On My Twentieth Anniversary of Living in NYC...
This month marks my 20th year living in New York City.
Twenty years! I’m mostly acknowledging this because I can’t believe I’m old enough to have committed to anything that long.
Question: Do people make a thing out of this in other places? Ten years here or 15 years there makes you a REAL Californian, Oregonian, New Mexican, what-have-you? Does anyone really care how long anyone’s been anywhere but the person themselves, or perhaps the people they moved away from? Is this another arrogant New York City thing?
It’s funny; I’ve lived here for 20 years, own a business and a home here, am married to a native New Yorker, hang out almost exclusively with lifelong New Yorkers and I still don’t feel I can justifiably call myself a “real” New Yorker. Know why? Because a “real” New Yorker would never write an anniversary post about how long they’ve lived in New York.
Here’s my take: If you have a moving-to-New-York story, you are not a real New Yorker. That doesn’t mean you don’t love it. It doesn’t mean you don’t belong here. New York has enraptured me. It’s transformed me. It’s altered my conceptions of reasonable prices and acceptable square footage forever. I may not have grown up in New York City, but I believe it was my destiny to spend my life here. I love it fiercely.
But I will never be offended when someone refers to me as a transplant, because that’s exactly what I am.
To move or transfer (something) to another place or situation, typically with some effort or upheaval.
In honor of my New York-aversary (as obnoxious transplants are known to call them), I’m reflecting today on my first six months in this not-so-fair city. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
I completed my degree in print journalism a year before the entire world went digital. At the time, I had no idea what this would mean for my future career as a magazine writer, but I had a foolproof plan to move to New York and become the next Caroline in the City. Dad said I could use his frequent flier miles to get there, so I booked a ticket on Southwest Airlines, which in 1999 only flew as far as Islip Airport in Ronkonkoma. Growing up in Texas, I thought Long Island was one of the boroughs, like Brooklyn or Queens. Then I remembered what a canary Dr. and Mrs. Seaver had whenever Mike and Boner went into “the city” because when you’re driving from Long Island, “the city” is actually really freaking far. The cab ride into Manhattan took over two hours and cost $150. I would have been better off flying into Philadelphia. I’d never been to New York before, and had very little idea of the logistics of getting around.
I’d only been in taxicabs a handful of times, always in college with a group of chatty girlfriends. Sitting in the back of a New York City taxi by myself felt very grown up, like I was on my way somewhere important. The driver had one of those Brooklyn accents that doesn’t really exist anymore and corrected my pronunciation of Houston Street. “This isn’t Texas, hon.” he said. “We call it How-ston here.”
Islip Airport was smaller than Houston Hobby, and the Long Island Expressway was so nondescript I began to wonder if perhaps New York City wasn’t the colossus I’d imagined. Finally we started to see some gridlock as we passed Queens and approached Manhattan, then the wheels of the cab tipped onto the Queensboro Bridge and we drove straight into the mouth of a postcard. The skyline looked just like it did in the movies, except the Empire State Building was closer to the middle of town than I realized and the Twin Towers looked like two Lego pieces, jutting skyward, soaring over everything else. The skyline seemed to stretch on forever-- century-old buildings assembled with brick and stone mashed next to modern skyscrapers finished in glass, chrome and steel, with windows that reflected the sun and burned my eyes. At some point, without my realizing it, my mouth swung open.
The cab driver caught me in his rear view mirror. “Close your mouth,” he said. “If you walk around by yourself like that, you’re gonna be in trouble.” I doubt such warnings would be issued today. Are people still scared to come to New York City? (They shouldn’t be).
As we drove into Times Square, a tunnel of neon blinked and flickered around us. Flashes of red, blue, pink and green bouncing off ticker-tapes and enormous billboards for “The Matrix”, “American Beauty” and “RENT” on Broadway. Phantoms of smoke rose from the sewer grates like I’d seen in movies but always assumed was added for drama. I could actually feel the ramble of subway cars beneath the sidewalk. It was steaming hot and cluttered with thousands of tourists, stained by several decades’ of discarded chewing gum, stomped into the concrete, tattooed by the sun. The air was cologned with sweat, pyramids of rotting restaurant garbage and barely-burnt sugared cashews, sold in little trucks on every corner. It didn’t take long to realize they smell much better than they taste.
