15 Things I Learned My First Year In New York

LIFE, NYC

January 31 marks my one-year anniversary of moving to New York. This time last year I wrote about the thrill of signing my first New York City lease, of smiling as I walked up 9th Avenue knowing I’d soon have my own pocket of space in the big city. I was about to leave behind the daily monotony of commuting, the packed buses and frantic dash through Times Square. Signing that lease was a pure, fleeting moment of truly making it.

Growing up 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan I’ve always identified with the city but knew you’re not a true New Yorker until you’ve lived here. At college in the Midwest I envied friends’ ability to say, “I’m from Chicago” despite living hours from the actual downtown. The same just doesn’t apply to the New York metro area – my proximity to the city and love for its fast-paced nature didn’t translate to being a New Yorker, as much as I wished it did.

The truth is, when you’re here – day to night to day – you start to notice things about the pulse of the city and the people who live here that didn’t present themselves before.

Here are 15 things I’ve learned after one year in New York:

1. The city never sleeps but it sometimes rests

NYC

When I was commuting, the New York I knew was the rush of Midtown between Port Authority and Rockefeller Center, and the Lower East Side swarming with people late at night. I never experienced those rare New York quiet moments when the city settles down and seems to belong to you alone. The last time it happened was Thanksgiving morning as I left to head home to New Jersey. Stepping out of my apartment around 8 a.m., 9th Avenue was quiet save for the hum of empty cabs, and I didn’t see another soul for 10 blocks in either direction. I don’t pine for these moments but love when they appear.

2. Strangers will brighten your day

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Last year I wrote about Geoff, the newspaper hawker who told me to “have a great day, young lady!” every day for a year when I passed him on 42nd street. Geoff’s smile was contagious and it brightened my day each morning. While they’re not all as visible or vocal as Geoff, I’ve found other strangers are willing to help out when the subway turnstile blinks “insufficient fare” or you stumble on an unsalted sidewalk. The “cold, hardened New Yorker” stereotype is true, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t good at heart.

3. But…sometimes they’ll totally irritate you

STRANGERS

The woman who doesn’t thank you for holding the door open as she saunters out of the store. The biker who disregards rules of the road. The people who walk in a horizontal line on the sidewalk. The occasional “manslamming” (yes, it happens). You try not to take it personally – they’re strangers, after all.

4. Family history comes to life

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My family history on both sides is rooted in New York City. My mother’s father (Papa) grew up in an Irish tenement in Brooklyn, my father’s father in a Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side. This past summer I visited Katz’s Deli with my grandfather, right around the corner from the luncheonette his family owned. He described the Lower East Side he knew, filled with shoppers and street peddlers, not people heading to bars or brunch. And for years I’ve traveled in with Papa, spending days in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, but find it’s different now that I call the city home. It’s an amazing experience exploring the city with my grandparents, seeing the streets transform through their memories and realizing how much has changed.

5. You’ll spend more time online looking for restaurants than you spend actually in them

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Birthday? Where’s a restaurant that’s centrally located, accommodates groups, has a cool atmosphere and isn’t too pricey? First date? How about a not-too-casual, not-too-upscale spot with good food if you get hungry but also lets you just have wine? Family coming in? Where’s a Theater District eatery with an array of vegetarian options that takes reservations so you can get to the show at exactly 7:30?

I’ve spent hours on Yelp and NYMag.com looking for restaurants that fit very specific criteria. Because New York has so many great options, there’s more pressure to find a place ideally suited to a particular night – and not return to somewhere you’ve already tried.

6. Most things are really expensive but certain things are forever fixed in price

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When I go home to New Jersey – or really anywhere – I’m amazed at how much cheaper food items are. Pricey food is pretty much a given in New York. But certain things here, like 99-cent pizza, shock my friends from other cities. They wonder how the same city that charges $15 or more for cocktails serves pizza for less than a dollar. It’s a New York thing, I guess.

