When Taylor Swift’s 1989 album dropped, I read a review describing “Welcome to New York” as the musical version of a peppermint latte. It was Taylor’s first decisively pop album and I was young enough to be easily seduced by the synthesized flourishes, sparkling trills. It has been many years since I’ve read that review yet I still remember that description. As a kid, I thought peppermints were spicy until I found another word to name the feeling of cool tenderness on my tongue, my entire mouth aware of itself. Maybe New York was like that too, full of feelings I couldn’t yet describe when I first visited at age thirteen on a family vacation.
“Welcome to New York” wasn’t my favorite song on 1989, but maybe it was the one I could relate to the most. In ninth grade, my dream school was Columbia University (sorry, MIT) because it was in the Big Apple. I had some romantic notion that my life would kickstart if I lived in a city where important things happened to people, where everybody walked fast.
At age fifteen, I won a national writing contest. The awards ceremony was held at Carnegie Hall. In a truly foolish moment, I only packed cork wedge heels, so the entire weekend, I traipsed around two inches taller and 50% more unbalanced than usual. Still, I was ecstatic. My medal was heavy and luminous around my neck, its weight a promise of everything that was yet to come. This is where my life begins, I thought.
I didn’t end up applying to Columbia, as I was admitted to MIT early action, and by my senior year of high school I understood that there were more important aspects to an educational institute than which city it happened to be in. Still, during my first year in undergrad, when I was awarded a scholarship to attend a business conference held in Manhattan, I immediately accepted. With four other girls, I squeezed into a hotel room meant for two. I entered the Broadway lottery and won a ticket to one of the less popular musicals. I was willing to fling my entire self into this dream. I was so young and so ready to become the kind of person who lived in New York City.
But time urged forward, and there were other cities: Sydney, Paris, Reykjavík, Auckland, Jerusalem. When I was nineteen, I had a boss who was twenty-seven and a newly minted multi-millionaire after his company had been acquired. “My main hobby is making money, but now I’ve already done that,” he told me. “So now what am I supposed to do? Travel? But every place is the same.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, and even now, I don’t really get it. Every place is different, didn’t he know that? Maybe what we observe about these differences say more about us than about the places themselves.
I visited New York City twice in the last month and discovered I disliked it. I hated the crowds, the scaffolding, the constant noise. Most of all, I hated the anonymity, how it felt impossible to actually become someone to anyone else. Maybe it was the two years immersed in the pandemic, maybe it was simply a shift in priorities, but I found myself yearning for the familiar: expanses of grass, wide sidewalks, people I recognized. The relative quietness of Cambridge.
I don’t know what this means about who I am now. Perhaps what I’m truly afraid of is that I’m no longer full of the bright hunger that has propelled me for so long, the naive ambition that led me to insist to countless admissions officers that I wanted to change the world. What if I was ambitious once, but I had missed my opportunity to wire all that electricity into something magnificent, and now I’m too tired to give all of myself to anything?
In New York, I visited two recent grads. Their apartment was beautiful and expensive. It overlooked the Hudson River, and at night, the city lights skimmed the water like stars caught in a dark veil. We talked about their jobs, which were high-paying and prestigious and secure even in the upcoming recession.
Eventually, when the moon gleamed high and full above the horizon, I mentioned that I should go back to my friend’s place to do some work, although I wasn’t sure if I would be able to since he didn’t have Wi-Fi at his apartment.
One of the guys frowned. “What? Why doesn’t he have internet?”
I explained that my friend didn’t like to spend money on things he deemed unnecessary. When they asked what he did, I said he’d dropped out of MIT to work at a start-up, which had since become a tech unicorn.
Their eyes held a flicker of admiration, or perhaps envy, even though they were in the gorgeous high-rise apartment and my friend was in a basement studio without air conditioning or Wi-Fi. But I understood.
On the streets of New York, I felt like a pebble in a never-ending stream of people. It would be so easy to let myself be carried forward, into this city I had loved. But maybe it hadn’t been New York that I had dreamed about, after all. Maybe what I had truly wanted was to become myself, and I ended up doing that anyway.