By Adrianna Bojrab
As a Midwestern transplant typically located in the Lower West Side of New York City (just barely West Village, per city neighborhood boundaries, but cross the street and you’re in the East Village), I often hear of NYC referenced as a tough place. As it goes, the city gives you thick skin and you come out a shell of the person you once were. I’ve heard of this phenomenon as a double-edged sword, as thickness can alleviate the everyday abrasiveness of life but also serve as a barrier between you and warmth, a condition some refer to as coldness. However, my experience with New York City has been as opposite of that as it could be.
When I first arrived in New York with a one-way ticket I sat jittering with excitement in the back of a rickety plane, center seat, with my glass coffee pot balancing on my knees. As the old commercial plane banged onto the ground at LaGuardia, lacking any grace and in stark contrast to the monumental moment I felt internally, I immediately felt the pulse of the city like a surge of energy enveloping me. An often understated sentiment: I felt invincible (as had so many others before me). I had finally gotten my first big adult job in the city. As someone who has always had a bit of grind instilled in me, New York City, true to form, raised the stakes. As if at a poker table, you’re all in or you fold. I’d take my chances with beginner’s luck and pushed my meager stack of chips into the pot. The city took me in and I became enamored with all its glitz and glory and, initially, I dove in as if it were a wave swelling in an ocean, swallowing me up whole and spinning me with the inertia of the undercurrents. Although at first I smiled through this. I recognized that the busy life made it easy to lose sight of what is truly important. As you readers may relate, it isn’t always the best ignition to becoming our best versions of ourselves, as if being “under the influence” of the city was more intoxicating than the liquor served up at the gritty speakeasies on the Lower East Side (my favorite).
Like many of our neighbors, I burned the candle at work (a big boy law firm where I was one of the few females employed), and the old work-hard, play-hard mentality remained for a long time (bars, late hours and late-night pizza, and of course, bodega runs). I still dabble. But as weekends turned into years, and I bid adieu to my teenage years and then my twenties, I gained experience and through that, perspective; I’ve come to know NYC very differently and, arguably, both the city and myself more intimately.
New York City is a cold and rough place to many, and that absolutely cannot be ignored. It is the city of dreams for many, true, but in striking contrast, a battleground for others who live here. With the reflection of life distorted by strobe lights and the reflective mirrors of disco balls, it’s easy to miss, or worse, ignore, the certainty of the strife of others around us. Once you remove the rose-colored sunglasses, you’ll find that there is a lot of struggle, a lot of heartbreak, homelessness, broken dreams, broken families, loss, poverty, illness, waste, vices and addiction. I think this is a stark reality for those that dare to acknowledge the vast contrast of lives lived on this small 13-mile island of Manhattan. However, I longed to see the city for what it really was, the real stories being lived around me, rather than the sugar-coated media representation of New York. The authentic jungle of lives, chaotically and beautifully intertwined on a small island with cracked sidewalks and abandoned sneakers dangling from telephone wires.
As I opened my eyes to this truth and reflected on various aspects of my own life, I saw that what I lacked on my career path was passion. Maybe because of pure stupidity, or a radical statement of my personal loyalty to the passion of life and a never-ending steadfastness in the romanticism of loving and believing in what you do for a living, I quit my job (after receiving an offer from another company).
It was in New York City where I learned to follow my inner compass, flinging my high-paying comfy job to the wind and running toward hard work in proving myself but a quickening of pace in my heart as I followed my passion. When I left the law firm I didn’t have experience or post-graduate credentials other than my law degree to vouch for me, so I worked as hard as I could to validate the choice to hire me.
With normal working hours I explored every crevice of the city, often finding myself in further-flung charming neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Clinton Hill. Maybe it is because of my awareness that NYC would never be a “forever home” for me, I took true advantage of every opportunity to learn and know the city. I loved discovering the different architecture, energy, culture, inhabitants, quirks and secrets of each new “quartier,” amazed by how different pockets of the same city could be, often feeling like I was in an entirely different place. I was enamored of community culture, shared gardens committed to feeding the hungry, clean-up efforts, neighborhood street art and beautification programs—all innovative ways to bond communities through shared goals and efforts.
Once I covered enough ground in the various boroughs of NYC, I started hopping on trains traveling up the Hudson River to connect with nature and discover the charming sleepy towns “upstate,” in love with the leafy forests and authentic diners with old jukeboxes and sticky-countered dark beer pubs, bringing me back to my south-eastern Michigan roots (forever “home” and a foundation to me). As I grew up, I traveled beyond New York as much as I could to gain inspiration and new perspectives on life, music, cultures and art, and became quite crafty at budget-traveling. Once back in the city, I’d take a lap around the block, notice how many new trees had bloomed or new places had opened and, as always, started re-discovering the beautiful mix of new and old around me.
I’m forever partial, however, to old New York. To barbershops where everyone knows each other’s names and asks about your mother. To me, the most beautiful thing is the modern-day reflection of immigrants who once bid tearful goodbyes to close-knit family members with promises to work hard and send for them one day. Still very much alive in the city is the current acknowledgement and appreciation of all those who have come to New York and passed through Ellis Island in search of a better life. Their mark on the city and the generations they left behind is what makes New York the eclectic and dynamic “melting pot” that it is. The nonnas with their unaltered recipes, made with their great-grandmother’s pasta pot, and their refusal to hold the cheese. The chain-smoking grandfather that buys the same coffee from the corner cart every day with exact change. The beautiful past of the city that still shapes present-day New York. The ethnic delis, the family bakeries, the corner newspaper shops and the hand painted signs of neighborhood butchers and doctors. The farmers markets, the shoe-repair man, the locksmith, and your local bartender who knows what tequila you like without asking. Even the lurch and squeal of the subway, the saxophone and chess players in the park, the piano man in Washington Square Park, the way the sky reflects off the 1920s art-deco inspired arches of the Chrysler building that was once the tallest building in the world.
I think that New York makes you appreciate what matters most and simplify life. As if standing still in a roaring river, once you stop running laps around the city to keep the pace of the energy, you’ll find the things that don’t slip away with the tide are all you need. The city takes you in and spits you out, it’s true. However, this process is illuminating and you quickly realize that if you are left with your family, your health, and a few quality friends you are truly lucky. I feel endlessly grateful to live with my oldest childhood friend (who happens to share the same name as mine), my cousins dotting up and down the West Side. A fire escape doesn’t hurt either (another discovery is that a landing doesn’t constitute a fire escape without an actual ladder per NYSL, so go ahead and grow that basil!)
I think NYC takes and absorbs the disposable things and leaves you with the true jewels of life. Rather than thickening skin, I believe New York sheds layers. You shed what doesn’t work anymore and strengthen what does, and you’re left with all you need: a strengthened foundation, a widened perspective, and true friendships, all discovered by sticking to your guns and determining what you stand for. It’s such a perplexing juxtaposition, how the busiest and craziest city in the world can become the most calming and centering for many—if you learn to mute the noise of the hustle and bustle, and the faraway ambulances and honking horns of yellow cabs in rush hours. It’s almost like life has become more minimal here. Physically, this is true, as most of our apartments cannot hold all of our possessions and we’re forced to cut the excess; but it is true internally also, and induces a deep feeling of gratefulness for things once ignored or underappreciated—the way the sun streams into your window, a light breeze on a hot day, a shared laugh or knowing smile from a stranger on the subway. Amongst all the chaos, what matters most is all that survives—love, peace, chosen family, sticking to your guns, and reasonably following your heart and passions.