Wide-Eyed in New York City

by Phil Rosen

Like every writer, I moved to New York City to chase a dream.

Writers have always flocked to New York City. Disciplined pros and naïve amateurs, aspiring wordsmiths and veteran novelists. They all find their way to this town eventually, even if only to live out the starving artist trope.

The city lights pull writers in as reliably as a speakeasy with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I, like countless literati before me, moved to New York City to see if I could live up to Sinatra’s lyric: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…

If I discover I can make it in New York City, I doubt I’ll want to try to make it anywhere else afterward. Plenty of well-intentioned people have warned me this city isn’t for everyone — though I have no plans to join that particular “everyone.”

A writer pursues a tenuous profession to begin with. Yet, so many come to this city that can gobble you up and spit you out in a wretched, depressive state. Much of the allure, I think, comes from the same romanticism of Paris or Hollywood — the promise of being a star among stars and the fear of ignoring a talent you are certain is unique to only you.

So far, I’ve embraced this city I’ve admired from a distance in books and on the big screen. I’ve traveled all over the world but nowhere have I found as much to write about as New York City. Park Avenue and SoHo, the Chrysler Building and Brooklyn. Everything is crisp and charming and sways with the rhythm of jazz — and it has not even begun to snow.

There’s something hopeful about looking up at skyscrapers while bumping shoulders with anonymous millions. The city gives me a sense of optimism that shields me from self-doubt and brings out a certain innocence in me.

It’s a place where anything is possible, not so much because you are capable but because the city demands capability from you. Here, as other New Yorkers continue to confirm to me, ambition abounds. Everyone is rushing and hustling to their next goal, subway stop, or salary negotiation. People live to work rather than vice versa. It’s part of the shtick. Exorbitant rent and formidable seasons don’t deter those who dream of making it in the Big Apple.

To be clear: I love New York City. I’ve taken to the grungy concrete jungle, chasms and impracticalities included. The dollar pizza that leaves you with a stomach ache. The ease of riding the subway (yesterday I saw someone puke a few feet away). The pride of living amongst New Yorkers who aren’t shy in letting you know they’re residents of the greatest city on Earth.

All the reasons to leave are the same reasons you’d choose to stay.

A lot of city transplants — people who moved here from elsewhere — used to be the smartest or prettiest or gutsiest person in the room before moving to New York. The valedictorian of a no-name hometown. The best actress of a small liberal arts college. Here, each of those extraordinary people usually become just another Joe-schmo in a sea of smartest-people-in-the-room types. But the city allows it and people tolerate it.

Sinatra’s dictum stands: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…

In E.B. White’s 1948 essay, Here is New York, he broke down three types of New Yorkers: those born in the city, those who commute to the city, and the dreamers who venture here in search of something (ahem, that’s me). The city beckons and dreamers answer. This group, said White, imbues the city with passion and hope. The dreamers choose New York City on purpose.

These groups of New Yorkers layer atop one another to create distinct cities. Different people experience a different New York. Some people blossom, forgetting there are other places in the world; others leave as soon as possible.

I’ve met tough people here. Not mean or impolite people, but folks who mean what they say and aren’t interested in small talk with a stranger from California. There’s a competitiveness in the air. It’s as if the airport hands out chips-for-your-shoulder to arriving passengers so they can ensure a dogged atmosphere.

There’s the breakneck walking speed. The incessant honking of drivers. The brashness of jaywalkers that seems to dare cab drivers to hit them as if they’d welcome a generous legal settlement. But all this is conciliated by an overwhelming “we’re all in the same boat” sentiment that somehow makes everything okay.

Locals share a fierce loyalty to one another. There’s an unspoken rule that, unless you are a New Yorker, you mustn’t speak ill of New York. Only a New Yorker can complain about the train delays, the urine smell, crime and shoebox apartments.

The city leaves room for both grand plans and tragic downfalls. The glamor. The filth. The smattering of characters. Everything clashes and contradicts. Dreamy visions of the life you think you deserve come face to face with bleak reality. Essayist Mira Ptacin wrote,“We go to New York City to make our careers but end up stepping over homeless people on our way to work.”

