My first room in New York City had three walls. Two were respectable structures. Up-to-code. Load bearing. Real beams hid behind their sheetrock. The third and longest wall was an expanse of plasterboard bolted in place with temporary T-nuts. This hypotenuse separated my sleeping space from the shared living area. Hammering from a nearby construction project threatened to bring the whole thing down.
The apartment was located in a “luxury” building, one of the first high-rises to be erected in then up-and-coming Hell’s Kitchen. It could be seen from the other bank of the Hudson River, a stone and glass sentinel casting a dark shadow towards Jersey, guarding midtown from the likes of me. It didn’t matter that the building wanted nine month’s rent up front to lease to someone with my less-than-impressive salary or that, as I’d soon discover, no man taller than six-feet could lay down on my single bed without squeezing his feet into one of the room’s tight angles. I happily signed over all the money that I’d saved from summer newspaper internships and high school jobs. I had to live in Manhattan.
To a kid raised in suburban New Jersey, New York City is the promised land of adulthood. The middle class town where I grew up was one of those quiet villages where baby boomers went to breed. Its Cape Cod homes and tightly-fenced backyards where my friends and I spent our after-school hours were little more than cell blocks for locked-down teenagers. Our parents had exiled us here to keep us from the exciting, grown-up world. They said they wanted nothing to happen to us. They meant they wanted us in a controlled, monitored environment.
“The city” was where adults fled their steady job of policing the progeny. My dad and my friends’ folks all worked in the city. They celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and other important events in the city. They saw shows there. Plays. Musicals. They went to the city to drink elaborate cocktails over which they no doubt had the kind of for-adult-ears-only conversations that made them whisper whenever the kids were moping around. Ten miles away was the greatest place on earth. And like a meatpacking dance club, my bridge and tunnel teenage crew was not getting in without a 21-plus ID and feigned social sophistication.
My friends and I practiced for our inevitable landing in “the city” back in high school. Whenever we met strangers (read: boys from neighboring towns milling around at the mall), we’d pretend not-to-be-from Jersey. I’d mention that I was born in Queens, glossing over the fact that I had zero memories of living there. My friends and I would drop restaurants we’d been to once as though we went there all the time and mention museum exhibits we’d seen (omitting that we’d been with our parents). Most importantly, we’d watch these new people to see whether they bought our grownup personas and then assure each other that they did, despite any eye rolling.
I graduated college in June. That September, sitting on the single bed, two feet shorter than the one I’d had in my dorm, I felt prouder of myself than ever before. I was an adult renting a Manhattan apartment. I’d arrived.
The glow doesn’t easily wear off a place initially viewed through rose-colored glasses. It took more than seven years of living in “the city” to admit that, for all the freedom, culture and excitement it offered, I often found it lonely and cold. I had friends and a roommate whom I loved. But we worked long hours to pay for our increasingly pricey apartments in more hip neighborhoods that left us, often, exhausted. The truth is, meeting new and interesting people loses its luster after the thousandth time you’ve dolled up to impress strangers and found yourself answering the same getting-to-know-you questionnaire, yuppie millennial version: What do you do? Do you like it? Where did you go to school? When did you graduate? Did you know John?
Most of the time after a night out in “the city,” I realized that I would have been happier spending the night in with my existing friends and boyfriend. However, I couldn’t admit it to myself. Moving to Manhattan had initially been a way of proving I’d reached adulthood. Leaving it would prove that I’d become old.
For awhile, I tried convincing myself that every frustration or embarrassing thing that happened to me in the city was actually a stamp of youthful hipness. Just drove around for an hour—again—to find a parking space and then got into a screaming match on the street with the driver behind me who pulled up to my bumper as I was parallel parking. I’m so New York. Got into that chi chi club in Tribeca that only lets in models, but left almost immediately when they wouldn’t let in one of the guys in our party. I AM SOOO New York. Drank way too much at the basement bar down the street and vomited neon orange into the gray snow piled outside my West Village apartment. Nailing my twenties in New York! A taxi driver hit me in the crosswalk on a Sunday then sped away once he realized he’d probably only banged up my legs. What a quintessential New York story!
Eventually, I couldn’t fake it anymore. My roommate and I moved in with our respective boyfriends. We got married and each began thinking about kids. The more I thought about children, the more I couldn’t imagine living in a place crawling with strangers. It wasn’t that I feared people whom I didn’t know and wanted my kids to grow up sheltered. It was that I was tired of being alone and auditioning for new friends. I wanted neighbors who didn’t move every other year in search of cheaper rents or better areas. A sense of community.
I moved back to the New Jersey suburbs. I know all my neighbors and now have a group of families with whom I’ve grown close. Our kids play together during the day. We have cocktail parties and backyard BBQs and block parties where we blast Kidz bop over too-expensive speaker systems purchased in New York. We all came from Manhattan and once swore we’d never die in the suburbs.
I’ve never felt so at home.