New York Limbo

August is on its way down. I’ve been here almost 8 months. I’ve gotten a good job and given it up, I’ve explored the city and gone down every road that has caught my attention. I’ve seen shows and hung out with great folks. Yet I’m still not feeling it. I just don’t (yet?) see myself living here for more than a year. I haven’t warmed to New York the way I did to London. I was there for three months, the first few weeks of which were defined by an overriding desire to leave, while the remainder by abiding affection. Part of the reason I chose to try New York was its cultural resemblance to London. So far it hasn’t delivered.

I’m not saying I’m ready to bail, but I’m having a hard time right now envisioning a life here. Even if I found a really good job, I’m already getting tired of…the experience? Here is the short list of complaints:

  1. The summer heat. It’s not as bad as Arkansas, but you have to walk around in it. A lot. Plus stuffy hot subway platforms are like dirty, dirty saunas.
  2. Grocery shopping is an ordeal. Going to Target even more so.
  3. The food isn’t that great. This town loves its comfort food, so the only good stuff is the gourmet stuff, which is prohibitively expensive. Everything cheap is mostly crap. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. When I do find the best food (tastiness at a reasonable price), there is the problem of mileage. I have to cross Manhattan into Tribeca when I want some Vietnamese fried rice as good as Lily’s in LR. And Barbecue? Forget it, unless you want to go all the way up to Harlem[1] to eat at Dinosaur. Which is still only just OK.
  4. The pizza comes in two styles: generic NY slice and authentic Italian. That’s a narrow spectrum for me, coming from Little Rock’s wide spectrum of Vino’s, Damgoode Pies, US Pizza, and Shotgun Dan’s. Don’t get me wrong; I’d eat at DiFara’s weekly if I could, but it’s way out in Midwood and takes an hour to prep.
  5. I don’t think I could ever play music here. Getting my amp to any gig without a vehicle is going to be either expensive or physically taxing. And even my favorite musicians, the guys who impress me most in the area, are disheartened by the impossibility of making a living as an original band in this town. Compound that with the fact that actually getting a gig here is made difficult enough by all the other people who came here to play music.

That last one reminds me. It seems like there are only 4 reasons to live in New York City:

  1. You’re very good at something and you want to do it here with all the other people who are good at something.
  2. You want to be famous for doing something you may or may not be good at.
  3. You want to be here to observe and/or interact with Groups 1 and 2.
  4. Your family is here.

At the end of the day, I think I’m really just a #3. Sure there are things I’m good at, but I don’t think I’m good enough at them to make it worth my while to stay here. Especially since I don’t know what my while is worth. Plus the volumes of #2’s seem to outweigh the population of #1’s by a factor of about 20.

And this is something I’ve been mulling over lately: The New York Celebrity-City Effect. New York City is, in itself, a celebrity. Coming here is like meeting someone famous, and I’d wager that a significant portion of those #2’s are here so that they can see themselves in their minds’ eyes as having New York for their own mental movie backdrop. A quick glance at the top movies of all time shows that New York outpaces Los Angeles as a film setting by almost 2 to 1. NYC is a character all its own[2], providing backdrops for films from such diverse sources as Woody Allen and Spider-Man[3]. That’s the magic of it. But that magic seems to have less spark these days. The artistic community has been all but shoved out of Manhattan by exorbitant rents, with the exception of Harlem, but give it time. Ironically, the cleaning up of the crime here has made nearly every portion of Manhattan a haven almost exclusively for the splendidly wealthy. And Brooklyn is already well on its way down the same path.

It also seems like a lot of people (the #3’s perhaps) move here so that they can have the status of saying “I live in New York City,” to their friends back home, as though simply by relocating they’ve achieved something. Moving here isn’t any harder or easier than moving to Detroit or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Yet given the number of expatriate Arkansans here, I have to suspect that a lot of people move here for the sake of saying they’ve moved here. New York City is indeed a place of wonder, and I have to admit it does really feel like you’re advancing to a second or third act in your own personal screenplay, but a change of venue isn’t guaranteed to make your life any more or less interesting or fulfilling. At best you get to see more music and art, but when it comes to things that are really important – being creative, having friends and loved ones, enjoying life – these are things you can do anywhere.

