In her oft-quoted ode to being young in New York City, Joan Didion brags about her first-ever Manhattan apartment to the boy she already knew she “wouldn’t marry in the spring.”
“I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window,” she tells the ill-fated fiancée, eager, assured and somewhat bewitched. But to the reader, the Didion comes clean, confessing, “As it turned out, the bridge was the Triborough.” To anyone who’s come to New York from elsewhere, this kind of mix-up may well resonate; before arriving in the city, we swim in the mythology of the place, accruing a passing familiarity with famous views and vistas, without establishing an intimate, or even quotidian relationship with them.
Like Didion, I came to New York as a starry-eyed young thing with little but a crooked dream and a bag stuffed with seasonally inappropriate clothing. After years of living here, I have begun to see, and call, those formerly mysterious streets and drinks and institutions by their real names. But a piece of my early wonder has been the price of this knowledge. For it’s true, learning the bridges by their proper titles is one way to know when you’ve “made it” in New York. But wisdom can also be a bellwether, as in Didion’s case. By the time you know all the bridges, it is often time to leave.
The first time I came to New York City on my own, I was auditioning for college theatre programs. In lieu of a suitcase, I deliberately stuffed all my belongings in a guitar case, because this image conjured bohemia for me, and certain characters from the musical Rent. New York laughed at my hubris: I ran right off my (late) bus from D.C. straight into a studio holding room, rain-soaked and panicky, forgetting my lines. All of my belongings were drenched.
My first New York apartment was really a dorm on East 10th Street. From my window I could see The Strand and Grace Church, but no water, none of the bridges that connect the city to itself. I went to parties in other dorms or one of three bars that didn’t card, which echoed the freshman-year activities of most of my peers who weren’t living in expensive cities and bragging about it. I tread my little corner, got to know it, but hesitated to venture much outside it.
Once during this time I walked the Brooklyn Bridge, with visiting family or a freshmen tour group, I can’t remember which now. We watched the Domino Sugar factory sign and the Jehovah’s Witness clock rise up over the shimmering water; I glimpsed my island backward through suspension cables. I think I must’ve set one foot in Brooklyn, and wolfed one slice of pizza before ducking back toward what I understood. One way to know you live in a bubble: when dipping outside of the 22.82 miles of square land you call home feels like traveling.
This is all to say I didn’t really live in a city then because I didn’t treat it like a city, and when people ask me how long I’ve lived in New York I often feel like I’m lying when I count the early days. Those green weeks, when I cared just a little bit more for the look and sound and mythology of “Manhattan!” than the real fact of its inhabitants, the whole living world that murmured beneath its skyline. Those Didion days, when I carried an empty guitar case around just because it looked cool.
Once I moved to the outer boroughs, I became someone who could point tourists in the right direction. I became a woman who could handle street harassment, and knew to walk home with her keys between her fingers between the hours of one and five in the morning, yet would be first to roll her eyes if a white friend described any neighborhood as “sketchy.” In my head, I had passed through the gauntlet Didion laid down when she wrote Goodbye To All That unscathed; I was staying, saying HELLO! to a bigger, tougher city.
The Queensboro bridge, which hangs between Manhattan and—surprise—Queens, was my first real infrastructure relationship. Also called the Ed Koch, or the 59th Street Bridge, she was completed in 1908 and opened for business in 1909. We became friends on her hundred and first birthday. The bridge cost about $18 million dollars and fifty lives to build. Woody Allen borrowed it for a backdrop, when staging a certain iconic scene in the movie Manhattan. Simon and Garfunkel wrote a hit song about it in 1966, which most of us recognize as “Feelin’ Groovy,” but is actually called the “59th Street Bridge Song.”
I could see the Queensboro from my window living off the 7 train, and frequently watched the sun rise over Long Island City when I got home late from waiting tables in the East Village. This was my first regular train ride, my first sun-washed commute, and I didn’t love it enough, that’s very clear to me now. While the 7 often seemed to be single-tracking and abandoning its constituents on frigid platforms in the dead of winter, we also had the cool graffiti tapestries at Five Points to look down on—that is, until we didn’t.
I was 22 when Hurricane Sandy rocked New York. I was sent home early from the bar that day, but not early enough to miss the beginnings of rain. There were things I’d forgotten to purchase, having never experienced a hurricane (or, apparently, read a newspaper), and being 22: bottles of water, extra food, flashlight batteries. When I got home I found my roommate and her friend making bananas flambé in the kitchen and chopping herbs for what they called a “gin infusion.” I recall giggling, and high flames. Even at the time, I’m sure I was imploring myself, don’t forget this, this is one of those real New York moments. The three of us watched movies and drank until the sun came up and several times the sentiment circulated, “it’s really not that bad out.”
But it was bad, elsewhere, of course. It was bad in Alphabet City and Far Rockaway and South Brooklyn. It was bad in the Financial District and in the Canarsie Tunnel. It was bad on the 7 train, which paused service for a week after the storm even though my East Village bar did not. After a few days of Sandy strand-age, I was summoned to work—and I wasn’t about to pay surge prices. I got up early and grabbed my headphones.
