I arrived in New York a full week and a half before starting my new job. Just enough time to orient myself to my new landscape — a landscape much harsher than I had anticipated. The very first time I visited the city was just scarcely six months prior. It rained a fine mist on that first occasion in New York, and the grey clouds veiled the city with a sort of pleasurable melancholy — not the kind that leaves behind a dreadful ache, but rather a loneliness that is content and contemplative, perhaps a bit romantic.
It was exhilarating to roam through a place so vast and unfamiliar with people I enjoyed. But I hadn’t totally romanticized the city. In those three days, I knew that, with enough time, living in New York could be burdensome. Without direction or support, I could sense that my spirit might be easily broken.
It also rained on my first day back; this time, the water washed away the vision of the city I had once held. It was difficult to place exactly what had changed about the city since my last visit. Life there felt a lot more real, and the mystical veil that had once shrouded it had been withdrawn. Of course, the city is always changing, and perhaps when I visit again, it likely will no longer be the place I once knew.
In my first few weeks, I experienced a melancholy was of the “dreadful aching” variety. Solitude became my new language, the way I navigated through the world. Living everyday was, then, about survival: how will I meet my basic needs when my resources are low, and how do I keep the hopelessness at bay? At first, the isolation was strange and upsetting. It never quite ceased to be so, but I have since learned to find great comfort in solitude. On living in the city, I gleaned advice from strangers, co-workers and acquaintances, but ultimately, I knew that no one could look out for me, save for myself. While in New York, I established rituals, sacred habits, to help myself survive and evolve.
Amid the constant movement and distraction, I set aside time each day for inward contemplation. I had never really been comfortable spending too much time with myself. There were aspects of myself I had yet to confront. Who was I, actually? How much of myself is really me? To make some sense of these questions, I put my thoughts, encounters and experiences on paper and in art. I often asked myself if I was happy in New York, and of course, I had a great deal of happy moments, but it’s hard to feel true happiness with constant self-interrogation.
Every morning, I swiped my MetroCard, boarded the C train and made my way into town. The subway, arguably where I spent most of my time in New York, is the space where I first developed a deep appreciation for the quotidian — the small details and daily practices that would otherwise go unnoticed. The routine movement in itself helped establish some order in my uprootedness. Although I did have a place to stay in the city, I was, effectively, an intruder. But to know my daily route and to have mastered the subways was, for me, a great triumph. By the end of the workday, I was covered in grime; the city’s very substance imbued my clothes, my skin, my hair. Although I felt weighed down by the salty, sticky residue, to be coated meant I survived another day, and I felt fortified and resilient.
It was a goal of mine to read as much as possible this summer, and the subway’s stationary movement and enforced solitude, even among the throngs of people, created the most favorable circumstances. I dedicated my commutes to leafing through a number of volumes. For nearly two years, I struggled through Sylvia Plath's “The Bell Jar,” but managed to finish the whole thing in just three days’ worth of round trips. Once I finished one book, I would make a trip to my favorite bookstore for something new — among my favorites, Qiu Miaojin’s “Notes of a Crocodile,” Kathy Acker’s “New York City in 1979” and Kate Zambreno’s “Screen Tests.”
So, I would read en route to my most sacred localities. Although I lived in Brooklyn, I frequented the Lower East Side because of its proximity to work and my subway line. On any given day, I could be found somewhere along Essex Street, in Seward Park or at the Metrograph. Without fail, the skaters would be conglomerated outside of Dimes, and the spotted bodega cat near Sammy’s would be slinking past a display of peaches. When I felt particularly deracinated, I would immerse myself in the Lower East Side’s grounding and familiar geography.
Friday marked the beginning of my weekend. Those weekends were dedicated to artistic enrichment: film, the medium through which I best understand myself, and art, which allows me to face inward. In the morning, before setting off, I placed my breakfast order at the bodega down the block — a ritual I found great comfort in. Eventually, I would scarcely walk through the door before being confronted by the young man behind the counter.
—“Everything bagel, egg, swiss, avocado?”
—“Yes, thank you.”
—“Iced coffee today?”
Get The Dirt
Subscribe to our weekly email about what's trending at Duke
For almost three months I was greeted with warmth and they knew my order by heart; I was a regular. The day I placed my last order, I never said goodbye — it never felt appropriate. What could I have said? I didn’t actually know these people. I often wonder whether they noticed that I had never returned, if they thought anything of it.
I have scoffed at the notion of going to New York to “find yourself,” but I think, after all, I made a decision to go to find some sort of truth — truth about myself, the world, love, solitude and reality. In some ways, I did find those things: self-reliance, maturity, independence and patience. I know myself better now — my physical strengths and weaknesses, my values, what I want, what I need and even the very worst parts of myself.
For a long time, I've wandered through life without any clear sense of self, but I left with at least some knowledge of who I am. If I had been there for longer and expanded my rituals, who knows what revelations I may have had, but I know that my own development will continue outside the confines — and possibilities — of the city. My rituals here, although perhaps less sacred, allow me to persist and to survive, just as they did in New York.
Sarah Derris is a Trinity junior and Recess local arts editor.