I didn’t know that the last time I rode the subway into Manhattan would be the last time. It was one of those unseasonably pleasant nights where the sun sets all buttery and warm on the city like a melting creamsicle — the kind that stops rush hour traffic in its tracks and temporarily colors every Manhattan office a soupy orange.
I left my apartment on Arthur Avenue to do that weirdly indiscriminate not quite a jog but more than a stroll walk to the subway — the one you inevitably find yourself doing all of the time because you learned to walk this way early on and you’re stuck like this now.
In your lifetime you will see close to 29,000 sunsets, many of which will light the sky a clementine orange and smell like hot garbage and feel like coming home, but you will likely forget most of them. If you live in New York City for 50 years, you will ride the subway approximately 26,000 times and get where you need to go, without interruption, maybe ten of those. Most of these too will feel like white noise in the background of your tiny world.
I keep feeling invaded by those classist social media posts about the people who stayed home and read books and cooked meals, about how joy isn’t canceled and laughter isn’t canceled and how I’m somehow supposed to feel compelled to start baking bread because of this.
Yes, I could bake bread while cogitating on all of the ways I could possibly write about New York. I could remain painstakingly hopeful or possibly even amass enough sentimentality to absolve this state of listlessness that lives with me most, if not all, of the time.
But I don’t want to make a sourdough starter. I don’t want to take up running or even pretend to like it at all and I’m tired of peeling back layers of myself that were formed in a city where I’m suddenly not.
I want to wake up to hiccupy rain drops on my fire escape, the colossally fake coffee cup atop the Simon’s Deli sign, to walk past the “tattoos, tattoos, tattoos” recording and watch the sunset absorb into that one stained glass window at the 4 train station.
If you’ve ever walked up the winding path where the sun meets the yellow “Fordham Center” sign, that’s what my heart looks like. I didn’t always know this and I think I realized it kind of late in the game, ceding my affection to a myriad of “big apple” cliches — the concrete coils of the Guggenheim, the paint-chipped pillars of the Williamsburg bridge and that one mini donut place in Chelsea Market that lets you roll the donuts in 20 different kinds of sugar.
I want to wake up in the bedroom of my first apartment that saw me fall in and out of love with the wrong people, the same place that saw me change outfits four times on any given morning, watched me dye and cut my hair new every month, saw more cruelty and capability in myself than I ever knew I had and still allowed me to return each day, forgiving of the previous night’s antics.
As time passes, I even find myself mourning the annoying things — like how dining out means being practically seated in the lap of the person at the next table over, how the garbage truck comes almost exclusively at 2 a.m. or how you do a full body shiver every time you’re baptized with a drop of dirty water from a building above.
When I first moved to New York for college, my cousin told me the city’s biggest draw was never having to do the same thing two days in a row, justifying this newness as good enough of a reason for people like us to never leave.
From time to time I put thought into the aforementioned “us.” In the early days, when that newness felt entirely graceless, I became highly convinced that New York was merely composed of haves and have nots and that for every time I got on the uptown 6 when I meant to go downtown, I deservedly belonged to the latter.
Following my most prized days though, when the absolute fullness of one week seemed to spill effortlessly into the next, I began making small, but notable changes. I stuck to the right side of the sidewalk at all times and quickly learned that a fresh bagel is never toasted. I ate old food from bodegas, pushed my way toward nice standing spots on the subway and became cognizant enough to never commit the cardinal sin of pole-hogging. As time went on, I became increasingly self-aware, I became bolder and sharper, sometimes a little too bold, but oftentimes more kind, especially in moments that required I made the right decisions rather than the easy ones.
On that final subway ride back up to the Bronx, I expected I’d be traveling how I arrived: alone. At the end of a long night, I stood weepy on the platform waiting for a D train for over 20 minutes, clutching a single container of roasted red pepper hummus, guilelessly hoping someone would find me as if this were a movie, perhaps a bildungsroman in which I, the protagonist, with a lack of post-grad plans, was having a breakdown despite the fact that I’d finally managed to take the correct train after all of these years.
In a city of 8 million people, I found one of my best friends at the 125th street station.
“Oh my god, what are you doing here?” she asked, arms outstretched.
“What do you mean what am I doing here?” I responded senselessly.
I was there because somewhere along the way, I somehow became one of those people — a part of the collective “us.” I got sucked in and it worked on me and now everywhere else is just spoiled background noise.
“I went on a date and I don’t know what I’m doing now, or ever, and so I bought roasted red pepper hummus to compensate.”
“Babe,” she said.
“I know. I know,” I mouthed as we piled into a packed subway car, riding uptown through the night.