i admit that it’s been a long time. in march i attempted to write–i even wrote out an entire post. i’m not sure what followed that prevented me from pressing “publish;” it’s possible i fell asleep.
so i here i am in june, rounding off 10 months in new york city, 10 months in my not-so-new job, and eleven months since i vacated 28 rue saint sauveur.
my most recent attempt to write followed a strange and exhilarating experience, a sort of milestone between the big apple and me. a rare moment, a hybrid of belonging, grounding, and excitement.
it was a normal day at first: several snooze buttons to the shower, coffee and toast to the F train for my daily indulgence of reading and people-watching (sometimes, i think my subway rides are the most enriching moments of my day). work offered a special trip to the human zoo: press check-in for the CIA director’s speech. the sign reading “press” did not deter other guests from approaching; a parade of aged wealth flowing through the doors off of park avenue, furs and bald heads and well-tailored suits–new york’s upper crest. one man approached me, i asked “are you a member of the press?” he looked at me like i had just insulted his mother: “do i look like a member of the press?!”
a day in the life.
but then the plot thickened. i left work early into the the crisp air that emerges when winter meets spring–warm sun with a residual chill. walked down madison and turned onto 44th where i stopped at the harvard club, which is everything you might imagine it to be–dimly lit lounges with deep-set and plushy crimson chairs, the whole room lined with mahogany furnishing, peppered with a crowd similar to the one described above. i spent an hour rattling off random information in one of the strangest encounters i’ve had as of late and trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the hahhvahd club; details upon request.
when i reemerged onto midtown’s less plushy streets i jolted down fifth ave, digesting my last hour and realizing it was still light out and i had left work. i started walking and when i got to the flatiron building; it became clear that i would keep walking because suddenly lower manhattan opened itself up to me in full daylight.
i was in chinatown on a hunt for duck legs (really though) and wandered into a chaotic market overflowing with shopping-caddy adorned old ladies and long purple eggplants and a sea of foreign pink meat parts. i bought a piping hot bun and devoured it in front of a shuttered storefront, digesting the mess of the scene. new york chinatown is a force to be reckoned with.
and that’s when i felt a shock to my system, the feeling that defined my exhilarating wanderings throughout paris–that thrill of conquering new ground–consumed me in a sort of repackaged nostalgia. i felt what i felt in paris without being there: that warmth and relevance and sense of being in the center of the universe. but this time, gravity’s center had shifted.
and all this hit me as i had begun to recline into brooklyn complacency, the treelined, spacious streets that soften a stressful day, a comforting contrast to exiting the subway anywhere in manhattan and walking up a staircase reminiscent of children of men. (YES, i am comparing new york’s population density to scenes of apocalyptic disorder, and no, i don’t think i’m being hyperbolic.)
perhaps i needed to earn that moment, seven months in–brooklyn cushioned my arrival but left a dash to be desired amid my post-paris come-down. something about that moment, standing on elizabeth street fully clad in shopping bags of duck legs and chili sauce, that made me feel centered, repurposed, and ready. things clicked–not out of familiarity, but from realizing that new grounds were waiting. grounds that i had barely tiptoed over.
it started when walking from point A to point B became an energy-propelled glide from down fifth avenue, an array of buildings and fast-walking strangers interspersed with sneakered tourists awestruck at their colossal surroundings.
as i made my way toward the market’s butcher counter (recall: this entire story is based on obtaining duck legs) i felt something like a pang of nostalgia for my ancien boucher on faubourg st. dénis (karim was his name)–not a longing to return but a dull yet pleasant reminder of what was.
up until that day i had thought that the exhilaration and satisfaction paris brought me could not be replicated anywhere else. but what i didn’t realize was that paris taught me how to feel a certain way–everything i learned became a baseline for what would come next. it was a silly assumption, an oversight that could have stalled my exploration and fooled me into thinking of paris as the final frontier. but in retrospect it’s so obvious–nobody is limited to one love per lifetime. but each time it’s a new story. so now i’m thinking that my time in paris, and all the stupid things i did–justified within my arsenal of anecdotes “for the book”–gave me a pretty good sense of how to be in a place while really being there.
i was seven months in that day, with no end in sight. spring’s earliest signs were draping over the city with gusto, the snow melted (and may have revealed hefty piles of trash), but also hit me with a new lease on new york city.
on that day i thought i had broken through, but three months later i’m still not so sure. brooklyn is great but it’s also a suburb–albeit the trendiest suburb on the planet. but manhattan is just more–a condensed cluster that is apparently much smaller than the endless maze i once thought it was. but it’s far from being mine. several weeks ago my train stopped (yep, just stopped) on my morning commute. in a moment of impatient and strategic thinking i pushed through the crowd of huffing-and-puffing morning-commuters and climbed out onto lower manhattan’s morning buzz, a stew of humidity-baked trash piles, rows of emergency-escape-adorned buildings: a strange hybrid of urban beauty and filth. it seemed like such a more logical place to be, amid urban chaos, rather than floating on some peripheral suburban cloud.
conquering cities, inserting yourself into new environments, dissolving comfort zones–all that. over the course of ten months you learn how you unfold on an unfamiliar landscape, how your moods mesh with your everyday locales. paris spoiled me by offering a poetic backdrop for every feeling. on a couple sundays ago i woke up to a passerby whistling. tom said it was like a movie, but paris came to my mind first.
it’s hard not to bellyflop onto new york, and i’ve been trying to do a good job. uncertainty is a challenge. human relationships require anticipating reactions: how will a friend react if i cancel; how will that boy react if i ask him on a date; what will my boss say if i ask for a raise? cultivating relationships with places require that same calculation, but it’s harder to foresee how a new city will welcome your moods and decisions.
sadness as a test case: paris welcomed it poetically; new york’s schedule can’t accommodate melancholy. sulk and you’ll trail behind–you’ve probably already missed two trains. you’re definitely late. sometimes amid new york crowds you’re not quite sure what you’re feeling at all, but you’re probably just tired.
recently i’ve been a bit confused about what i’m doing. my former self-contained reality, my completely selfish existence of long walks and midday apéritifs and tiny studios has dissolved.
silly things “for the book” are now real decisions that allegedly matter, but i can’t figure out why. my book might need two parts (says she at the tender age of 25, thinking that her dabbles in new york yuppie-land constitute the second and final part of growing up).
it’s strange: that day in chinatown i thought i had learned how to belong in new places, but faced with new york’s impenetrable wall i feel compelled to search for new beginnings. fellowship this, research grant that, think of some way to study extremism in europe so that i can drift back into an alternate reality where choices were just fuel for anecdotes to fill chapters of an imaginary book that i’ll likely never write.
after my duck-leg expedition, i recall a furious need to get things down in words welling up in my chest; i feverishly typed out most of my afternoon on my iPhone while on the subway. i remember the guy across from me looking at me like i was a complete lunatic–and new york has a pretty high bar for lunacy. i’m glad i felt that urge to write that day–that momentary satisfaction i felt in unexplored territory is a good reminder that i shouldn’t constantly reach elsewhere.