Three months ago, I moved to the greater Boston area to start a new chapter of my life at my internship. I can walk to the bus stop two houses away and be in Central Square - the heart of Cambridge - in less than 20 minutes. I've done just that every other weekend and the fact still amazes me. Easy access to a place with over half a million people and more businesses than my homewtown's population is an eye-opening experience for someone who counted neighbors as people that lived half a mile away and didn't have a high school in their town. Here's a few things I learned.
1. There are more people in need than you could ever help.
In the town where I went to high school, there was one resident homeless person that nearly everyone took a liking to. He would ride his bike around town, collecting bottles and cans to buy his cup of coffee and a sandwich for lunch. Where I most frequently saw him was the library, where he would spend hours reading books. He loved to get to know people and was fiercely independent, refusing handouts or places to stay, saying he preferred to earn his living and sleep in the open air. A few years ago, he passed away and there was a full front page article in the newspaper about his life, with interviews from the lives he had touched.
That was the extent of my experience with homeless people until I moved to the city. Here, walking down the street, there was a person sitting with their bags and a change bucket every block. There are neighborhoods where the call "spare some change?" in a grating and raspy voice is ever-present. I thought I had prepared myself well. I was told, "Don't make eye contact. Don't slow down. They'll just use your money to buy drugs anyway."
My first day in the city, before I had even moved in, I was walking down Mass Ave, taking in all the sights like the small town kid I was. A man was calling out, "Spare change in exchange for an engaging conversation!"
I had happened to use cash to buy a coffee so I in fact did have a few quarters and dimes floating around in my pocket. I walked over to the man and gave him the change and asked how his day was. He said that his wife had kicked him out of house a week before and was finally letting him spend some time with his son. They were going to go to the park today. He was trying to gather enough to buy his son an ice cream from one of the stands. As he talked about his son that would be entering Kindergarten in a few short months, his eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face. That day was going to be a good day, he said. That day was going to be filled with good times and love. He asked me how I was, and I told him I was new to the city so I was still exploring. He told me about some of the restaurants he had been to, and I promised him I'd check them out.
And then the thought hit me, "there are hundreds of people like him all over the city. And very few people bother to help them or stop to have a conversation because of the sheer number."
I thought about the full-page article and the dozen people interviewed for the man in my town. When a homeless person in the city dies, they simply fade away like smoke and that's just accepted as the way things are.
2. There will be more people like you than you'd ever be able to befriend.
As much as we like to think we're not shallow, we still judge people based off how they look, what they say, and how they act when we first meet them. In a small town, especially as a nerd that doesn't fit with the redneck farmer lifestyle, this is paramount. New people don't move into town very often, and when you see someone in the cafe or the park that looks like they could be a cool person to talk to, you get excited over the prospect of having someone else to count in your circle.
Now, everywhere I go, there are people with hairstyles like mine, glasses like mine, and fashion senses like mine. I see them reading my favorite books and wearing shirts from my favorite fandoms. I experienced this going to college as well, but it feels different when you experience it in the "real world" outside of a college campus.
Often, I think to myself that I should have started a conversation with that person because they seemed like they'd be a lot of fun to talk to. But I see ten different versions of that person in a day. They all start to fade into each other after a while - and that's how I must seem to them too.
3. You will want to eat out as often as you can.
Growing up, my family went out to eat maybe once a year - usually only if there was a really good coupon. There wasn't a reason to go out to eat, really. The only place to eat in my town was a pizza delivery / takeout place inside the gas station, and the next towns over had the ubiquitous generic Asian restaurants and maybe a few pizza places and an Italian restaurant. There was also a Thai restaurant in each, which to me growing up seemed so ~exotic~ and exciting. Since the restaurants didn't have competition, they really didn't have much of an incentive to make their food taste good. Often, what we could make at home was better that what we would find eating out. Moving to a city with so many bold new flavors in restaurants that had an exciting take on dishes I had never heard of before was exhilarating. I wanted to try everything. It was absolutely wild that there was an authentic Mexican restaurant down the street from where I'm staying that I could walk to whenever I wanted a fresh taquito or churro.
Walking down the street of restaurants in my current town, there are more cuisines than I could count and some of them are specific cuisines I had never heard of. I found it fascinating that people that had lived in the town for years had never been to or even heard of some of the restaurants because there were simply so many. I thought that I had to experience everything and make the most of having a dozen different menus practically at my doorstep.
4. You will lose yourself and then find yourself again.
It's easy to get lost in a city, and not just in the physical sense. You start wondering how anyone but a select few can feel important and impactful.
Nobody recognizes you, even places you've been to before, and people treat you as just another body that's in their way. It makes you wish for the days when everyone
But there's something freeing about it too. Growing up with social anxiety in a small town can be pure terror - if you do something wrong and mess up a social interaction, you're terrified of it becoming an item of gossip. It's entirely possible since most cashiers in town know your name or at least who your family members are.
At the McDonalds where I worked, some employees would make fun of this one middle aged man that always stuttered when he ordered. A older employee said he had always had a speech problem and that he had tried for years to get rid of it to no avail.
Years later I ran into him at the hardware store. I still haven't forgotten his face or his name.
I don't have to worry about that here. If I walk into a coffeeshop and mess up my order, it's entirely likely that the barista won't remember because of the thousands of faces he sees every day. And I can always choose a different coffeeshop. Since there's plenty to choose from, it's not restricting or decreasing my quality of life in any way.
The humiliation existed only in that moment and then it's gone. I've been able to find a lot of comfort in that.
5. You will get used to the excitement, but you'll start to miss the silence.
There's always something happening in the city - which is fantastic if you're in the mood for going out and having fun. I can pick a direction and start walking without a plan and chances are I'll find an interesting street performer, art gallery, or store. Thousands of people forming a river on the sidewalk sweeps me up in its energy. I've stumbled upon protests, wedding parties, festivals (which can be awkward if you don't realize it's for a different culture until after you've already grabbed your free food) and countless other events.
You'll still want to slow down sometimes, though - away from people, away from noise, away from everything. It's damn near impossible.
While visiting home for the weekend, I was struck by how still everything was. Cars on the highway rolled by occasionally, but other than that there was nothing besides the chirp of crickets and the call of a mourning dove. No artificial chirps to represent walk signals, no sirens, no people yelling. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it until I was reminded what it was like.
I think I'll always have that feeling about small towns when I return after spending time in the city, but I'll also miss the sights and tastes (not so much the smells) of the city if I spend too much time away.