When I first moved to New York in December 2007, the crush of the city overwhelmed me. The smell of Chinese greens stewing followed me all six flights up to the tiny walk-up I shared with a surly hipster. My bedroom was so small that I couldn’t be in it and not on the (single) bed. Anyone long-legged had to sit sideways on the toilet or else their knees knocked against the wall. When the air was particularly heavy, I could hear the asthmatic hipster wheeze his discontent through the plasterboard divider, all night long. The chaos in the air made me neurotic and depressed, and New York in January is not a kind place. I wanted out immediately.
I had lived in cities before—London, Brussels, Miami—but human nature revealed itself more rawly in New York, the cold, cruel facets of it as well as, occasionally, the transcendent. What most affected me was the unrelenting crush of people living on top of each other. The Indian matron proudly astride her stool behind the register at the bodega on Houston, surrounded by condoms, cigarettes and disposable toothbrushes. The rich, sad and damaged ladies of the Upper East Side, so heavily made up they looked like porcelain dolls salvaged from a landfill. The delivery boys riding kamikaze, monstrous bike chains slung across their backs. These people, their textured, invisible lives.
I had come to New York because, like a million other people who move there with futile dreams, I wanted to be a writer. This was not working out for me. I got fired from the only writing job I got and nobody else wanted to publish me or even respond to my grasping, overwrought queries. When I did get gigs, they were puerile and superficial. I had moved to New York to write, and the only writing I was doing was teensy bits of dumb stuff I had to unattractively claw my way into.
Even though I knew tons of people in the city, making plans took a month’s notice—New York had turned them into people too busy to hang, self-obsessed, stressed. It was incredible that I could live in a city at once so dense and so lonely. I wondered more and more about the strangers I saw everywhere. How were their days going? What was going through their minds?