A few days ago, we were out to dinner with some friends, and the conversation turned to the topic of New York. A year ago, almost precisely, this conversation would have been a frank declaration about my love affair with the city. A year in, I still love the city, but the conversation has changed.
“Have you ever noticed that New York is not a convenient place to live, but—like—New Yorkers take some kind of pride in that? Like the struggle’s part of it,” our friend said.
I keep replaying that last sentence, so precisely and poignantly put. “The struggle’s part of it.”
Today, I carted a duffle bag of supplies and five tubes of wrapping paper from the Upper West Side to Soho. It’s a five-mile journey. It took two hours, though, if I am honest, I stopped at the doctor’s office for half an hour (duffle and wrapping paper in tow).
It was also raining. While I was carrying wrapping paper. And because the nearest subway stop is almost exactly one mile away from the school that I teach at, me, my shoes, and my wrapping paper, that I’d bought special for the purposes of making my classroom more homey, all got soggy. And yes, while there was a certain amount of exasperated sighing, I couldn’t help but think of my friend’s claim on repeat. “The struggle’s part of it. The struggle’s part of it.”
We’ve spent a year in the city now. On a blog almost exactly a year ago, I said if I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted this city to harden me, or if I wanted to stay soft, innocent, sweet.
One year in New York has taught me that there’s really no such thing as one or the other. Or rather, hardness does not necessarily negate softness. Or rather, a person can be both hard and soft at the same time. That’s allowed.
So yes, I am less deferential when it’s my turn to leave the subway. I’ve stopped apologizing for accidentally bumping people on the street. I’ve stopped moving out of the way for people on their cell phones. I’ve side-stepped a slow person on the subway steps during rush hour. But I’ve also paid for a taxi for a woman who was late to pick up her handicapped son from her homeless shelter, right after I’d scolded a gaggle of teenage girls for walking in a row and blocking the sidewalk for everyone.
The same person exists in this one body; that’s kind of what like the body of New York is like too. We’re crusty on the outside, but we bond together for the old hunched man or the pregnant lady on the subway. We decry the bums that loiter on corners, but then we hand them a box of granola bars as we exit Trader Joes. We side-eye people for muzzling their dogs, and then we slip their pitbulls a snack as we pass. Sometimes, though we’d never admit it, we even patronize the Showtime performers. That’s how we do. We’re New Yorkers. We get to be complex. We get to be enigmas.
I think it’s because of The Struggle. Hauling a heavy bag and wrapping paper across New York in the rain is just a metaphor for the real stuff we go through; we wear The Struggle on our sleeves, because, yeah, we’re proud that it’s hard. It’s hard enough to make us salty on the streets, but not too hard that we’ve forgotten that it’s hard for other people too.