By Caitlin Kelly
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
― E.B. White,
I arrived in New York, with no friends or family or job or connections here, just in time for the first recession in my industry, journalism. To find my first job here, (which I finally found through an ad in The New York Times), I made 150 cold calls to total strangers.
I cried a lot.
After a terrific few years working for major Canadian daily newspapers, it was rough on my ego, and my aspirations, to realize that what I’d accomplished meant nothing here because it hadn’t happened in the U.S., let alone within the city’s five boroughs.
I finally did find a position, as a senior editor at a well-respected, now-long-gone monthly magazine called World Press Review, at a salary $5,000 a year lower than what I’d earned in Montreal two years before as a reporter for the Gazette.
Welcome to New York!
Why did I want to move here?
I’d been visiting since I was 12, so it was not wholly unfamiliar.
My mother was born here and was married at St. Bartholomew’s, a huge Romanesque pile on Park Avenue, where her grandmother lived. I was legally able to move here from my native Canada because I obtained my green card through my mother’s American citizenship.
As an ambitious journalist, I dreamed of being published and by the major American magazines and book publishers I grew up reading — Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times. I also knew that sustaining a 30+ year career in Canada, with a much smaller set of professional opportunities, wasn’t for me; I’d feel bored and always have wondered, what if…
Reinventing my life in New York was hard!
In some ways, it still is. For every full-time job or freelance opportunity, there are hundreds of ferociously determined and well-prepared competitors. Socially? I still find it lonely, although I’ve made a few friends; people focus on their families or their work and have long, tiring commutes.
If you arrive here without one second of American education — especially elite feeders to the best jobs, like prep schools and the Ivy League — you arrive severely deprived of crucial social capital. You need a lot of talent, drive, skill and luck to shove open some of these very heavy doors.
But the city is also a source of tremendous pleasure for me, even as I live in a small town north of the city, where I own an apartment; I’m easily in town, by car or train, within 40 minutes.
I’ve had some of the best moments of my life here, like picking up the galleys for my first book at the Sixth Avenue offices of Simon & Schuster, and clutching them to my heart in ecstasy. I’d achieved my dream! A book published by one of the country’s biggest houses (Pocket Books.)
What are some of the things I still love here?
Hard to imagine what you can’t find here, whether music, dance, opera, theater, fine art, museums…My favorites are a little obscure, like the Mint Theater, (which revives earlier works and which is housed, oddly, in a midtown office building), and the Japan Society, which mounts small, excellent shows in a lovely, quiet exhibition space in the east 40s.
I have a favorite painting at the Met I like to visit, this painting of Joan of Arc, first shown in 1880, by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.
This image stops me cold in my tracks — hung in a busy hallway — every time. It’s enormous.
I feel as if she’s standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I love how dazed she looks, the overturned wooden stool, and the ghostly image of her, in armor, floating behind her, her awaiting future.
I love everything about this painting: its colors, details, mood and subject matter. And am so lucky I can see it when I want to.
Another favorite is a pair of gold Roman earrings at the Met, tiny cherubs riding astride birds, exquisite in every detail.
You must get to Lincoln Center, both stunning visually (the fountain!) and culturally. I recently treated myself to a $65 box seat to see Joshua Bell play Bach and Mozart. Swoon!
Food and Drink:
If you can’t find a decent meal here, (and in Brooklyn and Queens as well), you’re not paying attention, from elegant old-school venues like Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, Sardi’s, the Campbell Apartment, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and La Grenouille to the newest, trendiest spots. (If you can’t afford a meal, you can probably afford a cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere and history.)
I tend to return to old favorites like Red Cat on 10th., Balthazar on Crosby St;, The Lion on West 9th, Toloache on 50th., and Cafe Cluny and Morandi in the West Village. I love Caffe Reggio and Bosie Tea Parlor for a long chat with a pal over coffee or tea and Grey Dogs, east and west versions, for breakfast.
Buying food is a joy in places like Eataly, Chelsea Market, the Union Square Greenmarket and the city’s many specialty stores, from Kalustyan’s (spices), Murray’s Cheese, Russ and Daughters to Porto Rico Coffee and Tea.
The smallest few blocks here will reward your attention, especially with amazing architecture and fenestration. The shaded and cobble-stoned streets of the West Village are lovely. So are the funky bits of the East Village, East 9th being a favorite for shopping, eating and looking.
The city has many extraordinary churches well worth a visit, like the second-oldest church in Manhattan, St. Mark’s in the Bowery, on East 10th. street.
The parks are an obvious choice and so is the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at sunset; I bet fewer than 5 percent of anyone in New York knows that the Brooklyn Bridge would never have been completed without the skills and determination of a 19th-century woman — Emily Roebling, wife of the engineer, Washington Roebling, whose job it was to design the bridge and who fell ill halfway through the project.
My favorite park is Bryant Park in midtown, filled in summer and fall and spring with folding dark green chairs and tables, plenty of shady trees, even a carousel. In winter there’s a skating rink with cheap rentals and great music.
I attended The New York School of Interior Design in the 1990s, intending to leave journalism and change careers. I didn’t, but now teach writing there. It’s an honor to head back through those huge red doors as a member of their adjunct faculty. (I’ve also taught at NYU [adults] and Pratt Institute.)
Columbia and many other schools are always putting on panel discussions and lectures open to the public, offering tremendous, free opportunities to keep learning.
Sigh. From indie spots like my favorite vintage store, Edith Machinist on Rivington to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s to bookstores, specialty shops, (one selling nothing but umbrellas, for example), and pop-ups. Saks’ shoe department has its own zip code, a fun spot to watch oligarchs and their wives buying bagfuls of $1,500 stilettos and squealing girls from the heartland swooning over their first in-person sighting of Jimmy Choos and Manolos.
Ignore the stuff you can find in any other city, like Big Box and chain stores, and seek out treasures like Bigelow’s, the oldest apothecary in America.
If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot miss Aedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.
For a city so known for modernity and speed and haste, there’s much history here to savor as well. One of the quietest and most out-of-the-way places to visit is this, Manhattan’s oldest house — built in 1765 — the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
Check out the Tenement Museum for a truly immersive feel for NYC vernacular history and the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.
I love the atmosphere of the city’s classic 100-year-old-plus bars or restaurants, including Old Town Bar, Fanelli’s, the Landmark and the Ear Inn. If you sit in The White Horse, you’ll sit where my namesake — Caitlin Thomas, wife of the poet Dylan Thomas — once sat as well.
You can’t miss the cathedral of commuters, Grand Central Terminal, on 42d Street. It is breathtaking in its beauty and scale, with details from carved marble fountains to gleaming, enormous chandeliers and a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations. Built in 1913, renovations were completed in 1996.
It’s too easy to forget that Manhattan is, after all, an island. Get to the western edge and enjoy the sunset at one of the many pier-side restaurants and bars. Take a Circle Line ferry around the island. Rent a kayak.
Or jump on the Staten Island ferry and head out as the sun is setting to watch the city light up.
What do you enjoy most about living in — or visiting — New York City?