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I’ve lived in New York for fifteen years, not counting the years right after I was born here, before we moved away. When you live in a place long enough, or even not that long, visiting friends or friends who have friends visiting ask you for advice on what to do in New York. Fifteen years is too long for this question. Everything is too saturated and too signified and too many things have closed. But here, for what it’s worth, is my advice on what to do in New York when you visit.
Get really angry at the subway. End up somewhere you didn’t intend to be. Yell out loud in public in a subway station without realizing you did. Get stuck on a train in between stations long enough that you start imagining which people on the train you would eat first.
Go to Bemelman’s in the late afternoon on a weekday and drink one martini very slowly. Do this with someone you are desperately trying and failing to impress; do this alone; do this with someone you’ve loved a long time.
Have several panic attacks about bed bugs.
Go to the office of a famous publication or business or some other cultural monolith you dreamed of when you were younger. Feel very important signing in at the building’s desk and then get out of the elevator and realize it’s just an office just like any office, with cubicles and bad lighting and windows and people who want to go home.
Develop over time a willingness to lay down your life for a particular bodega cat.
Think about how compassion is a small, crowded room full of sweaty people yelling, that it’s not elegant and it smells bad and it isn’t something you’ll ever be able to explain to your family in a way that will make them proud of you. Think about how people mostly come here to be invisible and mostly succeed. Think of how the most likely outcome of moving here is to live for a bunch of years feeling very important and doing nothing at all. Think about the indirect ratio between feeling like you’re having a big life in the big city and actually achieving anything, think about momentum and inertia, about surfaces and depths, about billboards and substance. When you start actually accomplishing things, feel profoundly boring and worry that there’s no reason for you to be here anymore. Walk outside just after dark in summer when the air’s sloughed off the heat and gotten gentle and think of how the reasons for a place change without you doing anything about them.
Go to Sharlene’s. But go to Sharlene’s when you’ve already lived here for several years, or when your best friends live four doors down from Sharlene’s and in the afternoons you wait for them to get done with work and meet you there. Go to Sharlene’s alone when you’ve finished a big project on a weeknight and buy every Patsy Cline song on the jukebox and sit at the bar reading until inevitably someone you know walks in. Find a bar where if you sit there long enough inevitably someone you know will walk in. Sharlene’s, like, New York itself, is pointless if you’re just visiting, and offers absolutely nothing but the sense of “couldn’t I just do this better at home.”
Do something that matters desperately to you for the last time without realizing it’s the last time.
Meet someone at a party and leave the party with them and go home with them and have the best sex you’ve had up until that point in your life and then never see them again. Spend ten years assuming you’ll eventually run into them someday.
Get very sick. Get the flu with the scary name that everyone is talking about. Run a fever so high you mostly don’t remember the three days when it happened. Think about the history of epidemics in New York and how disgusting this city is, the level of dirt to which you have become habituated, the layer of grime over everything. Notice people sneezing and coughing and picking their noses on the subway and the occasional rust-colored stains on seats that everyone just ignores, how the things you love here are also the things that make it untenable and contagious, unprotected and unkind, eager to make everyone sick, to churn everyone into the grime of their own bodies, to put us all up against the horror and basic uncleanliness of ourselves.
Sit on the edge of the fountain in Washington Square Park in the summer, when the tourists and the families and the musicians and the pot dealers all congregate in sprays of dirty water and fading sunlight and smoke and noise and feel like you’re a tiny figure in some huge, famous painting. Think about how small the island is and how history accumulates under foot. Think of how this place was once a hanging field, and think of how in the cholera and spanish flu epidemics, it became a makeshift burial ground, a place to put undifferentiated bodies, burying hasty soup under the dirt. Think of how the park was remade and remade again, graveyard and archive and human landfill turned to a verdant private garden for the wealthy in the heavy brick row houses that still embrace its edge. Notice how the ground here rises upward from the sidewalk, like the meniscus of an expensive drink, because it’s been repaved so many times and had so much buried in it. Think of this when you go to a meeting in a fancy office across the street from where your dad lived when he was first married in a building that didn’t have plumbing, that you used to visit as a kid and think was wild like the edge of the world, think of this when you kiss someone on the corner of a street where someone you used to care about lived. Consider how the geography of this place means we are always living in our own memory, rewriting the same page again and again, so that everything that happens here is perpetually happening at once, written over, unforgotten, folded into new nouns and verbs piling up in the same ground where the bodies always push up the surface.
Love someone you absolutely shouldn’t love. Keep loving them despite the warning signs, and despite offers of love from better, better-looking, more appropriate people. Follow them around the city like you’re dragging your heart on a string behind you, imbue places with meaning about them even though you’re perfectly aware that you’re in this to get broken, because some part of you thinks enough pain might smash through into some greater clarity and better directed meaning.
Time travel to sometime in the early 2000s, and go to a bar or a club or one of the myriad disco-basements on the Lower East Side that doesn’t quite know which of those it is. Dance awkwardly in a room full of other glittered-up nerds, and wait for something to happen, buoyed on the feeling that this is the big swollen heart of life, that this is New York like the movies. Afterwards, go to a diner all wearing glitter and eyelashes and underwear and order a lot of fries and talk about what’s wrong with your families and the famous people you know and what you’re going to do right that everybody else gets wrong. Keep waiting, still riding the edge of the sense that this is the hot loud room where life happens, and then in the sunrise eventually go home, alone, innocent and un-impacted, with nothing having happened that couldn’t have happened in high school in a suburb. Think about how New York is the long habit of waiting for something. It offers the sense of every moment being the moment before, just one step from the miracle, suspended about to plunge from quotidian into record. When you get older, tell these stories as though the something you waited for had actually happened and been happening at all times, as though the absent center had been some significance on which you could put your hands.
