There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” E.B White (Here is New York)
When I first moved to New York City in the late summer of ’99, I was close to paralysis with trepidation for the enormity of what I had brought on myself. New York was nothing like I had seen in the movies. It wasn’t fantasy, it wasn’t romance and it was not top-down views of a beautiful island with a lime-green statue and a beautiful skyline. New York was an asylum – An asylum with a stench from hell. I could not believe the smells that emanated from the belly of this town; sweat, piss, garbage, more piss and other undetectable but still all fiercely pongy. It smelt like a really mean person had shoved my head in Shaquille O’Neill’s gym sock, or worse his armpit. Sometimes I would walk around paranoid. ‘I smell dead people.’
What I dreaded more than walking 30 blocks while praying to God I wouldn’t need to cross the street ‘ever’ – was heading down the to the subway. In the summer, the subway is a steaming capsule of suffocating commuters, some of who clearly are not familiar with the term ‘bath’. Squirrel-sized rats rule the rails, but topping creepy was my encounter with a subway masturbator. The subway car was packed to the rafters and I was glued to a nut job who rubbed, and rubbed and rubbed himself against me. I was completely traumatized.
I was surprised to learn that all the trains run from downtown to uptown. Since I lived on the far West Side, if I had any business on the East Side of town, my options were to foot it, or take the Cross Town bus. It took several months before I had the courage to take the bus, and ended up doing a whole lot of walking. New Yorkers spend a large chunk of their lives walking in the City, and it pays them back generously with a natural leanness. In Manhattan, I rarely saw obesity.
New York drivers have a high level of road rage, and Yellow Cabs in particular are not familiar with halting at red lights. I was really afraid to cross the street. I devised a strategy where I’d only run across when a woman with a stroller was also crossing because then I was guaranteed safety – or so I hoped. After a week of one horrifying experience after another I turned to a friend, who said, “New York is a jungle. If you survive here, you can survive anywhere.”
I started school about a week after getting to New York, and within Week 3 realized that I had taken on more than I could bear. If Mt. Everest was ever on my bucket list, I can go ahead and tick that off because that year was the toughest challenge I’ll ever have to endure in my life. I had absolutely not a clue what was expected of me. My first class assignment, which really was more of an ‘assessment’ for the Section Prof to see where we were at was a disaster of epic magnitude.
I remember thinking, ‘write like the New York Times, write like the New York Times,’ but all I managed to put out was a low-class ‘essay-style’ piece with about one quote. When it came back it was covered in so much red, I couldn’t make out the original script.
To humiliate myself even further, I had rented-out a room in a community residence hall called ‘International House’, where most of the foreign students lived. It seemed a good idea before I arrived in the city. I hoped to hold hands in candlelit Kumbayah sessions with fellow despondent immigrants. The curious mind I am, I had done a bit of research and learned that several famous people had traveled through I-House – Chinua Achebe, Mark Mathabane, Kiran Desai (yes, all writers), as well as several Nobel Prize winners, several presidents, and famous CEOs and the like – so I felt proud to be joining a part of history.
As soon as I landed in the City, I went straight to the building, which sits on the border of Harlem in Morningside Heights, and lagged my luggage up in the creaky elevator. When I swung the door to my room open, I was hit by a such a severe case of shock, I became light-headed and had to hold on to the door frame to keep myself from hitting the ground. New Yorkers always use clichés like ‘living in a closet’ but this room space was a box and it was absolutely no cliché. There was a single bed by a window that looked out to the buildings across the quadrangle. Mostly, the view was hundreds of air conditioners hanging off hundreds of apartment windows. A wooden desk hugged the bed close. In the first few nights, I slept with my head next to the table but suffered multiple injuries to my face and arms while tossing in my dreams. I then switched around so my feet were next to the table, but it would mean having to gear up to a bit of Pilates every time I got up. Behind the door stood a wardrobe designed for a Hobbit. I had to pick and choose what would go in the wardrobe and the rest I left in my luggage, which I stored on top of the Hobbit wardrobe.
The bathroom was down the hall, so every morning and evening I’d have to flip-flop in my Terry bathroom gown with a shower cap on my head and a little basket of scrubs and gels. If I needed to pee in the middle of the night, once again, I scurried away across the hall and by the time I scurried back I would lie in bed completely wide awake.
I had no mirror in my room. To wear my contact lenses and my general face every morning, I used a small hand held mirror. For the rest of my body I simply picked out an outfit and hoped for the best. If I had a clothing label hanging out or my panties peeked out, I’d just have to suffer the shame.
I had no refrigeration system or perk of any kind. I’d eat an early breakfast in the cafeteria, dash off to campus, then if I were lucky enough to make dinner at 7 I’d make it, and if not, then that was that. In those moments I discovered the famous ‘Slice’; a greasy but heavenly large slice of pizza retailed at any ‘mom and pop’ Italian corner shop. I had watched the natives closely and learned that all I had to say was ‘slice’. With that password, the huge Italian guy would proceed to cut a generous portion from a massive 20-inch pizza kept warm under a glass heater. I always ordered the Margherita, complete with hot gooey melted cheese. Add on some pepper and herbs with a Coke, all for under $5, and dinner was served. When I found the courage to venture further uptown on the creepy subway, I discovered Gray’s Papaya on 72nd Street and Broadway. I don’t typically love hot dogs, but Gray’s would become one of the things I missed most about New York when I finally left years later.
On Sundays I ventured out, mostly walking. I discovered that supermarkets are quite rare in the city, and instead what I found were ‘mom and pop’ grocery stores that also offered fruit and vegetables. I learned they were called Bodegas. I claimed my own little coffee shop, Nussbaum & Wu, where I would sit for hours on Sundays and read the New York Times, and the New Yorker and classic books about New York. I discovered the fresh bagel, and a few weeks later I would become more daring and discover bagel and Lox, which is the bagel topped with smoked salmon. I stumbled on Broadway one day when I was lost on the subway, which meant I had to get out of the station and walk up several blocks to change trains. It was a bit like being in Vegas – so many flashing lights, it was over stimulating for my slowly developing nervous system. I was perturbed by the gargantuan number of tourists and especially by the West African peddlers selling fake Rolex watches. During my years in New York, I made it a point to avoid Broadway.
In the City I felt a strange sense of loneliness but yet a perfect peace. It was the first city I’d lived in America where no one cared why I spoke differently or asked me where I was from. No one tried to peg me. It was liberating to be so free. But as with everything, there are always two sides to the pancake. New Yorkers are blind, either too busy or too jaded to care about anything that unfolds right in front of their eyes. I’ve seen New Yorkers walk by with no interest or concern as a man who was obviously mentally ill striped naked to his birthday suit; yet, that same crowd would pay $120 to see Aida on Broadway, without reservation.