I was in New York City, the Concrete Jungle, the Big Apple, the Island of the Rat King, for the very first time last week. I had literally no expectations, save for that one episode of Sex and the City where Kristen Johnson screams “Nobody is fun anymore!” and falls out of a window. I’d read hundreds of “Leaving New York” essays, where people older and more jaded informed the rest of us that the city was cancelled, or over, or dead, or dying, or generally lacking everything the rest of the country assumed it was bursting with.
Despite the insistence of Kristen Johnson and everyone around me that I had stepped foot in a city I would soon come to hate, I didn’t. Even though I finally did have to leave it, like them, for my own reasons. Those reasons mostly being that this was a work trip, and not a breakdown in my psyche that drove me back West for a wellness sabbatical amongst some redwood groves, like a writer for a literary magazine trying to figure out my divorce.
I landed in New York City on a Tuesday, in near-darkness. While hovering some 500 feet or so above its skyline, I bore witness to the densely packed lights of the greater metropolitan area. The sight, frankly, made me weep openly next to the Big Finance man sitting next to me on the plane. He asked me what I did, and why I’d suddenly burst into tears. I told him that I had won a contest, and was on my way to a place called “Times Square,” where I was exceedingly excited to shop at the really big M&Ms store. He frowned, and told me I would probably have fun.
After landing, I grabbed my suitcase, which somehow survived the six-hour flight, despite always being on the verge of crumbling to dust. Outside the airport, I took my friend’s advice and hailed a taxi cab. I’d never actually ridden in one, let alone a New York City taxi cab, and had to dutifully ask the very nice man who helped me place my luggage in the trunk: “Can I pay you with my credit card?” He looked at me quizzically, and pointed to a sign on his car that said: “ACCEPTS CREDIT, DEBIT, CASH, OR APPLE PAY.” I frowned—how was I supposed to know I could stick my little piece of plastic into a car?
On the ride over, I learned that JFK Airport is actually a significant distance from Manhattan, in that the ride took over an hour in traffic. I mused on why this shocked me, considering how difficult it would be to fit a landing strip somewhere between the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. I shrugged, and spent the next few minutes watching a re-run of Live With Kelly and Ryan. I texted Jezebel editor-in-chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: “I landed! Watching a re-run of Live With Kelly and Ryan, which is an evil experience.” She responded, solemnly: “If you touch the screen you can turn it off, Joan.” Again, how was I supposed to know!
On our ride through Queens, and eventually Brooklyn, I marveled at how many delis there were. One on every block! I thought to myself: “Wow, I would eat so many bags of chips at 1 a.m. if I lived here.” I also gazed in wonder as we passed the Brooklyn Bridge, which I only recognized because of the fact that 10 years prior, Real Housewives of New York City stars Ramona and Bethenny had once walked down it in tracksuits. Ramona told Bethenny that someday she would die alone, unloved. I’m sure the bridge is significant for other reasons, but being so close to reality television history made me feel like I’d finally arrived at the nexus of all my hopes and dreams.
Eventually, we arrived at my hotel. I’d never stayed in one alone before—actually, I don’t remember the last time I’d even stayed in a hotel at all, except when our water and electricity got shut off sometime between 2006-2008, and my mom ferried us to a Holiday Inn so we could shower before school. I worried that maybe, the hoteliers would recognize me as someone far too poor to stay in an establishment with a ritzy lobby bar and hanging chandeliers, and laughed nervously when the clerk asked me for identification. Maybe, I thought, this was all a sick joke. Maybe they didn’t book me the hotel, and this was part of some twisted prank enacted on me by people in desperate need of blogs. That was foolish, obviously, and the lady promptly handed me a keycard.
When I arrived at my room, there wasn’t anything to stick the keycard in. I just stood there, puzzling over how exactly I was expected to enter my room if it was just a smooth wall, and a door with no key-card-sticker-inner. A couple speaking Russian eventually offloaded themselves from the elevator after about 10 minutes, and I watched as the man tapped his keycard against the door. Fancy! Inside, I gasped at how massive the hotel room was, the size of my own apartment back in the Bay. (At least 150 square feet!) Standing by the floor to ceiling windows, which overlooked a part of Williamsburg I can only identify as “some part of Williamsburg” due to my lack of any contextual NYC geographical knowledge, I cried some more. Actually, I cried a lot. I called my mom and cried. Then I called my husband and cried.
In many ways, I’d adopted the mentality of a coyote these last few years. Do you know they would rather chew off their own arms than let themselves be stuck in a trap? I read that once, and thought about it often last week. On the phone, all I could choke out was: “I feel like my dreams are coming true.”
Thankfully, a friend fished me out of the puddle of tears I’d spent an hour or so drowning in, texting me: “Hey, wanna come over, eat some cheese, and smoke weed?” They lived some distance away, along the G subway line, and said it would easiest if I rode the train. I panicked—the Bay had its own subway system, but it was mostly three broken lines, one sort-of-good one, and one that you only took if you were going to a baseball game. There wasn’t the mess of labyrinthine caverns I found myself in when I finally descended somewhere below NYC. I bought a MetroCard—I would be here all week, why not—and nervously asked the station attendant: “How do I get to my friend’s house?” She laughed, and pointed at a sign. I followed it.
The train itself felt like a time capsule. I contemplated the faux-wood finishes and bright, orange seats. It felt like I’d stepped into an alternate dimension where the ‘70s never stopped, and everyone still danced to that one Donna Summer song on every disco mixtape at the clubs every night. When I finally got to my friend’s house, they greeted me with a hug and joint. The joint, particularly, was the first thing that made me feel like home since I’d arrived. We sat by their window, and smoked some weed. Luckily, they work as a cheese monger—a job that probably only exists in NYC—and we ate some pepper-y salumi and gossiped about the people in our lives while Bruce Springsteen’s The River looped three times over.
