When I decided to go to school in New York City, my coworker told me I was going to experience culture shock. At the time, I didn’t believe her. Despite having lived in the suburbs my entire life, I had this idea of New York that I thought couldn’t be changed. To me, New York was the backdrop of a rom-com. It was picturesque family-owned bookstores, and ice skating in Rockefeller Center. It was the fountain in Washington Square Park and weekends spent at the Met. I half expected to end up with a designated booth at the local coffee shop, a laugh track playing in the background as my friends and I exchanged anecdotes about our exciting lives in the city.
The first night that I spent here, my roommate and I sat on our window sill, looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan. It was breathtaking. Looking at the lit up windows, it was hard to believe that we were actually there. For the first week of school, I walked through the streets with my neck craned backward. I liked to think about the people behind the windows of the skyscrapers I passed. It was hard to fathom that so many people could be going about their daily lives, unaware of each others’ problems. It was exciting to be surrounded by so much human activity. I felt like I was in a place where I could never run out of inspiration. I felt like I was home.
But my feelings swiftly changed that following weekend, when my friends and I found ourselves in the depths of Brooklyn, walking down a street lined with police cars and potholes. The lit-up skies so often associated with the city were far behind us. Now, I was trudging along in my too-tight heels. The road smelled like trash and broken pieces of glass bottles sat in the crabgrass that grew out of the sidewalk. We’d taken a forty-minute subway ride for this? I had pictured Great Gatsby parties in large hotels and bars lit up by flashing, neon lights. I hadn’t pictured stumbling through the cool, smoggy air for a frat party.
Next to me, a girl stumbled where the sidewalk crumbled into the road. I helped her up as her pepper spray rolled in the street. The others debated whether or not we should move forward, or turn back now before we got lost in the labyrinth that was a city unknown. The verdict, in the end, was that we go back home to the safety of the financial district. We took the J train home and, despite the fact that it went over the water, and we got a beautiful view of the skyline, I spent the majority of the ride preoccupied with my aching feet, and my diminishing idea of a perfect city.
After that night, and several more weekends spent walking through the city streets with the subway rats and roaches, it became clear that the city wasn’t the place I had thought New York would be. I became accustomed to the grime, and even began to appreciate it. After all, for all of the nights that my friends and I found ourselves in cute restaurants and model-strewn bars, we spent twice as many roaming through streets that smelt like cigarettes and urine. There was something about it that felt natural. The city wasn’t all glitz and glamour; it was the home of eight million people. It was only natural that sometimes it would stink.
As time went on, I became fascinated with the culture of the city, the way people dressed and spoke. I got a nose piercing, and a tattoo (something I would never have done living in the suburbs), and I found myself sitting on the stoop of the school watching the people that passed by, thinking about how different it all was from what I knew at home. I think that moving anywhere new kind of challenges your sense of belonging.
Suddenly, I felt like I had to choose between the home I’d grown up with and the home I’d chosen. When I came back to the suburbs, there were times where I felt almost disheartened by the cleanly-cut lawns and silent suburban streets. I had gotten used to the grimy, loud, busy cacophony that was New York, and I felt like, after months of assimilating to that culture, I couldn’t be a part of my hometown anymore.
When my friends from home visited the city, they crinkled their noses when the AC vents dripped on them and looked at me through startled eyes when we took the squealing, dirty subway instead of taxi cabs. I was surprised that they didn’t understand. Couldn’t they see? Couldn’t they understand the city was so much more than their romanticized dream?
But of course, it was silly for me to expect this. I had had the same premonitions about the city before living there, and why shouldn’t they be disgusted by the trash piled up on the side of Chipotle on a Wednesday night? Eventually, my infatuation with the city began to fade. There were days when the buildings just felt grey and overbearing. People were no longer stories that needed to be told, they were just people, walking with their shoulders hunched against the rain. It was times like these where I missed the place I’d come from. Living in the city makes you realize- trees are underrated.
So perhaps, I’d think to myself, on days when the city’s horns echoed especially loudly through the narrow streets, my coworker was right. New York has given me a culture shock. Perhaps I’d be better off living in the suburbs, maybe that’s what I was built for. But every time I felt this way, something would happen that would remind me of why I fell in love with New York in the first place. Sometimes it was the sunset at Battery Park, other times it was street fairs, or strangers helping one another out on the train. Sometimes it was people dancing in the middle of Washington Square Park, and other times it was helping a friend lug furniture into their tiny apartment in Brooklyn.
There’s a heartbeat in this city, and I feel it even when my head is tucked against the cold, and steam from the subway grate is crawling up my nose. I try to remind myself to look up at least once a day and take in the buildings that surround me. Just for a moment, I take in the immensity of them and the people that are working away behind those windows, unaware that I ever thought of them or even gave them a second glance.
When I look up at these windows I’m brought back to the first week of school, and I feel inspired and at peace just like I did then. So many things have changed since I started living in the city three years ago, but it still surprises me with its’ beauty. Three years later, I am still happy to call this place my second home.