7. The subway is your best friend and your worst enemy

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I’m simultaneously fascinated, terrified, grossed out by, and extremely thankful for the New York subway system. For a fixed price you can go almost anywhere in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. I love that on a Saturday or Sunday with nothing to do, I can take off on a train and explore a new neighborhood. That being said, the subway can be an unreliable friend who cancels at the last moment, leaving you stranded with no plans. I’ve learned to tack on an extra 15-30 minutes to trips to account for subway delays.

8. You won’t get through the summer without an AC
Tried that. Won’t ever try it again.

9. Stories are everywhere

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No wonder so many writers are based in New York – not only is it a cultural center, it’s a breeding ground for stories. The city is full of interesting, diverse people and lively conversation is happening around you at all times. I keep a running document of quirky phrases and bits of conversation I overhear on the streets – it’s all fodder for fiction.

10. Port Authority will always be the worst

PORTAUTHORITY

If there’s one place in New York I’d be happy never to set foot in again, it’s that dreadful bus terminal. In fact, all of 8th Avenue between 34th and 50th Street for me is tainted by memories of pushing through Midtown crowds to make the 6pm bus. And the building itself, the busiest bus terminal in the world, badly needs a renovation. I don’t have nostalgia for my commuting days and never will.

11. Good luck finding that perfect coffee shop

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Finding the perfect coffee shop in New York is like finding the perfect apartment. You’ll never get everything you’re looking for (space, location, price) but you might get two of the three. I’ve found coffee shops with working wifi and good coffee but no space, and shops with good coffee and space but no wifi. For now I’ve decided to sacrifice coffee quality for wifi and space, but I’m not giving up. One day I WILL find the perfect coffee shop – and it won’t mean going to Brooklyn.

12. You’ll be more aware of what you’re wearing

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You can wear almost anything you want in New York City without attracting much attention. But if you’re not looking to stand out, and just looking to look good, there’s pressure to have a personal style here. There’s pressure to be unique, put together, or purposely not put together. The above billboard says it all.

13. Friends will become family

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Most New Yorkers are fiercely independent, but in a large and daunting city, we all need to strip that façade from time to time. Whether it’s help moving furniture, someone to check in on you when you’re sick, or someone to share Sunday night dinner with, friends play the role of family and I’m incredibly grateful for them.

14. The city is constantly changing and you’ll be nostalgic for “how things used to be”

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When I first moved to New York I told friends and family “don’t worry about the address, we’re the apartment above the Coldstone.” Six months in, the apartment-identifying Coldstone closed. Other restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen have closed down, replaced by new hotspots just slightly more upscale than their predecessors. My gym, which held a 25-year tenure in Midtown, closed only a week after notifying customers through a paper sign taped to the entrance.

When these places shut down it feels personal, like a breakup. Yeah, I know rents went up, but can’t you make it work? For me?

15. You’ll start building your own version of the city

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You’ll deal with small apartments, soaring prices and smelly summers because “there is no place in the world like New York.” And it’s true. There is no place like this city. But within New York itself are millions of smaller New Yorks, and you’ll start building your own to add to the mix. The invigorating potential to make what you want of yourself and your surroundings is what draws people here. As Colson Whitehead wrote, “the New York City you live in is not my New York City, how could it be?”

Pigeon At My Window

LIFE, MISCELLANEOUS, NYC

I captured this photo late last summer in Hell’s Kitchen. The pigeons looked so peaceful silhouetted in the afternoon light, high above the Theater District rush.

I was noticing pigeons everywhere that summer. One in particular, the largest I’d ever seen, had made its home on the ledge outside my kitchen window. I’d turn on the stove for coffee Saturday mornings and it would greet me by fluttering its wings – revealing a streak of silver that each time I’d mistake for a flash of light. Each time I was surprised a bird could emit such radiance.

