It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance.
I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.
I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.
You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.
The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.
Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.
The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.
We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.
It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.
They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.
The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.
The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)
No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.
Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.
It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.
The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.
To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.
One of the pleasures of producing this blog is the incredible range of visitors who end up here — in the past three days alone, from Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Malaysia, France, VietNam, Brazil and a dozen more.
My goal, always, is to civilly engage with readers from around the world. Having been to 40 countries (so far!) and having lived in five, I’m deeply aware of how interconnected we are.
I now live in the U.S., although born and raised in Canada.
I moved to New York in 1989 and have, until the election of Donald Trump — a lying, cheating racist real estate developer who was a pathetic joke for years to anyone near New York City — enjoyed living in this nation.
Today, along with millions of others here (and everywhere!), I’m cringing in embarrassment and shame at his latest outburst, using language no other President has stooped to before publicly.
Mr. Trump grew angry as the group detailed another aspect of the deal — a move to end the diversity visa lottery program and use some of the 50,000 visas that are annually distributed as part of the program to protect vulnerable populations who have been living in the United States under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. That was when Mr. Durbin mentioned Haiti, prompting the president’s criticism.
When the discussion turned to African nations, those with knowledge of the conversation added, Mr. Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.
About 83 percent of Norway’s population is ethnic Norwegian, according to a 2017 C.I.A. fact book, making the country overwhelmingly white.
It is hard to anyone living beyond the U.S., perhaps, to even fathom how a man like him could win the Oval Office, and with another three years in his term, with only the 25th Amendment a way to impeach (i.e. get rid of) him. It allows for the removal of a sitting President only if he is deemed unfit to serve, a term vague enough no one has dared try to use it.
I write this post only to say — we’re sorry!
By “we” I mean millions of Americans (and those living here) who find this man utterly contemptible in every possible way: racist, rude, deliberately ignorant (he boasts of never reading), sexist and crude.
But there he sits, aided and abetted by a Republican House and Senate reveling in their power to stick it to a country they disdain as weak and lazy — now proposing to require the poor receiving Medicaid (free medical care) to work to “earn” it.
Just know this, please: millions of voters are appalled, furious — and, for the moment, politically impotent.
Do not think, for one minute, that he and his views and his behavior, represent what many Americans want the world to respect and admire.
If — like me — you’ve left behind the country where you were born and raised, let alone if you’ve moved many times domestically and/or internationally — you can end up feeling rootless.
I have three young female friends, ages 26 to 33, whose lives look like a game of Where’s Waldo? moving between Guam and Virginia and Luxembourg and Baltimore and Brussels and more, each thanks to their father’s work.
I also belong to a far-flung tribe of fellow journalists, web mavens and photographers, who are — to name only a few of them — in Madrid, Colombia, Berlin, London, Mexico City, California and Kabul, either permanently or on assignment.
I was born in Vancouver, lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with stints in Paris, Montreal and Cuernavaca, Mexico in those years), then New Hampshire and then, finally, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan.
Despite living for decades in the U.S., I’m still, in some ways, not very American, clinging to some of my Canadian roots in terms of my political values, (the collective over the individual, single-payer healthcare, stronger unions) and also in shared cultural references that only fellow Canadians — here or there — can appreciate.
What is it that roots us deeply into a place?
What is it that keeps us there, for years, or a lifetime?
Is it family?
A political climate that best suits us?
A place — for me, Paris, where a year-long fellowship launched my career in earnest — that forever, and for the better, changed your trajectory?
Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.
I’m headed back up to Canada for the third time in four months tomorrow, a 12-hour train ride. It’s a lot of travel in a short time, the first time, to Montreal, for work, but the second and third for pleasure, and to see friends.
I’ll be dog and house-sitting for a friend, someone I met when she worked in New York at the Canadian consulate and with whom I’ve stayed in touch.
I’ll mourn the deep cuts in my hometown newspaper and former employer, The Globe & Mail, and its weird new re-design.
I’ll savor some Canadian treats like butter tarts, (sort of like mincemeat, but better.)
