When I started this journey sixteen months ago, I would have said that everything about New York made me miserable. I would have been wrong.
I was having a hard time back then. It was always difficult for me to juggle work and college, and so for ten years I had basically chosen one or the other – working crap jobs until I got tired of working crap jobs, then moving back in with my parents to go to school until I got tired either of living with my parents or going to school, or both – and by age 28 I was so incredibly tired of that, and the worst part was that I knew that when I finished school that May there wouldn’t be any jobs waiting for me, because a 28-year old with a brand-new degree in Political Science and an employment history consisting of assorted bars, restaurants, and theatres is not high on anyone’s to-hire list. With the economy in the shitter and the average job hunt taking over a year, I was looking forward to spending a year mooching off my parents and friends and feeling completely desolate and miserable about myself.
Everything was difficult for me. Just getting through the day was a struggle. With a 176 LSAT score, I knew I could get into almost any law school in the country. I also knew, after talking to my lawyer friends, that I would be conspicuously poor in most of the law schools I was thinking about going to, and I would spend three years amassing debts that might take me a life time to pay off, and at the end of all that I’d face a job market that had recently put a freeze on new hires and was showing signs of contracting, which would mean I’d be competing against people with much more experience than myself for the dubious privilege of working 60-80 hours a week in order to service my aforementioned massive student loan debt. After five years, they said, there was a high statistical likelihood that I’d burn out and desire to leave the profession, but be unable to because of debt and the job market.
New York was never really the problem. I mean, sure, the city is vast, requiring commutes starting at an hour each way and heading up from there for me to go to work or see my friends. Sure, the city is expensive, with its rents in the thousands of dollars and a night on the town starting at fifty, with even groceries running to five or six hundred dollars a month if you aren’t really frugal about it. New York is most definitely an intimidating, discouraging, anxiety-inducing city when you are a poor person living in it.
But ultimately, what was really making me miserable was the fact that my material circumstances never added up to the life that I had been promised, to the ideology of life in America that I had bought into. Ultimately, like so many others, I had been induced to work towards something that I would most likely never achieve; unlike many others, though, I stopped believing (or maybe never believed) that my chances were so good as to merit hope; without hope, came despair and misery.
It took sixteen months for all that to be erased. Even after I left New York, even after I had a steady job, health insurance, friends – a full life – New York still didn’t appeal to me. On my vacations here, I’d spend every day – every encounter – guarding against the stress that I knew would come if I let my guard down and tried to genuinely enjoy New York. I still worried about not having enough money to do the things I wanted to do. I still stressed when it took me an hour and a half to get somewhere by bus and train.
It took sixteen months for New York to be renewed. For me to look upon the city with fresh eyes. I think I haven’t done that in years – maybe decades. Maybe I haven’t had fresh eyes for New York since Junior High School, when I traveled halfway across Queens every day just to get bullied and be miserable. I know that’s definitely the first time I ever thought to myself, as I would so many times, that I just couldn’t wait to get the hell away from here.
It took sixteen months for New York to be new again. For me to look at the people I see on the street as friends and neighbors rather than bullies and adversaries. For me to observe a Hispanic man sitting next to an old Chinese woman sitting next to a middle-aged black woman sitting next to me, and instead of dismissing it as a completely normal and everyday occurrence, to actually marvel at being in one of the only places in the world where such a thing would be possible. To appreciate these people for coming to New York and making it such a beautiful, diverse city – for making it one of the only places in the world where I would be possible – a German Slovenian Italian Puerto Rican, with traces of French and Native American.
New York is a tough place. Living here makes you tough. But New York is also an amazing place, and under that tough veneer, the people here actually have an amazing capacity to be friendly and welcoming and tolerant.
My time in Georgia has made me a much happier and more positive person. For the first time in my life, I approach strangers with a smile – a real smile. Something I got from Georgians: the sensation that just meeting new people, just interacting with strangers, can be rewarding in itself, because strangers are something new and different and valuable. And I have to say, it’s amazing how people respond to you when you are genuinely happy to interact with them – when you take the time to exchange pleasantries, to be polite, to smile at them. Customs agents, bus drivers, store clerks – everyone I’ve spoken to since coming to New York just reflects my own positivity back at me; just as before they were probably reflecting my excessive negativity back at me without my ever really understanding that my approach to strangers was the root of so much of my unhappiness.
I used to think this was bullshit: When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.
Yesterday on my way home from Blockheads Burritos my voice was hoarse (because I’m just getting over a sinus infection with throat involvement) and I had the urge to sing something (as I so often do), so naturally The Beatles’ version of Twist and Shout came to mind – with John Lennon’s memorably screechy, cold-suffering vocals – and so I began to sing. I was crossing the street belting out “shake it up baby now” when I heard the driver of a car waiting at a red light respond “shake it up baby!” “Twist and shout,” I continued, and he echoed, “twist and shout.” I don’t know of many instances other than in musical theatre where strangers on the street provide backing vocals for each other. It was cool.
There are so many things that connect people, that we overlook when we view strangers with suspicion or hostility. I remember that night at Elvis with the live band, they started the opening vocals for “Twist and Shout” and the audience was supposed to jump in with the first line, and none of us did. The band tried three times before relenting and just singing the song themselves. Once they got started, though, we were happy to sing the backing vocals. Just a simple song, connecting strangers, in two radically different places on two radically different continents that, it turns out, aren’t really all that different after all.
I think it’s amazing how much my perspective has changed in my sixteen months abroad. It’s not just the ability to look at New York with fresh eyes, and appreciate how wonderful and amazing it is. It’s my ability to look at the whole world that way. I’m not trying to go all Eat Pray Love on you guys, but I think that living outside of America has healed me in ways that I never thought possible. And that was always my goal, honestly – I just didn’t know if it would actually work.
I still wouldn’t want to live in New York without a job with significant income – like, six figures – because being poor, or even middle class, in New York is so incredibly stressful and difficult. But more and more, I’m proud to be a New Yorker and I’m increasingly happy to see my home town the more time I spend away from it.
Video: Ryan Adams, New York, New York