Returning to New York City, after living in the third world
Her and I, we didn’t part on the best of terms. I absconded from my role as “struggling millennial writer cum waitress” in the unforgiving ecosystem of the Big Apple because, in the three years that I lived and worked in New York, I found myself calcifying over with cynicism at an alarming rate.
I served far more tables than I published articles and wrote poems, deflected daily catcalls with aplomb, learned to control my panic attacks while stuck on the N train in the tunnel under East River between 59th Street and Queensboro Plaza. But I was weary. I found myself doubting her wonder, her grandeur, her reputation as “the greatest city in the world.” What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I thriving? Fulfilling my potential? How was spending my early 20’s in NY turning me into such a curmudgeon?
When I had the opportunity for an unexpected six week assignment in South Africa, I saw it as divine intervention- an escape, that didn’t involve throwing in the towel and moving back to my hometown in defeat.
It’s been two years since I took that 6 week assignment. In that time, I’ve had the astounding good fortune to continue working and living in the third world with stints in South Africa, Kenya, Southern India and Dubai (which, while definitely not the third world, had plenty of lessons to teach me in itself.) In that time, I feel as if I’ve become rewired, reprogrammed with gratitude and reverence and fierce pride for my homeland, and for the city that I left.
When I visit New York, never for more than a week or two at a time between assignments, I find myself bewitched by her lunacies in ways that I struggle to explain.
I used to have this theory that a mariachi band or a ‘showtime’ dance crew would only ever enter my subway car if I was running late for work, or in a great deal of emotional distress. Their creative gifts were an annoyance to me, an unavoidable obstacle of a resident in daily transit. The first time I saw a showtime crew on a visit back to NYC I was on the C train and I broke into the goofiest of smiles. I was jet-lagged and running late, of course. But rather than feeling resentment, I felt that I was being greeted by an old familiar whom I always gave a bad wrap, when really they weren’t ever that bad. Had I actually missed this old friend?
Bodegas became truly mesmerizing, in their vast array of offerings: Custom footlong sandwiches made by a nice man behind a deli counter, in real time, 24 hours a day! Seventeen different flavors of bottled sparkling water! Oreos that now come in a pastel selection of ice cream flavors. Rosé in cans?! My cup runneth over.
I greeted strangers with a knowingly naive friendliness, remarking at the most mundane things, hipster dads riding bikes and texting at the same time, bagels and schmear, dogs in boots (boots, I tell you!), the foot traffic in Union Square. Even, my dreaded nemesis of Time Square, that I used to traverse on my way to and from work on my way to a box office job at an Off-Broadway theater, felt slightly less like the bane of my existence. Broadway! The Great White Way, swarming with tourists and bridge-and-tunnel theater patrons made me start whistling the notorious first notes of “New York, New York.” Who had I become? The idea of 42nd Street at 7.30 pm on a Saturday used to make me want to crawl out of my skin.
But now, with this welcomed perspective, I feel sometimes, when I am back and wandering through the city, like George Bailey at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he’s running through his hometown, declaring his love for everything in sight. “Hello you old stupid Savings and Loan! Hello Mr. Potter, Merry Christmas you old fool!…God Bless you, Bedford Falls!”
Perspective is a beautiful thing. A thing only truly acquired with distance, separation. You can run into a former lover after years of estrangement and notice every subtle quirk that you used to love about them, and in that instant become unmoored, In that instant, if you allow yourself, you could fall in love with them all over again. And realize that maybe it was you, not them, that was the problem. I think the same goes for places as well. Only when you’ve torn yourself away, thrown yourself against a different canvas, can you truly see the beauty the place brought to you.
She is Rhapsody in Blue played on full blast on a Friday during rush hour on 5th Avenue. She is a hundred square foot pepperoni pizza, that you didn’t have to pay for. She is fireworks every night of the year.
She is a cloak that wraps you tight when she pleases, taking on your hue, reflecting it back to you, whether you like how it looks or not.
I realize that now.