A typical SOHO street scene from a writer's life in New York City
[Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash.]

I’ve been living in New York City only a short while now. Every day, I wake up and put pen to paper, like countless other writers and aspiring writers have done before me. I’ve caught some lucky breaks that have allowed my Manhattan chapter to commence with few mishaps (take that, starving artist trope!). My three roommates and I, all from California, secured a modest place in the Upper West Side, a few minutes from Columbia University.

Our apartment building is old and tawdry. There are of course brownstones. Fire escape stairs adorn every window. The landlord didn’t give us a mail key and he stopped replying to emails once we moved in. Deliveries routinely get torn open at the front door by outsiders. After sunset, roaches and rats populate our street, scurrying between mounds of trash bags and dirtied, strewn facemasks.

If you can make it here…

While we have no doorman, a nauseating smell and exposed brick greet us upon entry. The architects either didn’t remember or didn’t care to install an elevator into the ten-story building.  Luckily, my roommates and I live on the second floor. (Our top-floor neighbors must have extremely strong calf muscles).

Inside our apartment, the floorboards creak and the water pipes sputter and the light bulbs glow with a harsh, neon white. At all hours, police sirens and street hubbub ring through the narrow hallways and pre-furnished rooms. Three times a week, too-loud Spanish music blares directly downstairs.

But that’s life in New York.

At first, sleeping here proved difficult. City clamor is unending. After a week, the din grew on me. Now I expect I’ll have trouble sleeping in a quieter place.

On most days, you can find me either writing or with my nose buried in a book and my brow furrowed — my quiet efforts to “make it” as a writer in the big city. I’m a regular at several coffee shops; staffers know my name and order. They know I show up to write and they always expect me back the following morning.

The city has a fast and gritty personality but the people, individually, are warm and neighborly — especially when you talk about New York. Sometimes, when I tell strangers my dad is from the Bronx, their mood lifts and I can feel the conversation open up. All of a sudden this person wants to make time for me because, as it happens, they too are from the Bronx.

Locals tell me they love the city, even though living here is challenging. A constant uphill. I nod along as I look up at storm clouds. Then I listen to them explain how, naturally, they’d rather eat glass than live anywhere else in the world. 

In a relentless blitz, the city overwhelms me with its sights and smells and energy. I see restaurants packed after midnight and cafes bustling before sunrise. The odors on the street are rarely pleasant, but I’m new enough where I still consider every quirk endearing. I could write a novel purely on one day’s observations from a single street corner.

Yet, for many in New York, there comes a time to leave. The journey finds a premature end. The compilation of stories, Goodbye to All That, is about writers who loved and then left the city. Nostalgia is a common thread throughout each entry. Sharing such a small space with so many millions of others can be exciting but, in time, isolating.

After a while and despite the richness of their experience, most admit leaving New York City had to happen. Some writers recount the fatigue of perpetually reaching for the next rung of success. Others report how they could no longer justify the price of city life. Writer Cheryl Strayed described it with poignancy:

I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair…[as] much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

I’m ready for the city to sweep me off my feet, like Strayed when she first arrived. I have no exit plan and no parachute. I’m experiencing a place that compels me to dream. While the notion is not unique, being here makes me believe that New York is exactly where I can achieve something great.

“I always urge the newcomer to surrender to the city’s magic,” wrote New York journalist Pete Hamill. I have surrendered, but I dread the moment the mirage fades. Eventually, I’ll insert “alleged” before “greatest city on Earth.” It’ll be time to leave once the trash bag mountains and grime finally cloud my vision of the lovely, lovely skyline.

If disenchantment does come, by then I hope I can say, yes, yes I did make it in New York City.

I’m in love with a city my native-New Yorker father tells me has gone downhill. A place where the crime rate seems to rise as fast as real estate prices. A place where your morale can be as broke as your checking account.

But I’m in my honeymoon period. The magic grips me still. If it is all but a guise, it is a convincing one. For now, I speak truthfully when I tell you I am happy and wide-eyed as a writer in New York.

The day the lights begin to shine less bright I hope is still a long way away.

[Cover Photo by Jan Folwarczny on Unsplash]

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