Here’s a thing people who have been gone for five months maybe don’t understand:
The sirens changed. At the beginning we heard ambulance sirens wailing constantly. I mean, constantly. They didn’t stop, just charging back and forth between hospitals and homes trying to cram people into hospitals. And then tent hospitals. And then refrigerated trucks when the morgues were full.
This was two months? Three? Of wailing all day and night, like the city was mourning itself.
In June the sirens changed. Suddenly they meant that the police were screaming up and down avenues, chasing protestors, terrorizing them, scattering them, trapping them. The sirens of riot vans ducking and diving through the endless beating of helicopter blades. Night, after night, after night.
Do you understand what it does to your mind when you’ve felt a particular pulse of grief, countless times every day, from hearing sirens—but now that same sound means that people are being hunted? The terror if (for the sake of argument) you’re alone in a one-room apartment about two blocks from the epicenter of the protests, and you can’t go anywhere, and you panic every time you cough, and you panic when you think of the people who are marching, and you don’t sleep for weeks?
I’m not even going to talk about the fireworks.
I’m going to go out in a tiny thin quivering limb and propose that this is why NYers are becoming somewhat heated when people who were not here for most of that time make sweeping declarations about New York. I’m also going to propose that it is, at best, tacky to say that a place is “dead” when its citizens have been walking past refrigerated truck morgues for months.
As for NYC being just a place, or not caring about you, or being the same as any other city, let me tell you a story.
Actually, wait, let me give you some backstory first. I have lived in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Texas, and Florida. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Cambridge (UK). I have visited Cambridge (USA), Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Paris, Zurich, Florence, Rome, Montreal, DC, Dallas, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Nebraska City, Minneapolis, Punta Cana, Rochester, Panama City, Florida, La Crosse, Wisconsin, East Haddam, Connecticut, and Honolulu, Hawaii. I have also taken many roadtrips across the Deep South, the Gulf Coast, north Florida, and the Rust Belt. I have lived wayyyy out in the woods and in a couple of different suburbs. I have lived in a hotel.
I’m not reciting all of these places to riff on a Johnny Cash song, or to show off—I am very aware of how lucky I am to have traveled so much. But this is the frame I’m working from when I say: I have never lived anywhere that felt like New York. I have never visited another city that felt like New York.
One day I was riding the train home from a job interview. I had been offered a job that I knew I didn’t want—but I also knew I needed the money. I was making a list of pros and cons in a notebook. There were two white guys sitting on either side of me. I heard one of them say something. I can’t remember the exact words—I wish I could—but it was something along the lines of “You shouldn’t do it if you don’t love it.” I looked up, and realized that this man was talking to me, and that he’d looked at my notebook.
Now, there are a lot of ways this story could play out, right? And most of them are not fun. But the way this story plays out is that the two guys, who did not know each other, went down my list of pros and cons, and talked through each of them with me. They listened to my reasoning, and they shared stories of jobs they’d had—not just with me, but with each other. They were polite and respectful to me, while also teasing me at points in a way that I can only describe as “New York Big Brother”—which maybe sounds creepy? But it wasn’t, is the point. We were three strangers sitting on a train together talking about how much work can suck, and how important it is to look for meaning, or at least fun, at your job. When we got to my stop I thanked them for listening to my worries, and they wished me luck, and as I got off the train the two of them were still talking with each other.
I took the job, it was a mistake, I got through it, the shittiness of the gig has (mostly) faded at this point. What hasn’t is the fact that two strangers took the time to talk me through a stressful moment in my life. Given time, I could rattle off story after story of New Yorkers helping tourists navigate the train, people helping each other across streets, bodega guys putting bagels out for pigeons after snowstorms, restaurant workers sharing food during blackouts, the way people tolerate (and sometimes, yes, enjoy) Showtime kids and mariachi bands. The sheer number of people who have risked arrest, beatings, tear gas, terror, because they’re fighting for a better world.
Is New York a place? Yes. Is it sometimes a harsh and difficult place to live? Obviously. But it isn’t fucking Midtown. It isn’t how Wall St. is doing. Have I had terrible experiences? Sure. But those are overshadowed by the times I’ve seen people help each other, and form communities for each other—the bad times are a crumbling brownstone standing in the shadow of the Chrysler Building. New York is not a place, it’s the collective spirit of its people, and you can’t find it anywhere else.