It occurred to me a few weeks ago I haven’t seen that pigeon in months. Where did he go? He hasn’t traveled south. Unlike other birds, pigeons don’t migrate – once they find a nesting place they will stay year round. Pigeons will always return to the location imprinted on their brains upon birth.

Maybe he’s been there all along but his feathers are dulled by the city dust. Or maybe he flutters his wings but there’s no light in the sky for his silver streaks to reflect, nothing to make me turn.

City girl

LIFE, NYC
Source: michaelminn.net

Ninth Avenue. Source: michaelminn.net

I signed my first New York City lease about three weeks ago.

I was walking up Ninth Avenue before work, around 8:45 a.m. It was a slight detour from my usual walk east from Port Authority towards Sixth Avenue, and I loved the change of pace. Instead of passing flashing screens and packs of tourists like most mornings, I passed cafés, bars and bakeries with unique storefronts. Restaurant staff carefully etched the day’s specials into street-side chalkboards. People walked out of nearby apartment buildings, coffee in hand, keys jangling.

Clearly I wasn’t a New Yorker yet, because I broke out smiling.

I probably looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I was happy, exhilarated. I’ve been coming into the city every day for over a year and a half, and on occasion for my whole life, but today was different. Signing this lease would mean formally crossing over into a new phase.

University of Pennsylvania's Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.

University of Pennsylvania’s Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.

The moment reminded me of another time in my life, about eight years ago, when I took a tour at the University of Pennsylvania with my parents. It was the very first college visit I made, the very first time I crossed a campus and thought in a few years I could be part of this. I remember loving the fast-paced campus where professors and students filed in and out of buildings, talking. I loved the intellectualism and sense of opportunity. The university had an energy I’d never experienced before, one that I’d go on to find at a number of other campuses.

After we finished the tour I said to my parents, “Let me go ahead for a minute. I want to feel like I’m in college.”

So I walked briskly and blissfully down Locust Walk, the main campus pathway, acting like I was a student. (I’m sure my wide grin and calculated stride gave my age away.) After a few seconds I turned and looked back at my parents, who were also smiling.

“You look like a real college student,” they said.

“Thanks,” I said, wanting to believe it but knowing I had a few years to go.

I felt the same excitement walking down Ninth Avenue a few weeks ago. But while Locust Walk spans a few hundred yards, New York City avenues go for miles. And this time, there were no parents to look back on. I was totally and completely on my own.

I smiled because I’d soon be part of this city full of lights and people and endless stories. I’d soon be part of this city I’ve loved since I was a kid, finally opening up to me, no longer just out of reach.

Farewell, Toledo.

LIFE, NEWS

On May 25 I arrived in Toledo,  Ohio, a city where I knew no one and didn’t remotely know my way around.  On August 12 I left, knowing the city more intimately than I could have imagined, but not coming close to feeling like it was “home.”

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Toledo. Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu.

When I first arrived in Toledo I had a difficult time getting a sense for the city. I saw oversized banks, tall buildings, and wide streets. I saw litter rolling through the roads and candy wrappers melting into the tar. I saw crooked “For Sale” signs hanging in dusty windows.

I did not see people.

I soon realized that downtown Toledo is a divided area. People who arrive in suits at 9 a.m. are privileged. People hanging out at the bus stops, on benches or in front of the library are not. The downtown empties out after 6 p.m. — the suits file into their cars, turn down the road and go off to their respective suburbs. In an hour, the banks are just looming, vacant towers, too big and strong for the city. The parking lots are open spaces filled with broken glass — like no one was ever there.

Parking lot between The Blade and my apartment building.

Since my apartment was downtown, I straddled the boundary between those who work in Toledo and those who actually live there. Sometimes after working a late shift I’d walk the two blocks home, past people with ripped backpacks sitting indefinitely on bus stop benches. I walked briskly but couldn’t escape the stares — my pencil skirt and heels gave me away from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. It was pretty clear what “side” I was on.