So, I came here for the same reason mountain climbers do what they do: “because it’s there.” Now that I know what’s here…maybe I need more time to find the magic, but at this point I think I’ll most likely be back in Arkansas before the year is out. But who knows.

1.) A distance Elizabeth and I lovingly referred to as “Fayetteville” because that’s how long it takes to get there (or here from there) by train.
2.) Los Angeles is too decentralized and homogenous to have any real identity of its own to captivate an audience the way New York does.
3.) And let’s face it, Metropolis and Gotham City are essentially New York stunt doubles.

6 thoughts on “New York Limbo”

  1. interesting… a nice change from the “anywhere is better than Arkansas” schtick some people seem to believe so ardently…

    joel and i cant find pizza anywhere near as good as LR, either. we’re enjoying the cultural and music stuff, as its unarguably better, but we also miss friends and family. we’ve got a year and 4 months left…

    positive psychologists have concluded that the smaller the triangle is between your work, home, and shopping areas, the happier you are. little rock wins there=commute-less 😉

    its always easier to be a big fish in a small pond than visa versa.

  2. I did two stretches of 6 months each in NYC for work and I agree with all your points. My reason I didn’t want to live there was simple: everything is a hassle. Grocery shopping, running out at lunch to grab a CD you want, buying a shirt, every last thing was such a big ordeal. I suppose if you’re young and willing to put up with the discomforts for the social aspect of getting drunk and hooking up then the city works well or if you’re wealthy enough to afford all the benefits NYC has to offer by living in Manhattan and still being able to afford to see shows, attend events, etc.

    And yeah if you don’t want to spend $60 apiece on a meal then the food sucks – especially in the downtown district where I was both times.

    So I’m in Florida. I see palm trees everyday. Life is good 🙂

  3. Interesting insights. Never personally understood the appeal of NYC since going there in high school. Big. Crowded. Loud.

    And, yes, it is impossible to find better pizza than in Ark. (I am trying to get Shotgun Dan’s to franchise). I’ve yet to find good pizza in metro Tampa (too much NY-style for my taste).

    It is trite, but true that home is where the heart is.

    P.S. I cannot belive you did not include Sesame Street.

  4. For me, NYC is a fabulous resource for new tools to pick up from the many talented people you have access to.

    It´s a place where your home or apartment is your own oasis and when you open your front door you go out into the blaring reality of todays world.

    So, I would grab as many tools as you can before you head back home.

    Here in Veracruz, I am still gathering these personal tools, and just haven´t “gone home” yet.

  5. On LR pizza – don’t forget Iriana’s. And some of the specialty pizzas at Larry’s are really good too.

  6. I live in the NYC area (northern NJ to be exact). I must somewhat agree with a lot of what you wrote. If you saw NYC in the 1990’s, you would probably be singing a different tune before Mayor Bloomberg messed it up and made the entire city commercialized by allowing the rents to go up so high that mom-and-pop businesses can no longer survive. Those small places was what made NYC so special and so unique just 5 – 6 years ago. I have to agree that the subway platforms are a disgusting nightmare during the summer heat, although we normally only have 1-2 weeks in the summer that are really unbearable on average. On the positive side, I LOVE having the subways because it sure beats driving a car in NYC and they run 24/7 unlike most other public transportation systems. Grocery shopping can be an ordeal if you do it in the Times Square tourist area and if you’re buying for more than yourself. Otherwise, there are several fairly cheap grocery stores in NYC that you can easily walk to from anywhere you may live. Speaking of Food…..yes most of the “good food” is expensive, HOWEVER there are a few really good places to eat that are reasonably priced and taste good. My favorites are Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, S’Mac n Cheese, and Grey’s Papaya. Music -wise, NYC really can do much better. I have to agree with you on that one. I actually wish it was more like Nashville with more live bands performing without cover charges. We have very very few dive bars left in NYC, but the ones we do have are excellent!! I really hope things pick up in that department, but that will depend on better rent control regulations to be imposed. NYC was once a place where there was always something for everyone at a reasonable price. However, the politicians screwed up the city mainly by de-regulating the rent controls, forcing most of the “fun places” to shut down. Right now NYC is at a point where it can either go straight down into the gutter with absolutely nothing for the non-millionaires to enjoy OR major changes will be made so it will once again become a fun place to visit and or live.

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