Midnight soon approached, and Emily Alford finally landed at JFK. I bid my friend goodbye, and proudly swiped my MetroCard. When I arrived at my stop, I waved the attendant who’d pointed at the sign. She smiled, and waved back. After walking some-odd-number of blocks, I found Emily in a dingy bar with sour beer and excessively poured vodka shots. She was wearing a fur coat like me, and after we got suitably drunk, we downed some French toast together at a diner across the street, where we also drank wine—why not! I eventually fell asleep in a bed as big as anything I’d ever seen, eager to wake up in a brand new world.
The next day, I was expected at the Jezebel offices downtown. Emily was kind enough to buy me a proper egg, sausage, and cheese sandwich. I marveled at how sausage-y and cheese-y it was, sad that nothing like this would ever exist on the West Coast. She also handed me an iced coffee, a souvenir we’d both brought over with us from California. The train we took to the Times Square office was also different than the G, more densely packed and sprawling. Shoulder to shoulder with a mother, her impossibly cute child, and a Starbucks employee, I wondered how many cars these people would take up on a California highway. Fuck our many governors and lawmakers who refuse to build subways back on the West Coast, this is so much better.
As Emily and I wove our way through the Times Square crowd, I was accosted by a Transformer, an Elsa from Frozen with a lopsided smile, and a paper mâché superhero too soggy from the snow for me to recognize. When I finally got my first look at the proper New York City skyline, crowned in more concrete than I ever saw in my life, I cried some more. I didn’t know buildings could be so tall, and or where all those people could possibly fit on the streets below.
The office lobby was huge, and the floor the elevator took me to higher than I’d ever been in any building, ever. Julianne and Megan Reynolds, our welcoming party, laughed at me while I nervously stood next to the floor to ceiling windows, looking down at the hustle and bustle below. Stassa Edwards, who was also there, asked: “Don’t they have tall buildings in San Francisco?” I solemnly responded: “Stassa, I am not rich or powerful enough to be in those tall buildings.” For the rest of the day I sat by that window, so distracted by the flurry of snowflakes that would suddenly fall that I barely finished even one blog. Tall buildings are a miracle, and I will definitely never understand them.
Because we at Jezebel are cursed—or blessed—with a Times Square office, the only bar suitable enough to house our collective mania was the Planet Hollywood next door. Inside, I was shocked at how many hanging objects they were allowed to put in one place, from movies I couldn’t possibly be expected to recall. We ordered nachos, and I powered my way through four vodka sodas, anxious to be shoulder to shoulder with people I normally only converse with via the internet, or jokes on Slack. Some of them I’d read since I was in high school, and now they were there, in a Planet Hollywood with me, drinking just as many vodka sodas from the nerve.
The funny thing about media people, especially ones like us who are cramped into skyscraper offices, is that nobody actually talks to each other out loud. For about 10 minutes we just sort of stood there, until the braver ones among us jumpstarted a series of conversation on: apocalypse preppers, shooting guns, our many enemies, parenting, Planet Hollywood itself, the Real Housewives. (Maybe those were just my own conversations, forced onto everyone else.)
The rest of my week followed a similar pace. Waking up in a bed I was practically swimming in, cramming myself on the subway while dodging any rogue rats in the process, and staring out that massive floor-to-ceiling window, where I would occasionally see the Transformer who accosted me and Emily breakdancing for some tourists. (There are hundreds of Transformers in Times Square, and they all look like ants from up high, but each one was my Transformer. If only for narrative consistency.) One night, I attended a small book club a friend invited me to in Brooklyn with some queer and trans people I’d never met before. We had a lively discussion about a book I had futiley attempted to read on the train, and ate an entire meal prepared by some other people I’d never met. I took the subway home with someone who had previously been a stranger, an author, and we talked some about failure, and giving yourself the space to dream.
On Friday, for the first time since I landed, I got properly drunk with my coworkers at a Christmas party, filled with some other coworkers I probably passed in the hallway at work, even if we didn’t say hi. We danced and were merry, while the world collapsed around us.
Did you know that in New York City, people stay out until 4 a.m.? After the lights turned on at the party, and I realized how much of my mascara had bled down my face, I was ferried between three different locations. We passed other revelers, and a bagel shop stuffed with 20-somethings in Warby Parker glasses, even though it was probably much to late to eat bagels. I listened to a drunk couple sing Dixie Chicks, which warmed my heart, because I had also planned on singing Dixie Chicks too.
When the last song was sung, and all the beer had finally ran dry, I walked myself back to the hotel. The sun would be coming up at any moment, and spurred by the stillness of the city, I belted while walking across an empty street: “Hello, New York!” I twirled, and stumbled, and my friends back in the bar pressed their faces to the window, laughing. A cab driver I hadn’t noticed honked at me, I apologized, and walked the rest of the way in silence.
On Saturday, Emily helped me “put my hangover on layaway” with a fried chicken sandwich the size of my head, in a bar filled with other revelers from the night before. I sat outside the Met, but didn’t go in, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. On Sunday I flew home, and took the train back to my little apartment. It passed a studio tucked away at the back of a garage on the outskirts of San Francisco, where a feral girl once contemplated chewing her own arm off, stuck in traps she’d one day escape. I cried some as she faded from view, but not out of sadness. When I got home it was raining, and I ran outside where the redwood trees grow tall behind my apartment. There are alive people in New York City, but not alive things. I missed things: things that grow tall, and rustle in the rain, and chirp in the morning, and overtake the fence bordering my yard, which is probably going to collapse soon. Still, the impulse made me laugh until my stomach hurt. And still I stood there, the rain soaking through my jacket. Eventually, I headed back inside to finish this essay.