My driver dropped me off at my $35-dollar-a-night international hostel and wished me luck. I checked in and carried my duffel bag upstairs to a narrow room with two sets of metal bunk beds and a small window that opened up to a brick wall. I was assigned the bottom bunk beneath a woman from West Africa who’d been there so long she was receiving mail. The other bunk was occupied by two girls from Spain, who I followed around like a helpless puppy because no one else in the hostel spoke fluent English, and Spanish was the only other language I could clumsily communicate in. For the first few days, I was the only American in the building, until later in the week, when another recent graduate from California checked in. One night we ate pastrami sandwiches at a 24-hour deli, then he kissed me on the roof of the hostel, beneath the glow of a full moon and a glittering billboard for Chicago.
It was late July 1999, and I’d unknowingly traveled to the city during the worst heat wave on record. As a native Texan I’d lived in perennial summer my entire life, which we survived by cranking up central air and never walking further than three feet. In college, I worked as a poolside waitress at a yachting club, where at least one old white guy died every summer from a heat-related incident. The first year I worked there, it happened on the tennis courts—heart attack. The second year was slightly less cliched; while dining in the sunny window overlooking the pool, a retired businessman died suddenly and fell face-first into his bowl of chilled vichyssoise.
Anyway, like I said, I was accustomed to heat.
My first night in the hostel was the only time I’d ever been without air conditioning--even my rustic summer camp cabins had it--and I was almost certain my bunkmates were going to find me dead in the morning. To prevent heat stroke, I took the two bath towels I brought from home and soaked them in the communal sink down the hall; I draped the first one over the paper-thin mattress, then lay down and pulled the other one across my body like a throw blanket. I bought a small battery operated fan at the corner Duane Reade, and clipped it to the metal bed frame. When I think back on the mildew I must have bred that week, I feel tempted to mail the hostel a check for a new mattress. I looked it up; it’s no longer there.
The next day, I grabbed my Fodor’s guide and set out to explore the city on my own. Too afraid to board the subway by myself, I bought a ticket for a double-decker tour bus and circled the city for hours until compelled to get off and walk around. It felt a bit like riding a Mardi Gras float, with an eager, high-spirited crowd bouncing around the sidewalks below. While cruising down West Broadway, where all the big chain shops used to be, a man stood on his 6th floor balcony and gave us a little wave. He was naked and enjoying a cup of coffee. There aren’t a lot of naked people on balconies these days. I blame smartphones. I blame smartphones for a lot of things.
We drove by the gaudy Trump Tower and the fancy stores on Madison and 5th Avenue. We looped around the South Street Seaport and the original Fulton Fish Market, then I got off the bus in Chinatown, where half the buildings were painted red and the narrow streets bustled with activity and smelled like flounder. The markets on Mott Street between Canal and Hester were lined with crates of tiny dried shrimp, woody mushrooms and unidentifiable vegetables shaped like torpedos. Moving through the thick crowds required elbows and authority, especially when fighting off the dozens of hustlers selling knockoff Prada handbags and illegally ripped CDs.
My feet grew weary as I lapped Central Park, stunned by the sheer vastness of the Great Lawn and Sheep Meadow, where people sunbathed and threw frisbees and sprawled limbs across the grass as they read and took naps and shared picnics. Break-dancers yelled “Showtime!”, then gathered tourists in a long skinny line and did front flips over their heads. By Bethesda Fountain, opera singers used the tunnel for acoustics and people in short-shorts roller skated and snapped their fingers to disco music. Chinese men found quiet corners to do tai chi. Vendors passed ice cream bars with gumball eyes to children who had to attack quickly, before they melted all over their sticky fingers.
On the third day, I used a paper map to find my way to the PATH train so I could get to Hoboken, a small New Jersey town just across the Hudson from downtown Manhattan. I was headed to an open house hosted by two young women looking for a third roommate on 8th Street, right next to a greasy Chinese takeout place called Orange Kitchen. I’d seen the ad for the apartment on Craigslist, which in 1999 was only four years old and still considered a great way to get yourself murdered.
