Starting my life at 22 in an expensive city was not so much a struggle as a game. The best happy hours, the cheapest restaurants, the free activities, they all became moving targets I tried to hit on a weekly basis.
The pace of life moved so fast in those early days. It was a little like hustling through the rain, never stopping to bemoan the downpour, simply moving forward with all due momentum to skip to the next dry patch of pavement, avoid the next puddle.
The cost of New York City was always evident, inherent in every conversation. Somewhere in my mind, I thought; someday I’ll be able to really afford it, I’ll experience it all. Someday.
Time passed. My salary climbed, incrementally at first and eventually, after 6 years, more significantly with my first real promotion. My celebration was short lived as reality made itself known. I would need many more promotions to truly live comfortably in this city.
I realized the cost of a city is never fixed. Spend enough time in New York and it becomes obvious the more time passes the more our lives diverge. Money divides us. It separates where we live. It fractures the things we do together. And soon… the itch starts.
I didn’t realize I was scratching, of course, I didn’t even feel the itch, to begin with. I just scratched, lightly, absentmindedly. Over, and over again, until I realized it was not an itch but a question which I had now inflamed. It announced itself and it both surprised and disappointed me:
Am I going to stay in this city forever?
At some point living in New York became not something I was doing as much as it was something I just hadn’t chosen not to do. Hypothetical scenarios of a life in another city flooded my thoughts. Imagining alternate realities where the cost of living was lower felt like a release from a living scenario that had become exhausting.
It wasn’t just one thing that exhausted me mind you, but the subway’s overt incompetence did become maddening. It was also the apartment lacking amenities standard in most other cities. The lack of space, not just indoors but everywhere. Simple functional space allowing humans their own room to operate.
My theoretical life in another city was just fantasy that I had no real reason to pursue. And then I became a part of a relationship. And it was no longer a question I asked myself but one I asked out loud. It was no longer about me but we. Where would we go? The question suddenly demanded an answer. An urgency for escape appeared. It was an urgency I had previously directed at immersing myself in everything this city had to offer. An urgency that was a hallmark of my early 20s.
Back then this city was only full of opportunity. I worked hard to dress the way I thought I wanted to feel. I went to the places everybody said I should go. Generally, I threw myself into the fray, wrapping my arms around the city the best I could. Accepting adversity and frustration. Dancing around the people plowing onto the train like zombie fullbacks. Never blaming the city. Skipping over those puddles.
I wanted to be a part of it all. I just wanted to be in it. Deeply. Mixed up and messy. Wear down my heels walking through every neighborhood. To a large extent, I think I did.
Being young in New York City meant possibility, collision, and excitement. Eventually, those possibilities were substituted with realities. Collisions felt more jarring than stimulating. Excitement overall waned.
Perhaps it was my own fault for never specifically naming what I was trying to get out of the city in the first place. I always talked about the energy and how much there was to do. It was probably just a salve for an under-stimulated pre-adult. Whatever it was I truly sought, I felt like I wasn’t getting that unnamed thing out the experience anymore.
New, more specific desires made themselves known. Partially of their own genesis. Partially in response to how the city started to wear on me.
The parking lot across the street became a hotel blocking out the sun that used to flood my apartment. The noise. The horns and sirens. The rusty trash bins rolled out every Saturday morning at 10 am. The industrial fan on the roof of the building next door that overnight, began squeaking and never stopped. The elevator that at around the same time, started moaning.
The noises asked me daily, “Is this still worth it?”
And of course, there are the prices. They just put a number on the frustration. The 50 dollar cab rides to avoid a subway choked with delays. The 17 dollar cocktails. The 16 dollar movies.
No matter how I choose to spend my money I am reminded on a daily basis. I feel obsessed with the cost of living while also trying desperately not to be obsessed. A Chinese finger trap of perseveration.
Getting older means understanding the cost of things, more than just financially. It means I have started to understand what I gave up to have what I do, and what I’d need to give up in the future to have what I think I want.
I once heard a podcast host discuss something he had heard Deepak Chopra say;
“Happiness for a reason is just another form of misery because the reason can be taken away from us at any time.”
That statement scares me deeply. I worry our living situation is just one large reason and I have convinced myself how much better it can be.
But I have a hard time believing a washing machine, a dishwasher and a kitchen larger than a bathtub won’t add to our happiness.
Which I guess begs the question if I am unhappy, to begin with. And I don’t think I am. Not really. Just frustrated. I feel we could be happier. We could be closer to the things we value by being further away from the things everybody else wants.
Our conversations about other cities are much more tactical these days. We talk about leaving as an experiment, a trial. To see what it is to live somewhere else. It is freeing to know we can always come back. One thing is for sure though; It is time for a change.
At this point, with the money we make, we understand the iterations of this city, the cycles. And we want to go somewhere we don’t. We need to experience some sort of a change so we can feel a different world. We need to put ourselves in an environment to be surprised, to know less, to start fresh, together, from scratch.
The magic in this city still exists. We still find it from time to time, but it is less now. This city is individual agnostic. It doesn’t love you or hate you. It has no opinion on you. It is its own. It merely accepts the shadows that some, larger than others, cast upon it, as it is all temporary.
This city will not ask for you nor cast you out, it will merely continue as it always has. Growing forever upward, outward, and forward. And only you will ever know if it is still worth it for you.
I’m older now, still short of a specific goal that will propel me well into the future, but much clearer on the things I value. Many of those things don’t seem to be feasible here no matter how much money we might make. Our challenge becomes moving forward with a kind of experienced optimism, knowing if and when we move somewhere else, that place will only be a partial factor in our happiness.
Just as New York was and is.
Perhaps it was easier to create a life I loved not knowing what I wanted or what was possible. I still don’t know. That keeps me optimistic because on some level…
It all still is.
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