In 2012, I moved to New York. I wrote this essay during that first year as the introduction to the photography book, 1000 Days in New York.
I think my exact words were something along the lines of “why would anyone possibly live in this shithole?” This after visiting New York for work in 2001.
I had just wandered through the disco nightmare that is Times Square. Past the cowboy singing in his underwear. Past the chest-high piles of garbage. Past the confused tide of awestruck tourists who were no doubt pondering the same question. “People actually live here? On purpose?”
So it seemed only fitting that a decade later, my wife Leah and I would be packing our bags, and moving to said shithole. We were about as reluctant of residents as New York has ever known.
Our hesitation had little to do with the city itself. Neither of us had actually seen much of New York at all. Truth is, we were reluctant about moving to the New York that existed in our imaginations.
And that’s the thing about this town. No one who visits it sees it for the very first time. We all think we know New York. Because we’ve all seen the characters it plays on TV.
To the rest of the world, New York is a bastardized mashup of everything from the Sopranos to Spiderman. It’s George Costanza bickering over a taxi with Gordon Gekko. It’s the City that Never Sleeps. And that sounded exhausting. Because I go to bed at 10:30.
The problem was, everything I knew to be true about New York just didn’t mesh with everything I knew to be true about myself. New York is sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’m happily married, can barely handle NyQuil and would rather listen to NPR.
New York is just a hard place to live. Notoriously so. It’s the concrete jungle. The modern Gomorrah. Gotham. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Now that I’ve lived here for a while, I’ve come to realize that the reputation and the reality have grown apart.
Truth is, New York has changed a lot over the last 20 years, even if the stereotypes about it haven’t budged. The crack dens and peep shows have been replaced by the Disney Store and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. The long-abandoned West Side train tracks are now jammed with 20 solid blocks of men in fanny packs taking pictures of tulips.
As Brooklyn resident Ted Moncreiff noted in a recent New York Times article, “there’s only so many strollers before you are no longer officially an urban pioneer.”
After enough picnic lunches in Washington Square Park and breezy walks home over the Brooklyn Bridge, I was beginning suspect that New York was not nearly as hard as advertised.
It seemed, dare I say it: pleasant.
That’s not to say that New York is an easy place to live. Daily life here requires a little more effort. A bit more awareness of your surroundings. You don’t have to be street smart per se, but you also can’t be street dumb. Try walking down the sidewalk while playing Angry Birds and you’ll find yourself in a real life game of Pitfall. Tripping over pugs and plummeting through open cellar hatches. Taking the subway poses its own challenges. Riding during rush hour requires you to perform a clumsy dance of eye contact avoidance mixed with involuntary group cuddling.
But for all of the little daily challenges, there are also a lot of little bonuses.
The way musicians serenade you on the subway platform as you wait for your train to arrive. The snippets of conversations in French, Italian, Russian and Korean. An everyday reminder that people have come from all around the world just to see the place where you live.
But perhaps best of all is the way you can eat.
If you happen to love food as much as I do – that is to say, if while tucking into lunch, you’re already thinking about what you should have for dinner on Friday – moving to New York opens an almost paralyzing new world of possibilities. I imagine it’s a bit like being a little boy who’s found himself suddenly living in the North Pole, taking ownership of the keys to Santa’s workshop and being told that, “Since it never gets dark this time of year, there’s no bedtime. So have at it.”
In fact, after a few years of eating in New York, I have only two complaints with the city’s dining scene. The limited capacity of the human stomach. And the seemingly arbitrary number of meals that society has deemed acceptable for a twenty-four hour period.
Of course, the fact that New York has a couple decent restaurants comes as no surprise. In 2014 alone, 73 of them earned Michelin stars. That means you could try a different restaurant every day for two months and still have a few Michelin stars left over for lunch.
But what I didn’t realize is how finely you can dine with just a few dollars in your pocket. Wander ten blocks in any direction from Greenwich Village and you’ll stumble onto many of the best things you’ve ever stuffed in your face. The best pastrami on rye, the best pierogies, the best ramen noodle soup, and three or four of the best slices of pizza.
And that’s just if you’re feeling mobile.
Should there be inclement weather – a gentle mist, say, or temperatures over 82 degrees – you can stay in the comfort of your home and summon the food to be delivered to your door instead.