When I arrived, 20 young women were already gathered in and around the small apartment, competing for a windowless $500 bedroom with a single hanging rod, the dimensions so modest you couldn’t open the door without hitting the twin-sized bed inside. I got a call later that day; despite having zero income, no future job prospects and living across the country, the women had chosen me as their third roommate. They must have had some really crappy options.
I flew back to Texas, packed two hockey bags with clothes, and moved in three weeks later. My dad agreed to help me with my rent until I landed on my feet, and I’ll never stop being grateful for that. I’d signed with a temp agency on the trip, and they started sending me to publishing houses right away. I’d graduated in the best economy in years, not that I truly understood the importance of that at 22.
The apartment was on the first floor of a three-story attached house with an outdated L-shaped kitchen and a bidet in the bathroom, which my roommates used for its intended purpose and I adopted as my personal foot spa. There was a small yard in the back, framed by two chain-link fences on each side. To our right was an old Italian couple who only knew the word “hello” in English. Occasionally they’d smile and nod at us, then pass a jug of homemade wine over the fence. One time they handed me an enormous serving bowl filled with freshly cut fettuccine, sprinkled with snowflakes of grated parmesan and fragrant ribbons of home-grown basil. I loved all of the clotheslines in the backyards, and it often struck me as funny that I’d never spoken to any of our neighbors, but had seen almost all of their underwear.
One of my roommates was native to Jersey, a beautiful olive-skinned Portuguese banker named Silvia with sleek black hair and an expensive collection of tailored pantsuits. Silvia was recently engaged to a very handsome Italian-American named Alex, and they had sex every Tuesday from 12:15 to 12:35 am, which I survived by shoving my head into a pillowcase.
Silvia and her fiancé took me under their wings, and introduced me to my new home. We ate pizza at Benny Tudino’s, where greasy slices are the size of placemats and brassy waitresses actually said things like “Hey, whatdy’a want from my life?” when asked for soda refills. They walked me across the Brooklyn Bridge, fed me paella and sangria in Newark, and took me salsa dancing at the enormous Copacabana on West 57th Street, where Latin men don’t ask if you’d care to dance, but grab you by the wrist and sweep you quickly across the floor, pulling you close at the beginning of a song before wordlessly spinning you back to the sidelines at the end of it.
My other roommate Leslie was an ambitious and cerebral Midwesterner with perfect posture and a laugh so contrived you wondered if she had a sense of humor at all. She looked like a fleshier Nicole Kidman, so pale she was nearly translucent. Leslie made great efforts to hide her insecurities, and instead wore pretension like a badge of honor, taking it to new levels when she began calling our dated Hoboken apartment her “New York Pied a terre”. She was most often found on the couch in the living room, swirling Merlot and petting her cat Mickey while reading something thick like Anna Karenina. The only thing she enjoyed more than taking information in was spitting pebbles of it out, using every opportunity possible to spew her intellectual superiority all over our house. She corrected everyone’s grammar and spoke in broken French while parked in front of the television with a wheel of brie. We lived together at the height of the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” craze, so three nights a week I had to hear, “It’s ‘A’, I know it, and anyone who doesn’t know it is an idiot.”
I didn’t know anyone else in town, so I glommed onto Silvia. On my second weekend in the tri-state area, she and Alex drove me to the Jersey Shore where one of their friends was sharing a beach house for the summer. I’d grown up in a beach town, but had never heard of a ‘summer share’ before. I learned quickly that it was a popular way for 20-something East Coasters to acquire debt, irreversible sun damage and communicable sex diseases.
We drove to a run-down house in Belmar, a few blocks from the beach. The front porch was littered with cheap plastic chairs, rough and faded from years left out in the salt and sun, half a dozen empty beer boxes and a mountain of sandy flip-flops. Inside, inflatable beds and sleeping bags lined the stained, dingy carpet. Shelves overflowed with empty vodka and tequila bottles, trophies of weekends passed and immediately forgotten. Hoagie wrappers and potato chip bags covered the wooden coffee table, where coasters were purely decorative and sandy feet could always find a home. It was the kind of place where people wake up with vomit in their hair and lipstick smeared across their face, a hallowed ground for beer-fueled fist fights and occasional pregnancy scares. In the corner of the room was a lumpy floral couch, the kind you obtain from deceased grandmothers or charity thrift shops, its cushions so worn and abused the whole thing sagged from exhaustion.