Here are some things I didn’t expect from Toledo:

Safety issuesBefore coming to Toledo I knew it wasn’t the safest of places. My mom had done her fair share of research and her fair share of worrying. But I knew I wasn’t as naive as she thought — as long as I was careful everything would be fine.

While everything was fine, and I lived in the nicer area of downtown, I didn’t expect to have to be on guard every time I was walking alone after dusk or early in the morning. I’ve lived in places with crime before, but I usually felt safe as long as there were people around. The lack of people in Toledo was pretty unsettling.

A major street in downtown Toledo at 8 p.m. No cars in sight.

For some time my roommate would go on runs outside our apartment — in broad daylight during the work day — until a complete stranger approached her in the apartment elevator and told her to stop. It was too dangerous. We were pretty shocked the woman had gone out of her way to say that. After that we rarely walked anywhere within a few blocks of our apartment, and definitely did not walk around at night.

No grocery stores. I lived in the downtown, the center of the city, and there was not a single grocery store within walking distance. The closest things were little shops that sell candy, soda, bread, and canned goods.  These mini marts don’t have meat, produce, eggs, or milk, are only open during weekdays, and have kind of irregular hours.

“Real” grocery stores (Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, and Target) are all a fifteen minute drive away.

The mini mart across the street from my apartment.

While living in Toledo I saw firsthand the irony of  “food deserts,” or areas lacking healthy, affordable food. Northwest Ohio is one of the agricultural centers of the country, yet some Toledoans living just miles from the farms had no access to fresh food, surviving off high calorie, processed foods and 95 cent Burger King burgers. At 29.6%, Ohio has the 13th highest obesity rate in the country, according to an annual report put out by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Food deserts like Toledo’s certainly don’t help that situation.

Boredom. My definition of “bored” is not being busy. I don’t think I understood what true boredom was until I had to drive through poorer parts of Toledo, where I saw that boredom wasn’t a state of mind but a state of being. People live for each day because there isn’t a future . The swimming pools in Toledo were closed a few years ago to prevent gang violence, but now young people have nowhere to go in the thick of the summer. Instead they drink outside mini marts and walk leisurely right in front of cars. They sit on their front porches in silence, shirtless and shoeless, watching the sky change from blue to gray to black.

Taken while on assignment at an arson fire in Toledo. Arson flared up in East Toledo this summer but also has spread to other neighborhoods.

In the newsroom, the scanner day after day called out shootings, robberies, and arson fires. The cops reporter was constantly running in and out of the office. There were 27 shootings during the month of June alone.

It’s been a hot summer. There are no jobs. Sweat and boredom are a deadly mix.

So much news. Toledo may feel like a small city but there was always something going on. Working for the City Desk I covered a range of stories, including robberies and shootings, a poetry festival, car show, gay pride march, controversial city investments and school board meetings. My job took me through bad areas, nice areas, to beautiful islands, the shores of Lake Erie, and sleepy towns I’d never heard of. I drove through miles and miles of  flat land and cornfields. I got lost, but my GPS always took me back.

I may have been out of my comfort zone, but that only made me a better reporter. I was homesick but would never trade the experience.

Sunset from the rooftop of my apartment building.

On May 25 I arrived. On August 12 I left. Lots of articles, interviews, coffee, crime, heat, hamburger joints, farmland, and a pretty cool newspaper experience in between.

Thanks to all the wonderful people I met along the way — you’ve given me a lot to write about.

You can check out my Toledo Blade story archive here.

#realworld

LIFE

Many of you have been asking to see my apartment…so, here it is!  It’s huge, which I wasn’t expecting — I pretty much gasped when I opened the door for the first time. It’s probably twice the size of my flat in London, and for only two people.

Then again, this isn’t London, so there’s a tradeoff.

My building used to be an 11-floor Macy’s store, so the apartment is a converted loft style with exposed piping. It’s not decorated at all right now, but I really love the high ceilings — I think they’re what make the space so conducive to writing. I usually feel too cramped and distracted to write in my own room, but I’ve been so focused here.