By Caitlin Kelly
No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
- E.B. White, Here is New York (1949)
Few cities continue to have the gravitational pull of New York City.
A new book, a collection of 28 essays, all by women, reflects on when and why they came to New York City — and why some of them later chose to leave.
I moved to New York in June 1989, alight with ambition, optimism, high hopes for a stunning career — yadayadayada. Take a number!
Last week, in conversation with an editor who once sat atop the masthead of a Very Big Magazine, she called me “so talented.” She’s a sweetheart and I may well be talented, but my years here have since toughened me up to well-meaning flattery. It’s lovely, of course, but it doesn’t pay the rent.
“Sweetie, everyone in New York is talented,” I replied.
What does make someone a New Yorker?
Do you have to be born and raised here? Some say yes, but I disagree. Millions of us have arrived here from distant towns, cities and countries, whether to study, take a job, marry a sweetheart, see how we stack up against the toughest competitors in our field.
I had worked in my native Canada in journalism for years and was doing well there.
But the thought of 30 more years doing the same thing amidst the same people? Not for me. One Toronto magazine editor, without exaggeration, held the same prestigious, powerful and much-coveted job for more than 20 years. That sort of stasis struck me as really boring. The place was just too small.
It’s an interesting experience trading your Big Fish-ness in a much smaller pond to the guppy-ness of arriving in a place where the greasy pole of fame and fortune looms into the stratosphere.
I admit it — I’ve never lived in the city itself but in a small town 25 miles north, a 38-minute express train ride. The sort of place snotty New Yorkers dismiss, incorrectly, as “upstate.”
I have a great apartment for a much lower cost. Would I live in the city if given an affordable choice? Maybe. Maybe not.
But I’ve seen myself change in some basic ways since I moved here, as do many who choose to come here…
So, what makes a New Yorker?
— We’re direct
There’s a sort of conversational bluntness here that’s shocking to me, even today. I was at the movies recently and an older woman I don’t know snapped “Make sure no one takes my seat.” How about “Please?” Typical. For better or worse, strangers here often address one another as others rarely do in more formal/polite places, with the familiar tone of old friends — or despised relatives.
— We’re here to make money
Why else choose to stay in/near a city where the costs of living are so crazy-high? Where simply driving to the airport to pick someone up can snatch $13 from your pocket in tolls and parking? Surviving on ramen and free shows gets old after a while.
— We’re street smart
With people getting shoved onto the subway tracks more often than any of us would like, you learn fast to guard your wallet and your personal space and not to stare anyone in the eye. You learn not to engage potential psychos.
— We walk fast
When I visit other cities, everyone is walking sooooooo slowly. Tourists are the bane of our existence, clogging the narrow, crowded sidewalks, sometimes four abreast. Move it, people!
— You can cry in public and no one will notice
That’s possibly a mixed blessing, but I’ve cried in public here a few times and, just as we studiously ignore celebrities, observers will pretend everything is OK.
— We talk fast
If someone else has time to make small talk with the bank clerk or grocery store bagger, we’re tapping our foot and sighing.
— We’re not mean, just in a hurry
Being brusque doesn’t mean we’re cold or unkind, although it can certainly look that way to a newcomer or visitor from a slower-moving, more social place.
— Our bullshit meters are highly sensitive
We’ve heard just about everything in our years here. We watch our local and state politicians being sent off to prison for corruption or sexual crimes on a depressingly regular basis. So if something sounds soooooo amazing, we immediately look for the fine print.
–— We’re driven
People come here to succeed professionally. (You can do much better more quickly in many other places.) That means climbing over the thousands of other smart, ambitious, highly-educated people who also want that job/promotion/grant/fellowship. We know how tough it is. We’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.
— We relish the mix of people here
Rockettes, cops, artists, editors, actors, Wall Streeters, lawyers, NGO types, UN diplomats. They’re all here.
— We put up with the longest commutes in the U.S., some up to two hours each way
The cost of Manhattan being sky-high for rentals or ownership, thousands of “New Yorkers” live far outside the city limits, traveling in every day to work by car, bus, bike, train or ferry. Some, like Mr. Rockefeller (yes, that one, the billionaire whose enormous estate lies 10 minutes drive north of me) come in by helicopter.
— Income Inequality ‘R Us
Indeed. Just stand at the corner of Madison and 42d at rush hour and watch the endless parade of gleaming, spotless, black Escalades taking the 1% crowd home to the Upper East Side. See the Town Cars idling outside the restaurants and shops. Then cross Park Avenue at its northern end and you’ll see a cliffs’ edge plunge from the plutocracy to deep poverty.
— We treasure anonymity
If you want to be left alone to just get on with it, whatever it is, you can do that here without small-town nosiness, gossip or scrutiny.
— We expect open-mindedness
Whatever your religion, (or lack of same), your gender or sexual preferences, (or combination of same), your political views (or lack of same), it’s all good. This is not a place where (most!) people will dismiss you for not attending church every Sunday or voting for a specific party.
–— We know what we want (even if we can’t afford it!)
The costs of living here are punitively high. This tends to focus you quickly on what you want and what you need to do to achieve it.
— We want to be here, no matter the (considerable) costs
Many of us came from smaller, quieter and far less expensive places. We chose New York.
— Some of us are massively entitled
This recent New York magazine article about parents cheating in every way possible to boost their kids’ chances of success is sadly instructive.
— We’re (outwardly) confident
This is not a great place for the tongue-tied, shy or self-deprecating. People assume that if you’re successful, you’re telling us about it and we’re read or heard about you. Or we will soon.
— We brought NYC-specific dreams
Mine was to succeed in journalism and to publish a few books with major houses. The bitterly cold winter’s day in 2002 I walked through the halls at Simon & Schuster, with my agent, surrounded by the framed covers of their best-sellers, felt like a dream to me. That afternoon, to celebrate the imminent acquisition of my first book, I went around the corner to “21”, another Manhattan institution, and ate profiteroles. I went to Saks and bought myself a silver ring to commemorate this huge milestone.
— The people we really need to work with are here
Depending on your field or industry, this still remains the place to be. It’s said that “writers can live anywhere” and while that is technically accurate, there are few other cities where you can so quickly and easily meet and work with the people who can kick your career into high(er) gear.
— 9/11 remains very real to us, not some random historical fact
We lost friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and our fantasy of invulnerability. Thousands of us heard the roar of those planes coming in, and the F-15s that followed, and smelled the bitter tang of the fires after the towers fell and saw the smoke filling the sky. I know Richard Drew personally, the photographer who shot the terrifying photo, Falling Man, of a man falling (or jumping)_to his death. I know people here who are forever traumatized by what happened to them that day. It was also the day my husband was to have moved into my suburban apartment. Instead, he turned his Brooklyn apartment into a photo lab, scanning and transmitting film images to the Times’ midtown offices. (They won the Pulitzer that year for those photos.)
Are you a New Yorker?
What makes you one?
Do you wish you were?