And there he was, slouched in the middle of it.
He looked like Keanu Reeves with a thyroid problem, slightly wide through the middle but indisputably cute in the face, pocked in the corner by a dimple so deep you could fill it with honey. His hair was dark and baby-soft, and unlike the other guys in the room it wasn’t shellacked to his skull or gelled into crunchy ripples, but parted gently to the side, like he was headed to church service or dinner with his ma. His black t-shirt hugged his barrel chest, and his musky cologne made him smell like a real man. His name was Al, and he sold forklifts. His family was Brazilian, and he spoke fluent Portuguese. He had real heft to his frame, and breathed too heavily for someone who was only 25, the kind of guy who would eventually struggle with an eroding hairline and sleep apnea, but for now still looked really good. I’d never met or seen anyone like him before. To me, Al was interesting and exotic.
For the first time, so was I.
Our first date lasted 48 hours. It wasn’t love at first sight, so much as neither of us had anything better to do. We had dinner in Hoboken, and he stayed the night. And the next night. He barely fit in my tiny room, so it’s possible he wasn’t even that into me, it simply took too much effort to leave.
And thus began our truly mediocre love affair. During the week I temped at a book publishing company, then on Friday nights I’d take a duffel bag to Penn Station and stare at the train schedule screen with a mass of anxious and ornery commuters waiting to see which track we’d board from so I could spend the weekend in the exciting town of Bridgewater, New Jersey. Al’s mother lived with him (not the other way around, he was quick to point out the difference), so we’d try to arrange our visits to his room around her bridge nights. On a few occasions, I’d stay up late with his mom watching old black and white movies. His mother loved me. All mothers loved me, and at that time in my life, all of them loved me much, much more than their sons ever did.
Al and I would begin our Saturdays with eggs and pancakes in a local diner, then fritter away our early afternoon combing the aisles at Home Depot. Al was perfectly happy spending hours examining drill bits and pressure-treated lumber, but this was not what I’d pictured when I fantasized about being 22 in New York City. I’d just started watching season two of this popular new show on HBO where four single women live in New York and spend all their time brunching and shopping for shoes. My life looked nothing like that. My shoes were all flat and ugly, and I couldn’t afford $15 cocktails. I was very prissy and tight-lipped about sex and would never have shared my thoughts with girlfriends so openly, which was neither here nor there since I had none. Not locally, anyway.
When Alex and I weren’t at Home Depot, we’d gamble and play boardwalk games in Atlantic City, eat Bobo de camaroa or pastels de nata with his sister, or hang out at his friend Vito’s house, where the bathrooms had marbled countertops and gleaming brass faucets, the Victorian couch was shrink-wrapped in slippery plastic and enormous watercolor paintings of Jesus suffocated under heavily gilded frames. When I asked Al why his friend’s house was so fancy, he put two fingers to the side of his nose and pushed it to the side. I had no idea what this meant, but interpreted it as “Be quiet, Jenn. It’s tacky to ask questions about money”. **
At night, we’d go out with his lifelong friends. They were all beefy and muscular, trapped inside white shirts so tight they cut off the circulation in their hairless tattooed arms, their thick necks lassoed with gold rope chains that carried around huge gold crosses. I’d recently heard someone in Manhattan reference a “bridge and tunnel” crowd, and though I couldn’t be sure, I had a feeling I was falling into it.
We bounced between a few happening spots throughout northern New Jersey, pitch-black caverns with occasional flickering beams of neon light, where people hopped about with glowsticks and pounded their fists in the air to endlessly repetitive drum beats you could feel inside your skull, thumping on your chest, pulsing through the bottom of your feet. I’d look over at Al and he’d be completely lost in himself, so in sync with the overall vibe it was like he was home. My back would be glued to the bar counter, one foot indifferently tapping the sticky floor. One of the most popular dance songs in Jersey at the time was How did you get here? and every time it came on in the club, I’d apply the lyrics to myself. How did I get here? Where am I? Who am I? Who is he? Is this my life now? Are we getting disco fries on the way home?
