Dancing in the back room of a Lower East Side bar on Cinco de Mayo, I did a shot of tequila and started crying when “Empire State of Mind” came on. Standing squeezed shoulder to shoulder, every stranger in the room sang the song in unison. I’ve been shoved and given dirty looks at this crowded bar on more than one occasion, but in those four minutes we were all on the same team, or at least all rooting for the same team. We were celebrating New York and how lucky we felt to be there. It is impossible to determine if we were rooting for our personal New York experiences or just the version of New York described in the 2009 Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit because New York City is an ideology. Verklempt and inaudible over the sound of the bar crowd, I thought about my impending post-grad move to Rhode Island and yelled out, "There are no cool songs written about Providence!"
Everybody say yeah, yeah.
We were out that Cinco de Mayo (not to appropriate Mexican culture but) to celebrate my friend Ashley’s birthday. Ashley and I first met in sixth grade, but she has no memory of meeting me before our senior year of high school, when I sat in front of her in economics class. At seventeen, I was strategically isolating myself from a group of old friends who had disappointed me, while Ashley was stubbornly dating a guy her parents didn’t approve of. (Now, at age twenty-two, we understand where they were coming from.) Ashley held onto her new relationship while I pushed my old ones away, and we sat in our third period class every day forming a cohesive friendship out of our diverging situations. A year later, when I was unhappy at the university I had chosen in New Jersey, I had a list of reasons I wanted to transfer to a school in New York. Ashley was one of them. Regardless of whether or not I made friends at my new school, I felt I already had allies in Manhattan because Ashley was living uptown and attending City College. Her presence in the city convinced me that a piece of home was waiting for me there, and I have always thanked New York for keeping us together.
At eighteen, moving to New York felt like the next right step. I, like most of the middle class eastern Long Island girls I know, was raised to believe that you grow up and move to the city. It’s nearly obligatory, if you are lucky. It’s what you do when you come from a too-small town on Long Island but are privileged enough to then move away from it all.
Don’t you see how lucky you are to have the greatest city in the world in your backyard? Our parents echoed this sentiment to us often as we started to make decisions about our futures.
According to the ideology of New York City, you either go away to college there, like I did, or you move to Brooklyn immediately after college with all of your most authentic friends, then you complain that you’re poor but you aren’t really poor because the job market is still pre-recession and affordable housing is still a thing and all student loan repayment is income-based, and maybe you have to waitress on the side but it builds character and you walk out each night with a wad of cash and tons of fun stories about all the wacky but harmless characters living in New York City, and your apartment is tiny but it’s rent controlled, and you live in a neighborhood that looks dangerous but isn’t really because it’s full of other privileged and attractive young professionals like you, and somehow the space is full of character and you can afford cute bric-a-brac bought on Etsy and plenty of takeout sushi and boxed wine and exposed brick in your living room. This is the New York City ideology.
Because of the New York City ideology, I came to Manhattan looking for the Friends reruns, for Elaine Benes, for MacClaren’s Pub. And I found these things, in some ways and in fleeting moments. Senior year of college my friends and I turned the Honors Lounge on campus into our own Central Perk. It became our meeting point, and there was rarely a time when I couldn't find at least one of us in there. We took turns hogging the computer, working on our theses, scrolling through Twitter, talking about our favorite and least favorite professors, preparing for presentations (hi, Ad Team friends!), eating low-grade food from the Caf. I did both of my Skype interviews for my job in Providence from that room, and when I told my friends Megan and Summer I was moving we were in there, too. I can still picture the look on Megan’s face when I said I was leaving. Through all of this the place felt like home. We would regularly watch underclassmen walk into the lounge, witness our talking and procrastinating and complaining, then immediately walk out. I felt conflicted as to whether I should feel guilty about our imperialism of the best spot on campus or as comfortable as the six friends on the orange couch at the corner of Bedford and Grove streets.
I experienced another quintessential New York moment when I spent a snowy Valentine’s Day sophomore year wandering alone around the Upper East Side for hours in search of the apartment front displayed in the movie Annie Hall. I remember wiping my dripping winter snot on my dark purple scarf in stark contrast to the women in pea coats dotting the neighborhood around me. I felt myself fall in love with the city that day in a way I had never known before even as the February snow soaked through my jeans and socks.
Where else can you do this but New York? I echoed this sentiment to myself often during my first year in the city.
But I remember walking around Florence, Italy, on my final afternoon studying there, looking far and wide for a place to buy bubble wrap to pack my souvenirs in, and seeing architecture on old Italian buildings that replicated the Upper East Side exactly — at least from my amateur point of view, which is all I am able to view the world from. I started to think then that perhaps it wasn’t New York that brought me to Annie Hall. Maybe I just love Woody Allen’s films because I see my neuroses reflected in them and that comforted me existentially when I was sixteen years old and impulsively saw Midnight in Paris in theaters for the first time, back before I knew a single thing about Woody Allen or breaking the fourth wall or Mia Farrow. And maybe my love for Woody Allen’s work makes me a terrible feminist, too, but that’s a battle for another blog post.