Have the worst year of your life, and then have it again two years later, and then again immediately the year after that. Wake up early every morning and leave the house by six am for work, when the sun isn’t quite up and the streets in Brooklyn feel like when they drain a public pool to clean it and leave it that way for the winter. Feel like grief is a kind of oxygen, expanding the empty early morning world.
The best pizza in New York: Go a New Year’s party at a friend’s house in a building their parents have owned since before you were born, suburban and leafy in a staid uptown neighborhood, full of art and cats and pianos, and stay until the house crowds with sweaty music school graduates all intent on celebrating something and the light turns orange and gluey and runs sideways down the walls, get fed up with conversations with people you don’t quite know, and slip out half an hour after midnight to do the only thing you’ve wanted to do all night, which is to buy two very fresh slices of pizza from the grimy, pungent pizza place around the corner and stand in the breathtaking cold in a cocktail dress getting grease all over your face, eating both in a rapid, gluttonous succession while no one looks at you.
The best bagel in New York: Come home at 6am or a little later from being out all night on a morning when you don’t have to go to work. Get out of the subway still in your party clothes and running makeup to be greeted by commuters and joggers and people who slept through the night and are already going about their ordered and business-like day. On the way back to your apartment, pass a bagel place when it’s early enough that the smell of baking comes out through the door into the street. Buy a bagel or maybe two bagels and take them home and eat both five minutes before falling asleep in full daylight.
Go outside on the first day the warm weather comes back. To do this, you have to at least stay in the city through an entire and very bad winter or it won’t matter at all, so stay through a winter where you grow cranky and sedentary and inward, rushing through the damp caves of the subway into the bitter air and back home each day, too exhausted from the fact of the weather to do anything else, forgetting what your body looked like under four layers and a gigantic coat like a comforter with sleeves. On a day sometime in March, probably, leave your building wearing a jacket over a tank top and halfway down your block take off the jacket because you realize you don’t need it and awkwardly ball it up under your arm. The air on this one day of the year feels like mercy, like a promise that nobody you love is ever going to die.
Love a bar for no good reason, because it happens to be in proximity to your friend’s apartment. Take everyone you date for five years to this bar, have every important conversation there. When your friend’s nine year relationship falls apart, hide in corners there trying to talk him through it, trying to find any useful words. Build a vocabulary of your whole familiar life into this place that doesn’t even make good drinks, but where you went because eventually the most important quality something can have is what has already happened there. Move away when you move in with someone and when you hear the bar is closing mean to go back one more time but never do.
Throw a party in a very small apartment and have way too many people come to it, until the whole ill-equipped place turns into a sauna. Throw a party on what turns out to be a reelingly sad and historically awful night, which you should have known if you’d allowed yourself to think the truth of it. Invite everyone you know assuming no one will come, and then stand next to your front door while fifty people fill your five hundred square foot home yelling at the television screen. At two am when only a handful of you are left and everyone is drunk and crying and no one wants to go home and your boyfriend just keeps making mac and cheese in every available dish in the house and passing it around because what are you going to do, feel like everyone in that room is your family even though you’d only ever met some of them on the internet before that afternoon. Think of how getting past thirty in New York is deeply embarrassing, but these saturated, familial moments of too much body heat in too small spaces are what makes it ok, are what makes it possible to argue for this up close sort of living.
Talk a lot about the smallness of New York but also become perpetually astounded at how thoroughly and wholly it is possible to lose people here, how it is possible to love someone, and stop loving them, and both keep living in the city while functionally dead to each other.
Go and sit in the Temple of Dendur room at the Met when it snows.
Two days before Christmas, assemble a small group of people you love into a rented by the hour private karaoke room near Union Square and all together howl the lyrics to Gold Dust Woman at the little neon screen where they’re printed until you feel like you pulled something out from the sickest place behind your ribs and left it on the floor.
Realize that nothing about a city makes anyone special, and that cities are themselves not special either. Realize that “New York” is merely the name you have given to how you have lived your adult life, and that if you had lived somewhere else you would have given it the name of that city, and it would have been equally untrue, a story about yourself and not about a place. Realize that many of us need bigger things to which to root ourselves, to give our stories reasons and justification, to name habits and certainties and fears, to put category onto the things that continually occur, onto the desires and resignations by which we string together our lives. It’s hard to explain why anyone would choose to stay here outside of the common and obvious reasons - a good job, a large salary, a network to offer the first two things, or the opposite, the inertia of bad luck and poverty and loss. It’s difficult to write honestly about either leaving or staying in New York when one is privileged enough to have the choice between the two; most people stay here because they can’t afford to leave, which is the reason that most people stay anywhere at all.
Imagine moving somewhere else. Dig your heels into that fantasy of it, and find the part of the fantasy you enjoy most is the part where you miss New York. Imagine staying up too late to watch New York twitter complain about the city, and, while riding a better transit system, missing the metal-on-metal screech of the subway and the way the trains sing three notes of a perfect sustaining melody as they pull into 72nd street on that horrifically thin stretch of platform, in the summer when the stations drip with everyone else’s sweat. Imagine how you would miss dispersing into streets and over to bars after work while everyone compares their horror stories for the day, everyone on the same leaking, sinking, smelly ship all together, going home over bridges trying to make beauty personal, trying to make the way the lights line up along the river into a sustainable comfort, into a thin belief that something here is on our side.
Go to Veselka.