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On sadness, pain and resiliency

I just read Sarah Larson’s lament on yesterday’s East Village explosion. It’s brilliant and lovely, and you should read it, too. Any New Yorker, most especially one who has lived, worked and played in this city for a decade or more, will be touched, nodding along with agreement and recognition.

I can never explain to friends and family who live elsewhere what it’s really like to live in New York. Most of my people just want to know when I’m moving “home to Philadelphia”. They dislike New York, envisioning all of it as something akin to a mixture of modern Times Square and a run-down 1970s Harlem. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to live there,” they say, but good on me for keeping it up for so long. Still, somewhere, buried, lies some pride.

When I moved to the city almost ten years ago it was in response to a lyric in a song: Make an ocean from this lake. I was driving along the same suburban Philadelphia road, sitting in the same traffic I’d sat in every day for the past three years of my life, nervous to be behind the wheel of a rental Jeep after an accident that had completely totaled my own car. Yeah, I’m ready to make an ocean from this lake, I thought. So I did.

But while my reasons for moving here don’t really matter much anymore, the longevity of my stay does—because, man, I’ve stayed. And as I’ve stayed I’ve built memories.

We experience so many firsts in our lives: our first kiss, first love, first breakup, first time being drunk (or stoned if you roll that way), first job, first apartment… there are a great deal of firsts. But I have this theory that transplanted New Yorkers experience all those firsts over again as New Yorkers: First New York kiss, first New York love, first time being drunk (or stoned) in New York, first New York job, first New York apartment. And if you want to know why that is, I believe it can only be answered by a New Yorker: Because it’s different here.

I’m trying to say that any New Yorker who has built a long string of firsts and memories in this city will feel nothing short of love for it—the kind of unconditional love where you go through periods of intense hatred that culminate in reinvigorated love. Because you know that deep down you couldn’t leave and even if you did it would hurt like hell. And more than anything, you know that all of those experiences you’ve been through over your years as a New Yorker have made you bigger, tougher, stronger, better than you were before you moved here. New York is part of who you are now.

Almost immediately after I settled here, there was a transit strike that lasted for exactly three days. Not three weeks, three days. When you’re brand new to a city like New York, that is an unthinkable disaster. You learn how to walk from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side, or hitch a ride if you can, because your livelihood depends on it. And three days later riding the L from Brooklyn to Union Square seems like an unthinkable luxury. By the way, I walk nearly everywhere now—from Brooklyn to Queens, Queens to Manhattan, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I have my usual routes to my usual places, and every once in a while I’ll switch things up and set out to discover a new route to a new place. The city is enormous and reliable in its ability to rapidly change, so sometimes an old route inadvertently becomes a new one.

A mass transit shut-down is hardly an unthinkable disaster. Rather, it’s another one of those unique New York experiences that leads you to new adventures and gives you a story to tell out-of-towners. Or maybe a homeless man grabbed you in passing on the street. "He attacked me," you'll recall when you tell the story. Or maybe a man on the subway started shouting about how he had a gun on him. You'll hear stories like these. Compared to a gas explosion and the resulting fire in and disintegration of two East Village buildings, most of the experiences relayed through our stories are not quite so life altering.

In her piece Larson writes:

Living in New York intensifies the common experience of having daily pleasures and terrible accidents coexist in close proximity. Terrible things can happen right near you, and chance determines whether your life is changed.

This is truer than any of us would ever like to remember. If we went through our lives thinking about it too much we might be afraid to leave our apartments—or maybe leaving our apartments on the day of a gas explosion would be the very thing that saves us.

I for one will continue on, not thinking about all of the terrible accidents that could coexist with my daily adventures. I like to think of myself, like the city, as resilient. Pain comes and goes, but New York and I will always be right here, together, and we’ll always be all right. And we can rest assured knowing that if for some reason we're ever not, we'll be able to count on any one of our fellow New Yorkers to step up and lend a helping hand. Because as news reports yesterday proved once again, during times of sadness, tragedy and pain, New Yorkers will be there for each other.

Alyssa YeagerComment