This year when I watched reruns of Sex and the City, I thought about how much my real life in New York has not fit into the show’s version of the New York City ideology. I will probably never be able to afford a pair of Manolo Blahniks, but I did find in New York a roommate who was willing to sit on the floor of our apartment, surrounded by cardboard boxes on our last night before moving out, and order Italian food and laugh along to both of the Sex and the City movies with me. And back when I lived on the 17th floor of a dorm room on Broadway that made me feel like I had the whole wide world at my feet, I didn’t yet know that it wasn’t the infamous opportunities waiting outside or even the accessibility of delivery Insomnia Cookies that made New York special, but the willingness of a pair of girls who lived just two floors below me to sit on a tiny area rug and stuff ice cream between said cookies and listen to my stories and sing along to my favorite songs with me.
I think back to when I was nineteen and my best friend would come into the city to visit me on weekends and Union Square felt like the most magical place in the world. I remember picking her up from Penn Station one Saturday when it was pouring rain. We got off at 14th St. and shared an umbrella as we passed her heavy yellow overnight bag back and forth every few blocks to split the weight of what she brought with her each visit. We ran around all afternoon trying to avoid the rain while searching for the pizza place I can never find fast enough, the entrance to The Strand, the nearest 4/5 train, and an escape from our respective, solo miseries. We laughed a lot, walking in circles with our arms linked, in blissful denial of our inability to avoid the storm. The following year, when our visits stopped abruptly, Union Square felt like a melancholy reminder of what once was and what could have been—I wandered around alone, unable to understand where the magic of the neighborhood had disappeared to, and asking this city to provide me with a comfort that can only come from another person, not a concrete jungle.
Because of its reputation, we give this city too much credit. New York City is an ideology, after all, just like any other one, and we should treat it as such. I look back on my enduring friendship with Ashley and realize that I shouldn’t thank New York for keeping us together — it isn’t Manhattan who checks in with me after job interviews, or reads everything I write on this site, or takes the A all the way down to FiDi just to get frozen yogurt with me on a Tuesday night. I have been attributing my relationships to the ideology of New York City rather than to the genuine friends who live within it. But I have learned to dissociate companionship and location. There is so much good that happened to me in this place, but that doesn’t mean it all happened because of this place. To accredit all of the good that has happened to me in the last three years to New York City is to succumb to a tired ideology at the cost of invalidating the people I met and the things I learned there.
As one should, I spent my last Sunday in New York at a bottomless brunch with my friends Julie and Megan. We drank mimosas, talked for hours about fate and god and sex and leaving home, sweated like monsters as we dragged our bodies through the heat of the mid-July sun, and I cried like four different times. I hugged them goodbye a dozen times at the entrance to the uptown 6 train on the corner of Lafayette and Canal St. I walked downtown while they rode up, and after I turned my head away from them for the final time, I felt my tears hit my glasses and blur my vision as I made my way through Chinatown. The last of my magical New York City ideology shattered during that walk, when no amount of tall buildings or yellow cabs or Broadway shows could’ve comforted me. Yet my friendships with Julie and Megan make me think my life in Manhattan has been more like Sex and the City than I thought.
I’m moving out of New York at the end of this month for all of the practical reasons: a job opportunity, cheaper rent, a Korean restaurant in Providence I’ve been obsessed with for a year—the usual. I am excited and grateful and I know I made the right choice. I have seen firsthand the holes in the New York City ideology, especially as the subway becomes all but extinct on weekends. Plus, I never once met a cute smart guy at an NYU or Columbia bar, so I think it’s time to try for Brown.
But I still love New York. I might end up back here by this time next year, and there’s a chance I’m just trying really hard to convince myself that this isn’t the greatest city in the world for the sake of my own self-doubt. But if I do move back, at least I will know I am making the decision to return after having critiqued an ideology that was ingrained in this Long Island girl from the day she was born. At least I will know that I returned because it is exciting and full of people I love and endlessly teaching me more about myself and the world and the things that aren’t really important to me (bottomless brunch) and the things that are (the conversations had over bottomless brunch). Or maybe I'll end up back here for reasons I can't even think of now.
The last time I visited Central Park was on the morning after I finished my final exams. I was finally liberated from schoolwork and all I wanted to do was sit in the sun and read. I knew my time living in Manhattan was limited, so I figured I had to go to Central Park and take advantage of my prime real estate before it was too late. I wandered from tree stump to tree stump, book in hand, butt covered in dirt, trying to find a comfortable place to sit. I could never quite find a place I fit—too many tree roots, too much sun, not enough sun, too many bugs, the ground was too hard, whatever. I gave up quickly. I realized in that moment that maybe it’s not worth buying into the New York City ideology of living so close to Central Park if that ideology comes at the cost of not being able to afford a porch or a stoop or even a goddamn living room couch to prop my ass on, the way I’ve been living these past three years. They said the greatest city in the world was in my backyard, but I’m sick of scrounging for a spot on the ground in Central Park.
My new house in Providence has its own backyard.