before leaving, my Facebook said something cheery and optimistic like: “I’m going to beat this heat and head for New York. Who’s with me?” A day later, I responded: “Welp, that didn’t work.”
The differences between experiencing this city as a child and an adult are night and day. My previous encounters with this beast snugly lay inside the “family vacation” category of travel: romantic and lively tours of only the ritziest parts of what seemed to be the most dynamic and glamorous city on Earth. When I first came here at the impressionable age of 12, I was toured to some ritzy food stops that sparked a brief cooking phase where I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.
One quick trip two years ago featured my first-ever city bike ride, a speedy two-hour circumnavigation around middle Manhattan. It seemed so fast and easy, I was suddenly able to nimbly slide between traffic in these infamous congested streets. I found out how easy it is to park a bike curbside. It was so easy, in fact, that it almost felt like cheating. That was a turning point. It sparked an interest that escalated into a bike ride across the United States.
Those trips, they were all just euphoric and tantalizing teases. If a lifestyle of such utter luxury and ease was what New Yorkers were used to, then it felt downright unfair to be born anywhere else. I wanted more New York. I wanted it bad.
This time I came as an underemployed 22-year old writer. Now, the city hardly seems like the glamorous fashion bastion of my youth. Instead it’s turned into an imposing gauntlet. Fabulous opportunities and riches lie within, but only to those who can survive the dungeon. The price floor is sky high. Transportation is always an issue. So too is the utter callousness of others. High salaries and unbelievable convenience are the awards.
The whole world comes to New York, and much of it doesn’t leave. It’s a blister of population density that’s left everyone fragmented. Streetwalkers never say hi. Need directions? Though luck, because everyone can hardly be bothered to help. Conversation with strangers never lasted more than ten minutes. I can hardly blame them, though. There’s something about these streets that breeds impatience and anxiety. No matter how hard you try, there’s never nothing to do in New York. Food, entertainment and even a bit of temp employment are always right down the block. But warmth and friendliness is a daytrip away.
After bringing my bike with me, I now understand why New Yorkers scream and honk at each other in traffic. Under the right conditions, you can give yourself an entire hour of your life to travel five miles away in a straight line here– it turns travel into a screeching, mind-numbing chore. There’s no amount of bike lanes that will fix this problem– every other bicycle I saw (and there were a lot of them) was breaking the rules, running stop signs and red lights with uncaring familiarity. Traffic lights will always be red when you arrive, and waiting in line with the rest of this gridlock leads to a three-hour commute.
It is true that New York has a world-class bicycle infrastructure, but you’ll only find in places where it would be inconvenient to funnel bike traffic into the roads. The greenbelt that covers the Western half of Manhattan that is an absolute delight to ride, it’s like a highway for bicycles. Riding on that thing was so smooth and fast that it got me to destinations on the other side of Manhattan faster, even though the route was geometrically longer.
The bridges made for some wonderful biking, too. Four of Manhattan’s borough-crossing suspension bridges have been outfitted with exciting bikeways: you climb up one hundred feet or so to be suspended above the open sea, then come zooming down the slope on the other side. On the Brooklyn Bridge, the massive tourist crowd turns the ride into a white-knuckle obstacle course.
In New York, convenience is your God. The rent is too damn high, but the food– that is, the real food, the working-class calorie packages– is so damn cheap! The average price for a slice of pizza seemed to hover around $1, and two slices make a hearty meal. There was even one sit-down spot in Queens where I found a $4 burger and fries, chairs and wifi included. Want a sandwich at 3 a.m.? They have mini-marts with 24-hour deli counters on every block! Being able to eat this nice at any hour of the night is a spectacular concept, and there’s no way it would work in any city with less late-night foot traffic. The guys making these sandwiches don’t even give you any crap about about it.
I love this convenience-obsessed, deli-placated food culture. I really, really do. Knowing that you can cheaply eat this good at any hour of the night– that’s pure love, man. It almost makes me want to cry!
I came with one vaguely-defined mission: learn about media and stuff. A lunch date with Joseph Riley Land, the entertainment blogger behind kitchensofa, was arranged. According to him, the trick to successfully freelancing in New York City lies, as always, in the elusive and unflattering realm of social networking. Whore out one’s Facebook page, merge your professional and personal lives. Exist to work, work to exist. These are the ways of my people. I aught to get started on that soon.
I despise Midtown. Where do all these people come from? Infinite crowds pour out of holes in the ground, they flow into torrential streams like a chattering people river. It’s all a bit terrifying, especially since pretty much everyone has a better fashion sense than me. So many of these people look too perfect to be real: the dolled-up girls dressed in glossy magazine ad attire, wearing see-through tops and fragile lacy dresses for their street vendor lunch on the slimy streets. Also look for the chattering business suits who are too busy to smile, and the short-tempered mustached foreigners who staff the food carts. Am I walking through the world’s biggest casting call? Everyone is dressed like a movie extra, no one’s ugly, and there’s product placement everywhere!
I wish I could’ve really experienced this city, to have seen what it’s actually like to work a regular job to pay overpriced rent while getting yelled at in traffic on a daily basis. Instead, I was an observer. I have a theory that these mythical born-and-raised New Yorkers share an unspoken degree of camaraderie towards one another, even though they’re characterized as such hardasses. I saw too many mini-mart owners who knew their regular customers on a first-name basis, too much of a social security network for the foreign-language immigrants who have their own employment offices and law firms. I even saw a few of these angry drivers impatiently wave other stressed-out commuters through the city’s always-busy intersections. They’re in this mess together, and have to cooperate to make the best of it. As for the rest of us, we’re just putting crap in their way.
It’s a long haul from the solitude of the West, where the dusted-over mobile homes are standard housing, where too many people live in apparatuses explicitly made for being alone in the desert. Come to New York alone, and you’re unlikely to make friends while there. Bring a friend, and you may just lose them in the crowd.
Day after day of saddled wandering was spent trying to occupy myself with cheap thrills (thank God for the skint.) After five days of this, I eventually realized that even under these disparate conditions, I will never run out of things to do in this city. You can run away from it in one direction all day, but the city will never end. It’s impossible to see it all. There’s always some hidden gem just beyond the next brownstone alleyway– some wonderful little hovel of food, theatre, or music. I’m in awe when I realize that there are people in the world who consider this normal.
New York is a numbing feeling. It’s a psychological battle between soul-crushing loneliness and that urban mix of anxiety and excitement that you feel in any great city. I felt it when ordering a Cuban sandwich at a lonely, artificially-lit deli counter at 3 a.m. I felt it when I walked out of a midnight showing of Taxi Driver, drunkenly stumbling by myself into sticky Brooklyn streets. I felt it when wandering into the weird phosphorescent void of Times Square, completely alone in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of fellow travelers. It’s a New York feeling. A classy and cultured way to bask in urban stench.