The City of Dreams and Smoke
Finding myself amidst towering buildings and blaring horns in the Big Apple.
New York City.
The very words alone strike a resounding chord in anyone who has the opportunity to come face to face with the giant itself. At least, this is the case for me, someone who had always marveled at how the impossibly bright lights flooding the streets of Times Square made the city look as if it were glowing from the inside out. The flashy signs, the neon billboards— the tantalizingly vibrant colors they exuded swirled in my vision in a dizzying display of capitalistic grandeur. It seemed as if the lights and energy of the city were sending zaps of electricity through the people who rushed past me, perpetually hurrying, their eyes fixated on something that I couldn’t quite see.
Everything about the city intimidated me, entranced me, mesmerized me in a profound way. Perhaps that’s what led me here, after years of peering over at the Manhattan skyline from the more modest and plain side of the Hudson River. New York was the hip, quirky, enviable cousin at dinner parties, the one with five tattoos, notorious for getting into trouble but never getting caught. New Jersey, on the other hand, was the cousin who got good grades and never strayed too far from the rules, the plain Jane who — to put it frankly — was all but descending into overwhelming mediocrity.
Everyone here, I thought as I hauled my secondhand furniture up to my tiny apartment in downtown Manhattan, is chasing big dreams. This was the land where billionaires were established, where people hustled with undeniable grit, where companies were founded and went bankrupt, where present-day icons were born and raised. Immigrants arrived in New York with barely $50 dollars to their name and rewrote their histories with sweat and tears. People earned their place in the world with an unmatched fervor. To be arriving in a city entrenched with such stories of success, failure, human perseverance, and the beauty and horrors of existence, I felt a peculiar feeling settling into my chest, a sort of pressure that I was walking in the downtrodden footsteps of legends. That the footsteps that lay before my eyes greatly dwarfed my own. I doubted that I could ever fill them.
Here, surrounded on all sides by looming glass buildings and the sheer enormity one would expect to encounter from the most populous city in America, I began to see myself, and the city, with a fresh set of eyes.
I first became glaringly more aware of my insignificance as a lone entity. Even the seemingly convoluted subway networks made clear how interconnected everything in society truly is. How our species thrives from togetherness. Previously, I felt as though I was, essentially, subjecting myself to becoming nothing but one of many cogs in America’s well-oiled, efficient yet merciless machine of capitalism by choosing to work in the city. However I now viewed things differently; I felt as though I were part of a living, breathing system, with interdependencies and connections interwoven throughout. Everyone wants to be part of something greater than themselves, I thought, and being present in a city felt like I was playing a role in the Movie of Life — a small one but a role nonetheless.
I also became accustomed to the realer side of the city, the side that the camera reels fail to capture when they romanticize being young in New York. Reeking smoke that leaves your nose and throat feeling charred (only a slight exaggeration). Streets lined with questionable litter and trash bags. Across the street from multi-million dollar corporations lay homeless men in sleeping bags.
The fact that the city can house both billionaires and the homeless still boggles my mind: it serves as a constant reminder that nothing is as pretty as it seems when viewed in close proximity. The glitz and glam of big city life overshadows a much darker, grimmer reality — one that many people would rather ignore than face. As much as I hate to admit it, I too am guilty of this.
As I walk past the 9/11 memorial every day to return home to my apartment, I am forced to reckon with the city’s past, one rife with pain and loss. In a place where human potential seems to be limitless, I am equally reminded of humanity’s potential for evil, the scars of past atrocities that haunt the streets I walk upon.
Coming to terms with the city’s brokenness, I felt one step closer to becoming a true resident, being able to not only take pride in all of its beauty but also own up to its shortcomings and various hurts. I hope in the future I can shoulder more of the weight that drags it down.
Despite all of this, I am still in love with being here, present and alive in the city of dreams and smoke and pain and hope. I have so much left to learn about its hidden, subtle treasures that you only see as an insider. A few days ago, I found myself in Bryant Park, about to call a friend when suddenly, a looming storm began to unravel before my eyes. Within minutes, the sky had darkened to an ominous shade of gray, and flashes of lightning sporadically rippled across the charcoal-colored clouds, threatening to unleash an outpour of rain. What stopped me dead in my tracks, however, was the way the booming thunder echoed throughout the city, reverberating within every street and commanding attention from every witness. It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as though the very city itself was being shaken at its core, a rumbling beast slowly awakening within it. I watched and listened to this spectacle in fear, in wonder, but most of all, in awe. In that moment, it seemed as if nature and this man-made city were not at odds; rather, they were one unified body. As the thunder coursed through the city and made its way into my ears, I smiled.
I was home.