Once in the parking lot, I’d breathe a sigh of relief that I could self-regulate back to neutral, that I’d no longer have synthesized disco beats pounded into my eardrums. I’d climb into Al’s truck, close the door, shut my eyes, and then he’d blast house music the entire ride home. Apparently, not only did the music juice him up for the night, it also had the hypnotic effect of winding him down. Where initially our differences were thrilling and fun, I now looked at him as some kind of alien creature, one so inherently different from my own type that he was exceedingly difficult to connect to. I’m sure he saw me the same way.
Things really started to unravel when he asked me to shave his back. Between girlfriends, hair removal was his mother’s domain, but now that I’d entered the picture, it was my job to clear the area. I’d never had a real boyfriend before, so I considered the endeavor an initiation, as well as a bit of an honor. I’d squirt on the shaving cream and use both hands to paint across his thick, squishy trunk. It was like priming a pizza for toppings; it was important to spread evenly, covering every square inch of his round, white dough.
“Hey, uh, Jenn… I think you missed a spot,” he’d say, careful not to mention that I’d never do this as well as his mother. I’d scrape the razor down his back in thick stripes, then he’d rinse off and we’d head to the club again, his fresh, hairless torso primed for action and ready to party.
We carried on through fall and into December. It was my first holiday season away from my family, and I felt so homesick I thought I would die. But the city was as magical as I’d heard; ice rinks packed with giggling skaters, wobbling and falling on the ice like baby fawn taking their first clumsy steps. The holiday markets smelled like warm nutmeg and spiced ginger; the Rockefeller Center tree framed by enormous gilded angels and a chorus of drummer boys clanging golden cymbals. Department stores were wrapped in red ribbons, fresh garlands strung over window displays of gingerbread houses made from Swarovski crystals and couture gowns dripping with ostrich feathers and twinkling sequins, enchanting a crowd so thick you had to stand on your tiptoes to get a glimpse inside, like peeking into a snow globe or the hidden corners of a child’s dream.
I spent Christmas day with Al and his mother in suburban New Jersey, opening a few exchanged gifts on his living room floor. He gave me a scarf, my very first. I’d never needed one before.
I handed him the small gift I cobbled together, humble in both price and meaning to reflect my income as well as the borrowed time our relationship was surviving on. He could feel the corners of the wooden picture frame through the wrapping, and did the thing kids do before ripping the paper, shaking and inspecting the box to guess what might be hiding inside.
“Awww, a picture of us. That’s sweet.” His face looked calm but anguished, like he was bracing himself for bad news or straining over a toilet. He tore the paper away, and allowed himself to breathe. It was a photograph I’d taken of him and his friends, arms wrapped around one another after a night at the club, sweaty and delirious from Jager shots and boisterous dancing. I may have been hard up for a social life, but I wasn’t blind. I would have never given him a framed picture of the two of us. I knew from the start he was a “bros before hoes” kind of guy.
He broke up with me the morning after, on the drive home. We sat in silence listening to his shitty house music, then he turned it down ten minutes away from my apartment to explain that it was him, not me. I thanked him for the scarf, and climbed out of his truck.
A week later I was in an Irish pub in Hoboken, ringing in the new year. I was there with a new friend, a real live person I’d met through this exciting invention called the Internet. We still weren’t sure if making connections online was safe, so we thought it better to meet in a crowded place. We were both young and from out of town, and we’d been able to find one another simply by going onto our computers and typing “friends”. The concept amazed us both.
Across the room, I spotted one of the three people I knew in Hoboken—Al’s sister, who I’d hung out with a few times. We exchanged a few casual pleasantries before I tucked myself in a corner so she wouldn’t tell her brother she’d caught me kissing a pole at midnight.
We were ringing in the year 2000, where across the river in Times Square, people held their breath and looked up toward an uncertain sky, unsure if they were waiting for computers to explode, glitter to rain or planes to fall. Little did we know that wouldn’t happen until the next year, when I was 23 and living just across the Hudson from the Twin Towers, so naive to man’s capacity for evil that I still commuted into the city after watching the first tower get hit by a plane.
But on New Year’s Eve in 1999, I was breathless with hope. I’d just landed my first job writing for a magazine. My entire life was ahead of me. Anything seemed possible, only inches from my grasp.
And I was in New York City.
Okay, fine. I was in Hoboken, New Jersey. Close enough.