Walking the Queensboro in the days after Sandy, I remember the light was so cold and the streets seemed so empty. There was a distinctive, beaten pall to the air. The east side was as unconfident as I’d ever seen it. People taking out furniture garbage. The power knocked out. Debris in the streets. My feet grew tired at some point during the walk from the 50s to the 10s, but I couldn’t stop registering a dumb shock, that such a ruinous thing could happen here. It wasn’t a fortress, my island. New York was humbled by that storm; so was I. Another way to say this–the real world temporarily trumped my impulse toward nostalgia. All of these beautiful views constitute a real place. People live in these buildings. And now, I remember to buy flashlight batteries.
These days I think about what it is I’ve been wanting to “make” all this time, and specifically why my aspirations are so contingent on metropolitan life. What is it I’ve been hoping to get out of New York, after all these years? Inspiration, via close proximity to the best art? The promise of eventual great fortune, great adventure, great love? A perfectly nest-like apartment overlooking Central Park? All these visions are part and parcel of the city’s mythology, but the glittery myth necessarily gets harder and harder to see underneath the grime of years passing. Between the anxiety of daily subway rides and the ceaseless thrum of people clogging up midtown streets, the high rent and the tree-less vistas, many days living here is like hanging by a thread.
Sometimes I think I stay to prove to earlier versions of myself that I remain a person we both recognize. I stay to prove to younger me that even if it isn’t practical, doodling around town with all your belongings in a sopping instrument case or paying exorbitant fees to live in neighborhoods friends and family call “sketchy,” it is worth it, is noble, simply because important ghosts sell it so well.
At a certain point I moved to Williamsburg, where grit was really applauded. The Williamsburg Bridge (nee 1896) is bisected: one side of the walkway is for bikers, one side is for pedestrians. Foolish newbs who don’t read signs sometimes wind up on the wrong side and get yelled at–that’s just a hot tip from me to you. The first time I walked the bridge, I was on the receiving end of such biker-fury, but assumed it wasn’t my fault. “Stupid hipsters,” I told my then-companion, already “getting” the neighborhood. “On their stupid bicycles.” Flash-forward three years, and I’ve begun to roll my eyes at people who make the same mistakes I once did, at girls who go out to yell on the weekends with clacking high-heeled compatriots at bars off Bedford Avenue.
Here’s what you see, entering Brooklyn on the Williamsburg Bridge: the unmistakable brown and tan signage for Peter Luger’s Steakhouse; that big, glowing rotunda of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, and two adjoining backyards that for me represent some of the most perfect summer parties I’ve ever attended, with some of the most perfect people. Two of those friends have since left that space, and purchased property upstate. The graffiti on that lopped building has been painted over, just like Five Points was. Time passes and I don’t love it enough, I see that now; I have to remind myself to look up from my book or phone when rattling across water on the M train. I feel the bigness of transit most in other people’s faces these days, in the gasps from tourists and small children. The writer Durga Chew-Bose may describe my current anxiety best in her essay, Heart Museum, stating, “There is a fine line between becoming conscious and becoming jaded.”
And what have I made? Most of all? The time pass.
From E.B. White’s Goodbye to 48th Street, another old-timey ode to being young in this town, another piece of metropolitan myth:
Over a period of thirty years I have occupied eight caves in New York, eight digs— four in the Village, one in Murray Hill, three in Turtle Bay. In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation according to fortune, whim and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.
I felt especially soft and vulnerable walking the Queensboro that day after Sandy, looking down on water that seemed gentle enough, but which I knew to have recently been the source of great destruction. The streets were so quiet. And the bridge seemed so brave, a testament to man’s instinct to tame and frame nature. Then there were the people I saw on the east side, sadly carrying ruined things out of their ground floor apartments. I think this is when I first got the inkling. Whether in Brooklyn or Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, we citizens remain yearning, but are often cowed. The longer I live in and love this city, the more I realize what I am finally–pedestrian. Among the masses, I witness, and walk, and walk, and walk.
Nowadays when I think I am “traveling,” I take other bridges. I take cars or trains. The Tappan Zee, the Verrazano, the George Washington, up, up and out of city limits. I see New York in the rearview of a rental car and sigh with relief, expand my lungs thinking of trees, or pondering the Hudson via train. I am often headed upstate, because I have become a person who needs to get out of town once in awhile. Like White, I wish to be somewhat less encrusted, my soft and vulnerable lobster-self having been sacrificed to the shell necessary to survive here.
But it’s still the strangest thing, seeing New York from a bridge. Any bridge. At the right times of day you can find light glancing off the buildings in the Financial District and purple clouds bracing the Art Deco towers to the north. It’s mammoth, to be reminded that we’re surrounded by and at the mercy of water, despite all this confidence. From a train window, rattling on a bridge, New York is every inch the myth—but if you’ve come to know the facts, the names, it’s every inch the breakable stuff, too.