I’ll ride the Red Rocket, aka the streetcar.
I’ll visit with friends I’ve known for decades, renewing deep ties and hearing their news.
Then I’ll get back on the train and head south again — for a brief few minutes suspended between my two countries on the bridge over the Niagara River, its spume just barely visible — and return to the United States.
It’s recently become a place I’m deeply ambivalent about, with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, relentless gun violence, climate change denial and an administration determined to damage the lives of all but the wealthy.
My life is now neatly bisected, divided into two exact halves, between the nation of my birth and upbringing and the place I chose to move.
I wonder more and more these days about whether it’s time to uproot.
In a few days, American citizens will choose their new President, (and other elected officials, which tends to get lost in the fray.)
Some of us who chose to come to the United States — and not those (blessedly) fleeing war, oppression, terror, economic disaster — are now, nervously, wondering…what next?
Will we stay?
If not, where will we go?
This is not unique to me; here’s a comment on a recent piece in The Economist:
An American friend who has 2 children to raise and educate has already emigrated, to Australia in this case, because his wife is Australian. And then a few Asian dual-citizenship friends already left. In their words, “America is not a good place to raise kids – too many guns, and too many strange xenophobes. It’s not worth it.” They are all bilingual, bi-literate, high-skilled professionals. I certainly am packing too if Trumps wins.
I’ve avoided much discussion here about this election, although I will say clearly I do not want Donald Trump to win and am very, very fearful of the effects, domestically and globally, his election would create.
I’m disgusted and appalled by the way he dismisses and demeans women, Muslims, Mexicans (my husband’s heritage), the disabled and others.
I chose a country I then believed welcoming to “the other”, a place where your background and beginnings mattered less than your education, skills, drive and ambition.
This no longer feels true to me.
I have not become a citizen, so I will not be voting. I will accompany my husband to the polling station, proudly, as I did last time.
Choosing to emigrate to the U.S. places you in an odd few buckets.
The word “immigrant” is too often conflated with “illegal” or assumed to be someone whose choices elsewhere were so utterly barren that we had to come, have to stay and have no better options back at home — or in any other nation.
The true picture is much more varied.
There are immigrants who’ve made millions of dollars. There are those stuck in low-wage, menial jobs, sometimes for decades.
But there are also millions of us who thought coming to the United States, making a deliberate choice, was worth a try, maybe later in life or mid-career, maybe having to persuade a dubious spouse or children to create a fresh start here.
There are many of us, especially those with multiple language skills and the ability to work in other languages or cultures, those of us with cross-cultural fluency, who could leave, returning to our homeland or trying yet another country.
I left Toronto, and Canada, a nation with cradle-to-grave government supplied healthcare, (versus the $1,400 I pay every month here in NY, thanks to self-employment and corporate greed), a country whose very best universities offer a year’s tuition for less than $10,000 — not the $50,000 to $60,000 plus charged by the U.S.’s top private schools.
I came to the U.S. at the age of 30; then as now, I had no children to worry about.
Nor did I mind leaving my family of origin behind as we’re not close emotionally and returning, in need, is a quick 90 minute flight.
But my decision was still terrifying!
I knew very few people. Had no close family here — cousins in California with whom I have virtually no contact.
Had no job. Had no graduate degree nor the Ivy League education and social capital I would (belatedly!) learn are essential to elite success in the crazy-competitive Northeastern enclaves of publishing and journalism.
I now own property here. I’m married to an American. I have long-standing friendships and deeply love the region I chose, the lower Hudson Valley.
But the prospect of a Trump Presidency is making me, and many, many others deeply anxious.
Those of us with portable skills and multiple passports and/or citizenships do have options.
Thanks to my paternal Irish grandfather, I can also apply for Irish citizenship and an EU passport; I already speak fluent French and decent Spanish.
Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.
In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.
In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.
Partly, it’s a language issue.
“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start, place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.
For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.
For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.
When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.
Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?
I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)
This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!
But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.
The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.
Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.
I chose the U.S. for several reasons:
— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?
— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.
— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.
— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.
And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.
I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)
I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.
But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’ best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.
Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.
It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.
In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.
In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.
Few of us are likely to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.
As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.
So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?
That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.
The divisions, literally, are killing us.
How, then, and where, do we meet one another?
In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?
How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?
It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.
For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.
One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.
It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.
I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.
The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.
They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.
The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.
Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.
The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.
In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.
After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.
It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.
If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?
I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.
In the U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.
Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)
So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.
When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?
It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?
Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.
My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.
But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.
In a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?
I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.
It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.
For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.
Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.
Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.
It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.
On a good day.
I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:
— a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”
— a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.
— several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.
— my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.
— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.
As I watch the sea of migrants — refugees, more accurately — heading north from Syria and other nations into Europe, hoping to re-start their lives somewhere safe(r), I think about all they have had to leave behind — homes, furniture, assets, educations, family, friends.
Some have lost their husbands, wives and children, killed en route.
There were no razor-wire-topped fences hastily being built, as in Hungary now. But the refugees had to begin a long, slow process of finding advocates to legally represent them; as a college student studying Spanish, I did some volunteer interpreting.
I will never forget what I heard, even if I wish I could — horrific narratives of rape, imprisonment, torture. It was difficult work, for them (proud, traumatized men, many my father’s age, having to recount the worst moments of their life to a young and unfamiliar woman and other strangers) and for me (I had no idea the world could be so cruel. Their stories, decades later, live in my head.)
When you leave your country of origin, (which I did at 30, leaving Canada for the U.S., admittedly under no duress), you start anew. Your life, your accomplishments, your advanced degrees from places no one here has ever heard of or attended…sometimes vanish overnight.
No one knows your parents or went to the same schools or ate the same food. They didn’t watch the same television shows or read the same writers.
Not only do you now not know a soul, the people on whom you must now rely — landlords, banks, police, neighbors, teachers, medical staff, the legal system — are unfamiliar. You may shake at the very sight of a uniform or a gun.
And they use words and phrases they know well, and which may make no sense to you, either as language or as functional concepts.
A new language must be learned, the streets and transit systems of a new city or or town. A new national anthem and currency. You will miss subtle cultural cues everyone else understands, sometimes for decades to come.
If you’re fortunate enough to have classic capital — money, savings, assets you can liquidate like gold or jewels — you’ve got something to start with.
The most crucial, though, in my experience, is social capital — the vast network of people who know, like and trust you enough to refer you into their valued networks. You need a job, an income, a place to start again.
Too often, especially here in a dog-eat-dog place like New York, people lucky enough to find a lifeboat pull up their oars, so to speak. No, they will not help you or return your emails or phone calls or texts.
That takes time to accumulate and to acquire. Here, I see it used (and abused) most powerfully among those who attended the same colleges and universities, sometimes the elite prep schools that feed them. Alumni networks here seem of paramount importance compared to my prior experience in a nation with 10 percent of the U.S. population.
We recently sat with a working-class friend who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe at 24 with $200 in her pocket. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.
I arrived in New Hampshire, via Montreal, and would honestly now say that I didn’t either. Had I known how hard it would be to reinvent, I doubt I would have made the leap. And I was fortunate — young, healthy, educated, with work experience and savings.
I had visited the U.S. many times before I moved here and it’s not that big a shock — not like trading Syria for Sweden, for example.
But we’re here now, with friends and hair salons and dentists and a gym we like. Apartments with views that we treasure.
Social capital is the value of network trusting relationships between individuals in an economy.
Individual capital, which is inherent in persons, protected by societies, and trades labour for trust or money. Close parallel concepts are “talent“, “ingenuity“, “leadership“, “trained bodies”, or “innate skills” that cannot reliably be reproduced by using any combination of any of the others above. In traditional economic analysis individual capital is more usually called labor.
Have you left behind your country of origin for a new one?
“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, Here Is New York
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.)
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 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.
If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot missAedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.
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?