Among those not living in New York, the most common criticism I hear about those living in New York is that they believe there is nothing outside of New York. As someone from outside New York but now living in New York, I’ve come to see to the contrary that the people of New York have no illusions. Ignoring life outside of New York is not an act of hubris, but an actual symptom of just living in New York. Considered one of the busiest, most overwhelmingly active cities in the world, nothing happens in New York. To be clear, nothing just happens in New York. It has been said that life is nothing more than serial periods of waiting. Life consists of events—things happen to you— and the time existing between these events—what occurs from one thing to the next—is what constitutes life. In New York, you make things happen; life itself is the event. Nothing meaningful exists outside of it and thus, there is nothing outside of New York. New York, New York, the only city to share its name with the state in which it exists, can truly be considered “in and of itself.”
When you arrive – reaching New York as the end of a journey, or a stage in a journey, because invariably, New York proves to be one of the two – you are first told “welcome,” only to hear “sorry” more than anything else after. The frequency of sorry results from the vastness of offenses that warrant sorry in New York, or in other words, how it’s impossible not to bother someone at some point in someway – accidental touching, standing in the way, walking too slowly or too fast, sneezing – to the point that basically, we’re sorry for our mere existence. You’ll be sorry yourself, for yourself, once you hear yourself saying sorry as frequently as everyone else, as though we’re all apologizing to each other for the pretense of the initial greeting, while simultaneously undermining the sincerity of both. This is the so-called New York state of mind – you are only welcome in so far that you can tolerate knowing you were never actually welcome in the first place – sorry, not sorry.
New York’s distinct disposition, essentially imbued with the notion, “life is what you make of it,” manifests itself most vividly in New York’s tireless work ethic. New York requires subscribing to the idea that nothing worthwhile is easy. Everything is earned –never deserved – and you’re owed nothing until you’ve proven yourself to be entitled. It’s all matter of fact in the most matter of fact way. Direct, simple, and ultimately self-determined, excuses don’t exist in New York. The concrete jungle, physically saturated in innumerable shades of grey, is philosophically black and white. You either do something, or you don’t, you want it enough, or not at all, or as I was told, “if you have patience, make good connections, and work your ass off, in about a decade you’ll look back and see how far you have come.” Taking a chance on New York is one and the same as taking a chance on yourself. For anyone living in New York, New York represents the question, “do you care?” and what you accomplish for yourself amounts to the eventual answer.
Judgements of character are fundamentally based on expectations of responsibility and motivation. Above all else, New Yorkers are defined by how discernible their self-respect is. Resolve should be made apparent in every aspect of your being, and if it’s not, the people of New York take notice of you only long enough to realize you are a waste—in every sense of the word—before completely ignoring you. Proof that you’re worthwhile is constantly on demand. “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” indeed, seems to be the case. It’s an unparalleled public standard through which New York’s exalted reputation continues to endure through the cultural shifts, generational transitions, and changing times, unwavering. What is often perceived as insensitive and rude by those not from New York is the infamous hardened affect, and a cultural custom of candidness true to life in New York.
While New York offers every material good imaginable at any given moment, it is not an accommodating place. The standard of living accepts practical inconveniences, such as hand washing dishes and public laundromats, while expecting consumer luxuries, such as infinite choice and 24/7 service. Although conditions concede to the side effects of too many people in too small of a space, New Yorkers exhibit an extraordinarily high threshold of consciousness and subsequently, sustain an indifference to tolerating their own discomfort. It is what it is. You are not comfortable in New York, but you can get comfortable through a daily concerted effort and inevitably, compromise. New York is paradoxically one of the loneliest places where you are never entirely alone. New Yorkers will have a lifetime of experiences that spur an internal struggle not to resent themselves for loving such an alienating place. Like a confounding pheromone that permeates the atmosphere, this general unease seems to emanate from people, forming a palpable tension wherein a common suspension of disbelief prevails: this is normal.
Defined by its means of transportation, the people of New York are constantly in motion, transient, en masse but in a distinctively self-preserving mode of insular concern. In such a densely populated place, the people of New York surround amongst each other so much so that they may be considered exceptionally subject to what Freud called the narcissism of small difference. The need to distinguish one’s self by minute shadings and to vehemently insist on the importance of those shadings is nowhere more apparent than in New York, and is essentially the basis of New York’s infamous “edge,” or less euphemistically, its ego. In practice, this is why and how New York is a place of superlatives.
In New York people are characteristically unavoidable as walking, breathing testaments to Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion that hell is other people. Personal space is not, not respected so much as it is ignored, falling victim to an overcrowded circumstance and consequently, must be constructed. Space is shared, but only in so much as its confines necessitate. Typically, a sense of privacy is experienced through a visible pair of earphones, or at least by focusing attention on some electronic device or another to the exclusion of everything else around you. It’s an absolute sign of the times, an unprecedented dependency on technology to relieve ourselves from a recently realized burden of co-existence that has grown to an unprecedented scale. We’re alone together.
Because days are fundamentally kept by subway schedules, nothing is more precious in New York than one’s time, and even more importantly, preserving one’s sense of control over it. Expediency is valued over quality of service, and as such, the entire service industry of New York effectively relinquishes itself from offering an experience to be had and instead, its offerings are just something to get through. Nowhere else after ordering a coffee are you asked, “to stay or to go,”—a question of time—rather than, “for here or to go?”—a question of place, with the bulk of two-syllable, hyphenated “non-fat” replaced by the brevity of “skim.” The so-called, “New York Minute,” is nothing more than an instant and perpetuates the controlled freneticism endemic to New York. And while navigating the city isn’t as difficult in practice as in theory, it proves to be as taxing as it is daunting, even for native New Yorkers, who’ll find themselves lost and confused from time to time. A feeling of uncertainty – not knowing whether one is coming or going – predominates this metropolitan malaise.
A place that can be as disturbing to enter as it is to leave, New York appeals and repulses as an alluring, yet intimidating challenge that pulls you in while constantly pushing you out. Days before a departure–however brief it may be–already an anxious anticipation precipitates a growing unease. Not to be confused with the fundamental stresses of New York’s daily grind, this is a fear of missing out on all that continues without you. You don’t miss New York, but the sense of being settled in New York becomes startlingly imperiled by being outside of New York and the possibility that upon returning, you will revert to the way you first felt when you moved to New York. As you make your return to New York, you’re overcome with a paradoxical relief to resume the chaos that prompted the desire to escape.
The people of New York submit to a formidable reputation of speed, honesty, and tenacity that precedes itself. New York sustains itself as a contingency that possesses you with its urgent promises, an urban legend that there is constantly something to be had. Come to understand New York, and you’ll come to know yourself.