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A Love Letter to a City I Refuse to Call Home
If you ask me if I enjoy living in New York, I could rattle off a list of its faults so long you might find yourself casting your eyes to the floor, silently wishing you had never asked the question.
The streets that perpetually reek of dog urine in the summer.
The eruption of arguments imploding and fireworks exploding at 3 a.m. outside my apartment window.
The dripping sweat of strangers sandwiching me on the subway as I hold my breath and pray for the conductor to announce that the train is now running express to my stop.
The congested avenues that conspire with the pedestrians who unapologetically pummel by, unlikely to scatter even the scraps of an “I’m sorry” behind them before being seamlessly swallowed into the crowd.
The snow that is only snow for a few brief moments before the dirt and grime of the city streets claim it, creating a slush no child would choose to play in.
Yes, I love the American Museum of Natural History and the High Line and Broadway and all that jazz. But it comes at the price of sharing the streets with ambling tourists and erratic taxis and rats that lie in wait for you beneath the sidewalk garbage bags.
I have lived in New York for 14 years now, and yet, I have never called it home. In fact, I have often proudly, and perhaps obnoxiously, declared to anyone who would listen that I am most definitely not a New Yorker, despite my extended stay. I’m from California originally — the other coast, the one with everlasting sunshine and endless stretches of ocean, the one where you can spend the morning skiing and then warm yourself at a bonfire by the beach that same evening. “West coast, best coast,” as we say.
To be honest though, this response is rehearsed. Although, when asked, I tell people I’m from Los Angeles, the question is one I long ago learned to despise. Born in California, I was six weeks old when my family moved east, beginning a pattern of cross-country relocations that soon outnumbered the fingers I could hold up on my two hands. Although I painstakingly packed up my life each time we set out for a new city, I inevitably ended up littering the road with abandoned zip codes and faded friendship bracelets. I learned to experience home as a feeling, rather than tangible coordinates —a space defined by the comforts of family and worn books and mom’s homemade poppy seed onion bread, rather than by a street sign or white window shutters or the oak tree in the front yard.
After I graduated from college, my family moved back to California, the place to which I now return when I tell friends I’m “going home for the holidays.” Yet, unlike many of my friends who fled New York City for their respective homes when the COVID-19 pandemic began, I remained at my job, working at a hospital in Manhattan. Much to the dismay of my mother (who was counting on the return of her fiercest Scrabble opponent to ease the burden of quarantine), this meant that I could not similarly escape to the comforts of in-unit laundry and the fully stocked kitchen that always awaits me in my mother’s house. Instead, as the pandemic raged, I found myself here, alone in this city that I would not call home, with little company other than a recently gifted succulent (whom I now endearingly refer to as my “emotional support plant.”)
Worried about losing my mind and being unable to find it amongst the loads of laundry coating my floors (because who really wants to use a communal laundry room during a pandemic), I began spending as much time outside as possible. I have often heard Central Park referred to as “New York City’s backyard,” but it was a backyard I preferred far less to a private outdoor space, where I could dress as I pleased and belt out song lyrics undeterred by the irritated looks of strangers. (Not that the public nature of the park stops people in this city from doing just that. If only I were that brave.)
But with the threat of being cooped up in a small New York City apartment looming, I donned my modern-day armor (a not-so-stylish face mask and a bottle of Purell) and began to utilize the park like the true New Yorker that I refused to be.
I started running outside, abandoning my indoor jump rope for jogs along the Bridle Path (for which I’m sure my downstairs’ neighbors are grateful). I began learning guitar, practicing along the green stretches of grass lining the bike path. I stumbled upon Shakespeare Garden and strolled through it, reading the quotes and trying (and failing) to read the sundial. I breathed in the scent of pink peonies, and photographed trees with purple blossoms that grew right out of the bark. I ventured up to Belvedere Castle, marvelling at the vastness of the park, disappointed that I could not ascend the winding stairs within to see the view from the very top. I took long walks, discovering new paths and pockets of the park I was not aware existed. As I explored, I read the inscriptions on the benches I passed—benches dedicated not only to loved ones, but to the park itself—and even jokingly picked out a peaceful waterfront alcove where, if I were to donate a bench, I would like it to reside.
When I began to feel antsy, Central Park delighted me with a tree crafted for climbing, the perfect spot for reading book-after-quarantine-book, offering a backdrop of leaves interlaced against a Tiffany blue sky.
When I lamented distant family and scattered friends, it mourned with me, offering up its bleeding hearts that bloomed in solidarity.
When I felt alone, it surprised me with the company of a bale of turtles congregating at one end of the pond, swimming just beneath the wooden overhang. (Although, the racoon I encountered in the Ramble was much less appreciated.)
When I did not know which way I ought to go, Central Park presented me with giant mushrooms and a rabbit with a pocket watch and a girl with a bow in her hair who whispered in my ear that sometimes we must swim through our tears in order to find our way. Perhaps, one day soon, we too might awaken from this mad world in which we are living.
The more I explored, the more I realized that despite living in New York for fourteen years, and in New York City for six, I knew so very little about this park, and perhaps about this city. Though I have eagerly awaited autographs outside the theatre doors of Broadway, I have yet to feel the waves of the New York Philharmonic wash over me in Lincoln Center. Though I have awaited trains in Grand Central Station, craning my neck upward to trace the constellations that dance across the ceiling, I have yet to stand beside the Fearless Girl in Wall Street. Can I truly say I have lived in New York if I have not yet cheered on the home team (or any team for that matter) at Madison Square Garden, if I have not yet given myself over to (and then the next morning regretted giving myself over to) its endless night life? I had filed New York City away under “necessary evils” before bothering to crack open its cover and explore the wonderlands and secret gardens flourishing inside.
As I sit now in my tiny room in an apartment that I once shared with two friends (how else can one afford the ridiculously high rent in this city), I hear a few notes of “New York, New York” drift in through my open window, intermingling with the clapping of hands and banging of pots that mark the arrival of 7 o’clock. Someone is playing the song loudly in the street below, and as I watch the occupants of the building across the street step out onto their balconies to sway and sing along, I realize that this city has gotten under my skin. Like a sometimes dirty, but so very persistent stray cat that refuses to leave your doorstep no matter how many times you tell it to scat, a stray that slowly slinks its way into your heart until one day you decide to bring it inside and allow it to stay—I have come to love this city, despite its faults. As I wove my way through its fields and reservoirs, New York City wove its way into my heart.
So, one day, should I be able to inscribe a bench and place it by the water’s edge, I think it would read: “Thank you, New York, for opening your branches and benches to me, even when I sullenly refused to wipe my shoes upon your Welcome Home mat and step inside.”
Or something like that.
I have many years to mull it over, many years before I can exchange student loans for such gestures of gratitude. But I have decided that in the meantime, as I finish out my schooling and wait to see where life might bring me next, perhaps, perhaps, it might not be so bad to call this place home.
Margot Gardin is a writer and medical student living in New York City. She completed her undergraduate studies at Barnard College, graduating with a degree in English Literature, and is currently in her final year of study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In July, she will begin her Ophthalmology Residency at NYU. She writes the way she breathes— constantly, deeply, always in need of more. Her work has appeared in Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine.