“I’m getting cockles,” I say.
My dad looks at me like I just said I was ordering the insect protein. To his credit, he doesn’t recommend that maybe I ought to stick with the same buttered pasta I’ve been eating since I started in on solid foods fifteen years earlier. “Nice!” he says.
I’m sixteen and we’re in New York City, at an Italian restaurant in an English basement somewhere in Little Italy. The tables are covered in red checkered cloths and “Famous Blue Raincoat” is playing in the background. (“The last time I saw you, you looked so much older/your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder…”)
I decided then that I had to move to New York.
I was born and raised in the desert. My family was never meant to stay in the Southwest for as long as we did. It was one of those modern accidents where you—as my father did—apply to a law school in a state you’ve never seen and all of the sudden it’s twenty years later and you live in Las Vegas with a wife and two kids and a swimming pool.
I’m not sure any of us ever felt we belonged there. It’s little wonder, then, that I grew up hell-bent on leaving. The West is a wild and alien place that both swallows and rejects you. You can drive 45 minutes across town on wide-open six-lane freeways and still feel caged in by the tall and dark and impassable mountains. You can drive to the edge of town and look at the houses sitting at the foot of the mountains and wonder how long it would take for the sun to bore a hole through their roofs.
You can spend an entire day in Las Vegas where the only natural air you breathe is the air in the parking lot. It’s a city where if you’re not careful, Mother Nature will fry you to a crisp and the air conditioning will cryogenically freeze you and you might wake up one day with fake boobs and a Willy Wonka tan. I ate beige foods, listened to bland music; I didn’t like loud noises or bad smells and I steadfastly avoided anything that made me nervous. A suburban city where you don’t have to go outside was just the place for me to grow up without leaving any kind of a footprint on the universe.
We took a vacation to San Francisco when I was eleven or twelve—my first big city—and I was enthralled. For the next several months, I filled my notebooks with stories about seventh-graders who lived in apartments where you could hear someone playing steel drums down the block. They were all more popular, ballsier versions of myself who drew their sophistication and fearlessness from the cities where they lived. They rode to school on the streetcar, not in a minivan.
I wanted to be one of them. Four years later, eating a food that was not only not beige but came from the sea, listening to my dad’s weird growly gravelly music and enjoying it, I thought for the first time that perhaps I could.
Several twists, turns, and poorly advised moves later, here I am at last, 26 years old, living in Queens in a studio apartment with one window and an oven that I can’t turn on.
For a born-and-bred Southwestern, living in New York is like playing a really complicated video game. At every turn, there are cat-calling construction workers and terrible smells and water falling from mysterious places and your goal is to—well, you can’t avoid it, so your goal is to survive relatively unscathed. (To this end, I have considered wearing a poncho. Whatever liquid is falling onto my head from inside the C train can’t possibly be good for my health.)
On summer mornings, by the time I arrive on the train platform, a single bead of sweat is dripping continuously down my back. By the time the train arrives, the sweat begins to leak from my temples. My foundation will drip down my face until the air conditioning kicks on in my train car, several stops in, at which point I will freeze. This is familiar—in Las Vegas, you don’t see a movie in summer without your winter coat—but less familiar is the humidity. I understand now, for the first time, why the word “sweltering” was invented. Summer in the desert might be like living in a hairdryer, but summer in New York is like living in a sauna, only instead of lounging around naked you have to wear pants and walk faster than the person next to you.
The process of commuting really encapsulates the differences between the Southwest and the urban Northeast. Here is what a commute looks like in Las Vegas: Get in your car. Lock the doors. Turn in 94.1 and listen to “Mark and Mercedes in the Morning.” Drive for several minutes. Pass several shopping centers that are indistinguishable from one another. Pass Mr. Happy dancing on the corner of Sahara and Fort Apache. Pass a jackknifed semi truck on the opposite side of the freeway. Swear at the rubberneckers who are slowing down your side of the freeway. Rubberneck. Pass two more shopping centers before you arrive at your destination. At no point are you to interact with another human, save the rubberneckers at whom you swear from behind closed windows.
Here’s what a commute looks like in New York: Leave the office. Accidentally inhale while passing the bodega trash pile. Curse your poor breathing technique. Pass a grown man attaching his backpack to his Razor scooter so he can hold onto his hockey stick while he rides. Pass two models whose stomachs are as wide as your thigh. Avoid making eye contact with the aggressive woman who stands outside the Italian restaurant on 14th between 6th and 7th shoving menus at everyone who passes. Avoid stepping in vomit. Avoid stepping in dog shit. Contemplate stopping in to purchase an Insomnia Cookie ice cream sandwich. Contemplate stopping to purchase bao buns. Accidentally inhale while passing another bodega trash pile. Breathe through your mouth. Wonder whether the cab turning onto 5th is planning to run you over. Wonder whether the cyclist turning onto 5th is trying to get run over. Weave through the dancing Hare Krishnas and the chess players and the drum circle and descend into the fourth circle of hell, the Union Square subway station in the middle of August. Turn circles while you wait to generate your own personal breeze. Look down the tunnel for the telltale glowing lights of the train around the corner. Hallucinate that the lights of the train are around the corner. Board the train. Sit. Pull out your notepad and start scribbling because you are a writer and New York is an inspiration. Write furiously. Notice a shadow. Realize that a six-foot-tall woman who hasn’t showered in months is about to sit on you. Panic. Fly out of your seat and across the train along with the rest of your bench. Wonder what scene from Bright Lights, Big City you’re going to relive next.
I come home every day exhausted. It’s like living in a foreign country where you have learn again how to talk and walk. I know now to order my coffee black-no-sugar-in-a-bag and to cross unless the opposite light has already turned green. I can power through the Times Square subway station like Frogger and stand on my toes so I can clutch the bar on the roof of the train with the tips of my fingers. Realizing that I know which car to board at Broadway so I can get on the L before the hipsters run me over at Union Square was about as exciting as getting my driver’s license (and I didn’t even have to parallel park!).
It’s an uphill battle for a girl from Vegas who grew up with the In-n-Out drive-thru and a washer/dryer downstairs. For a city where you can order a bagel to your front door, New York is the place where convenience goes to die. To order something that will be delivered to your house requires that you either become a bazillionaire who lives in a doorman building or perform an act of coordination that involves working from home and not being in the shower at the one moment between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM that UPS chooses to deliver your rug. Doing your laundry means spending half your Saturday sitting in plastic chairs outside the laundromat with all of the old ladies on your block waiting until their loads of two towels apiece are finished occupying the jumbo-sized dryer. It’s probably karmic retribution for whining about bringing my laundry downstairs when I was a kid. Now I have to schlep it across the street to a laundromat with no air conditioning and at least three dryers out of service on any given weekend.
I live in a shoebox with one window where until I asked my landlord to take it down, there was a big red EXIT sign above my front door. I store my clothing in the same room where I watch Jeopardy! and sleep and work and read the New York Times and break up with my boyfriends. In Las Vegas, we had a living room and a family room and a den. Here, I have a closet with a bed and a television. I like to think of it as cozy, but sometimes I wish I couldn’t smell my pad thai container rotting in the garbage while I’m trying to fall asleep. My friends just moved into a new place in Williamsburg with a gorgeous backyard that you can only access by climbing through the kitchen window. I know people who pay more than I do to live in sixth-floor walk-ups. Your standards are low in a city where it’s considered fiscally responsible to drop an entire paycheck on someone whose only responsibility is to find you an apartment that hasn’t been condemned.
Here’s another thing: you can’t get clean in New York. Las Vegas is spotless. Las Vegas is shiny and silent and there’s trash on one street in the city. Here, I’ve never felt so grateful to wash my hands as I do every time I get off the subway. I feel a layer of grime grow thick on my face over the course of the day and I come home and put on my seven-dollar Neutrogena face mask and it feels like a spa facial. I came home last week from a business trip to discover that if I leave my air conditioner off for a week during a heat wave, my toilet will grow mold. Sometimes I look at my legs after spending the day in a dress and they’re covered in weird black marks. I don’t like to think too hard about what they are. In Las Vegas, you can shellack your hair and paint on your face at eight in the morning and it will still be there at eight at night.
In spite of the grease and the grime, it strikes me often that I’m living the life I dreamed I would live the night my dad and I listened to Leonard Cohen on the East Side.
I felt trapped and terrified by the prospect of living out my life in Las Vegas. I felt like an impostor in a place that should belong to the Earth. I feel freer, somehow, in a place where my ability to get around depends on a big creaky train that runs on Scotch tape and bubblegum. I feel less claustrophobic in my little one-window shoebox than I did in the middle of a vast desert.
And I like how in New York you can go about your business and look at people but you don’t have to talk to them. It’s more my speed than Las Vegas, where God help you if you don’t carry on a ten-minute conversation with the woman working the register at the grocery store. (Let the record stand that when I was a woman in Las Vegas working the register at a store, I also trapped my customers in conversation before I would ring up their socks. You go long enough without seeing another face, you need to know everything that’s behind it.)
Really, New York is an introvert’s paradise. I can spend an entire day without having a conversation with anyone who isn’t the grocery store cashier or my hairdresser and I still feel like I’ve been exposed to most of humanity. I like the sensation of drowning in a sea of faces. It made me anxious, at home in Las Vegas, to go hours and hours without seeing another person.
I could have lived my life in comfortable isolation in Las Vegas. It was easy for me there to avoid what scares me, so I mostly stayed inside. I think if I had stayed inside much longer I would have rotted in my own house.
Here, I feel powerful, living on my own in the city where I ate shellfish for the first time. Maybe it’s just that the simplest things are such a monumental pain in the ass here that the act of doing laundry makes me feel triumphant. Maybe it’s that New York is a city that promises you the world for keeps instead of the world for a weekend. Maybe it’s just that I know definitively that at any given moment, there’s someone weirder than me right around the corner, tying their backpack to their scooter and getting ready to take on the world the only way they know how.