I am leaving New York. The more I say it the more real it becomes, so bear with me while I repeat myself. I’m leaving New York. The city of chaos and creativity, magic and madness, drama and dreaming.
This city seems to simultaneously wrap you in its protective layer and refine you in its aggressive furnace. You emerge changed forever, appreciative of the people who helped you, and the people who forced you to help yourself. You fall in and out of love with its streets, its quirks, the challenges and triumphs unique to this place. New York will chew you up and spit you out. But you pick yourself, up ready to fight back, fueled by your deep affection for this often harsh and unforgiving city.
In countless ways I am a different person for having lived in this iconic metropolis for a year. I’m stronger, physically and mentally. I can withstand extremes: temperatures, emotions, soaring highs and deep lows. Encounters with friendly strangers and strange friends have re-worked my views of myself and the world around me. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility. Anything goes. My conservative social expectations have been blown out of the water. I no longer have qualms about laughing out loud to myself walking the streets, or silently bopping to the beat of my own personal disco, my eyes closed, my mind miles away and yet right there, under the streets of New York. The first time I saw someone exude a New York level of individuality, I stared in awe – how could you possibly have the confidence to walk down 6th Avenue dancing across the path, sliding in and out of peoples’ way, smiling at the sheer joy of dancing in the street at 2pm on a Thursday. Bizarre. And quite beautiful.
I have learned so much. I’ve learned that asking for help is an acceptable and efficient way to get something done. I’ve learned that New Yorkers’ eagerness to help is a direct result of their empathy: there is an “I’ve been there” sympathy in the eyes of a stranger that I’ve witnessed more times here, in the city with a harsh and aggressive reputation, than I ever experienced from the friendly Irish or the polite Brits. I have learned that resilience is more valuable than an easy life. I have learned that each time the wind is knocked out of you, you learn to take yourself less seriously and hold your expectations more lightly.
The stories I’ve collected, the experiences I’ve had, have stacked on top of one another to create a year I will never forget. It is now part of my identity that I got to live in New York for a year. My grit and impatience are intertwined with my appreciation for the incredibly diverse spectrum of human experience.
Walking down the stairs into the Times Square subway station, I pass a disheveled looking man who looks at me and yells “Hey Irish”. I stop in my tracks, glance over my left shoulder, offer him a bewildered look and, when he winks, I say incredulously “how did you know?” He points to a tattoo on his arm: IRISH. He is a weathered New Yorker with a superpower for spotting Irish people at a glance.
Sitting at the back of the crosstown 96th street bus, watching the trees go by as the bus speeds through Central Park, I feel tired but content after a long day. At Madison Avenue the bus is stopped for a minute too long. Headphones start to come off and necks crane to see what the holdup is. A frail older woman is gesticulating with her walking stick, shouting shrilly at the bus driver about standing behind the white line. Other passengers pitch in, picking a side in the fight between driver and old lady. From the back seat someone shouts that they’ve had a long day and just want to get home. The argument shows no sign of ending, until the door opens, the bus driver steps out, taking his keys in his hand, and turning to the full bus says “I quit. Y’all can deal with your own shit. I’m done. I should have been home two hours ago. I quit.” There is a second of stunned silence in the dark, as the murmur of the engine and the fluorescent lights have gone with the driver. Then someone starts to applaud. Others start to laugh. The teenagers start snapchatting and the old woman remains steadfast in her insistence that she was behind the white line all along, as people shake their heads at her on their way out. We all walk into the hot night in different directions, still laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Strangers forever united by a Crazy New York Story.
Walking through Central Park at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, setting the world to rights with a friend through some deep conversation, we suddenly stop talking. We hear in the distance a song we both know and love. We start singing along until we can place the familiar riff and the voice we know well. We start following the sound and the lights towards the stage. Our view is restricted: just the red and yellow lightshow of the major production through the trees, but we sing and dance and enjoy the experience of being close but knowing our entrance to the concert is impossible. A New York moment.
The sensation of living in New York is full of contradictions: the possibilities are endless, yet you’re always a little bit on the outside. You are part of something, and yet New York won’t miss you when you leave. The sense that anything could happen leaves you with a delicious feeling of hope and expectation, captured beautifully by Joan Didion:
Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about.
(Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That)
My love of New York is complicated, and I often find I must shift my perspective to remind myself of the magic: we almost need to step outside the city to remember the feeling of strutting down its blocks, our bodies so tiny in the crowds that swarm between the buildings that touch the sky. When we fly over the city, or step onto a rooftop to see the sparkling lights (even more magic with a cocktail in hand), or walk across a bridge, gazing at iconic scenes in every direction, we are reminded that the New York we know and love is the same New York that dreamers and creatives and adventurers have been loving for decades. The second-hand nostalgia is a real but unattainable sensation, brought about by books and films that romanticize the magic of New York. I have learned not to be cynical, however. The magic is real, it just needs to be discovered by each person that lands here in his or her own way. My time in New York is coming to an end, but I have no doubt I will bring a piece of the magic with me wherever I go. So it’s goodbye to New York for now, but not to all that it has given me and all that it has made of me. For that I am eternally grateful.