If you happen to live in most of America, ordering delivery means choosing between gummy chain restaurant pizza and gummy Chinese food. But move to New York, and you can go on a website called Seamless, and with as little effort as checking your email, beckon anything your heart could possibly desire.
If you’re washing up for bed and have a sudden craving for Baba ganoush, a man with a vest and a bicycle will arrive with it at your door in 30 minutes or less. Have a hankering for Salvadorian Pupusas? Sure. Nepalese Curry? Yup. Uzbek dumplings? Do you want them filled with lamb, pumpkin or potato?
In some regions of the country, Alaska maybe, or parts of the Dakotas, a man's dinner depends entirely on his ability to walk into the forest, find, shoot, and kill a wild animal. Hoist the animal to the bed of his pickup truck. Skin, gut and filet the animal. And then cook it for dinner. If he bags a deer, he eats well. If it’s a squirrel, he’s on a diet.
Ask this man what he thinks of New York, and he’d probably say he could never live there.
He’d look around at his sprawling acreage. At the prairie grass filled with snakes. At the grizzly-bear-infested forest.
“New York is a hard place to live.”
Then he’d finish off the last fork full of squirrel.
If, however, you live in the Flatiron District, have just polished off your delivery of Hainanese chicken and rice (the national dish of Singapore) and have a sudden urge for something sweet, there are over 250 restaurants that will deliver chocolate ice cream to your door, still perfectly frozen. 98 restaurants will top it with hot fudge, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. A few will even slide a Belgian waffle underneath for good measure. Or banana churros and cajeta caramel sauce, if you really want to make things interesting.
Not long after we moved, I was talking to my friend Graham about how surprising it’s been to be able to get so many things delivered in New York.
“Here’s what I do,” he said. “On Saturday nights, I set an alarm for the morning. When the alarm goes off, I log onto Seamless and order coffee, a bagel and the New York Times.”
Then he goes back to sleep for a half hour. When his phone goes off again, it’s the deliveryman. All Graham has to do is get out of bed, open the door, and breakfast is hot and waiting on the other side.
“So the delivery guy is your alarm clock?”
Even the Queen of England isn’t this pampered. Sure, she lives in a palace instead of a studio apartment. But at what cost? Have you ever tried getting British Pizza delivered?
With all due respect to Frank Sinatra, if you can’t make it here, you’ve got no hope anywhere else.
In spite the general lack of rudeness, hostility and zoot suit clad mobsters, there has been one New York stereotype that has held up completely. This town is offensively expensive.
A single parking space in Brooklyn recently sold for $80,000. And that’s not even in the swanky neighborhood.
The average rent in Manhattan as of March 2015 is $3,966 a month. Back home in Baltimore, that could buy you two whole rowhomes, with enough cash left over for granite countertops, top-of-the-line appliances and a few bushels of crabs.
At the Union Square farmers market, okra fetches $10 a pound. A child-sized handful of kale will run you about $2.75. And wild shitake mushrooms require a letter of pre-approval from your bank. This is why New Yorkers do so poorly on The Price is Right.
As an aside, people who read this in 20 years will no doubt be amazed at the kind of bargain-basement deals that could be had on Brooklyn parking spaces back in 2015.
“$80,000 did you say? You can’t even get a pound of mushrooms for that.”
Whenever I grudgingly fork over $8 for a beer, $15 for a burger, or $100 for a dog grooming, I take some consolation in my friend Evan’s justification for paying New York prices.
“The way I look at it,” He explained “is that the extra money is the price of admission to be able to live every day in the world’s greatest amusement park.”
I thought about that recently while Leah and I were walking around Smorgasburg, Brooklyn’s weekly food festival. Every weekend, over 80 restaurants and artisans gather in a park along the banks of the East River. So you can get lunch, enjoy a picnic by the water, and then head back for more lunch.
On this particular Saturday, we were torn between the lobster roll, the 10-layer Mexican Cemita sandwich, the Moroccan merguez lamb sausage and the cornbread that came in flavors including maple bacon, roasted jalapeno, garlic chive and honey sea salt.
Overwhelmed by the choices, I sighed and gazed out across the river to the sweeping panorama of the Manhattan skyline. Our new hometown.
“Let’s get the cornbread, the merguez sausage and the lobster roll.” Leah said.
Sensing that I was still unconvinced, she put her hand on my shoulder.
“We can come back for the Cemita next week.”
I nodded and thought, “Sometimes this can be a really hard place to live.”