Coming to terms with this city.
By Will Lyman
“Bartender Fully Licensed to Dispense Advice” reads the gold-framed sign that dangles above pour tops of Iwai whiskey, malt bourbon, and a top-shelf gin with a crouching monkey on the label. I started bartending at a restaurant near campus in May, serving jobless college students, locals on their work-from-home lunch breaks, and sometimes pouring mimosas on the weekends. It’s my favorite of the jobs I’ve ever had. But during the summer it entailed many slow, low-paying mornings. Bored and alone, I’d sit behind the counter and read. If I was lucky, a cyclist or a dog walker would come in to use our bathroom.
Summer in New York is a different monster. The city, as always, drowns you in proximity to others: millions of people milling on the sidewalks, walking past each other without a glance. The days are long, but they’re numbered. They bear the pressure of being the designated time for adventure, for relaxation, for productivity. The streets are swollen with interns clogging lines at Le Bain, gathering content for their photo dumps, and fangirling over rats. The visibility of everyone, everywhere, living their lives invites the worry that I was doing little in comparison. That I’d let the summer waste away. That I’d managed to feel neither rested nor caught up.
The first day the sign was installed in the bar, a man dressed in beige came in, read it aloud to me, sat down, and asked: “What advice do you got for me?” I probably spouted some run-of-the-mill self-help clichés: drink your water, don’t pay the subway fare, spend a couple minutes in the sun everyday. But my exact response remains foggy. He proceeded to freely recount the details of his life as I poured him pints of IPA. I learned quite a lot: He was 57. Bass player. He, like me, loved amaretto sours. He hated aperol spritzes. He’d lived in West Harlem for 12 years. And he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend Peggy.
It was the first of several similarly intimate conversations I had with customers over the weeks. I listened to them consider the weather, ConEd outages, and the complexities of their lives, all whilst I mixed them cocktails and plied them with spring rolls. I’d ask them about the city, their family, their likes and dislikes, and hear rants in return—about the smell of trash on the curb, about “Manhattanville,” rising rents, etc. I came to understand everyone’s sense of living in the aftermath—of having survived something. A man in an army-green crew neck got priced out of an apartment his family had lived in for 20 years. A woman named Sylvia lost her brother to AIDS, then her father-in-law to Covid. A bass player named Rick watched his bookings vanish during lockdown. Years spent in a brutal, ever-changing city.
“New York never promised you anything,” a friend once told me at the end of a similar rant—a melodramatic tale of never quite feeling settled here. And it occurred to me, thinking back on this moment, that this was the only wisdom I had to offer. It did nothing to resolve the woes of my customers, and even less to comfort them. I’ve seen that many of us—especially 20-something transplants—come to the city looking for something. We come here to Eat, Pray, Love our way into a sense of self. We come here in spite of what it is, with hopes of what we will become. We weather the storm—trash smells, high rents, broom-closet-sized bedrooms, rats dragging dollar slices down Broadway—because we think we’ll get something out of it, that the personal payoff (self-actualization, career opportunities, story-worthy memories with friends) will be worth the sacrifice. I hear it all the time: “You’re staying after graduation, right?” “I’ll stay three years after graduation then boot.” “I could afford a McMansion in Texas.” Because the pursuit of self in the 20s is all about this: working towards the point where you can leave, where you’ve done enough, seen enough. We acknowledge that we’re here for extraction—we suck the city dry and leave. We’re parasites.
The people I spoke to at the bar all shared one sentiment: that living here is overwhelmingly disappointing. It didn’t come as a shock, this admission, even though they told it to me with hushed voices, like a secret, shameful of their words. They’re lonely. They’re dissatisfied. Any feelings of estrangement are magnified, not soothed, by near-constant proximity to people; its perpetual evidence of what they lack. In prodding them about their lives, I stumbled upon dozens of love stories. Dozens of ones who got away. There was always someone. The lonelier their account, the more pride they took in talking about Sara. Lenora. Gabriel. Taylor. They all had hopes and dreams about New York, ones that existed through relationships that emerged, flourished, and eventually floundered in iconic landmarks like the steps of St. John the Divine, Battery Park, Sheep’s Meadow. The only times when they weren’t lonely were when they lived through another person. The city became Sara, Lenora, Gabriel, Tyler, and suddenly wasn’t isolating.
But these loves ended, the days went on, and the city became cruel again. “I spent a lonely few years writing love letters to her,” the man in beige said about Peggy. He never sent the letters. He explained, as I later brought up some grievance about the humidity, how the summer is brutal in all regards. New York becomes its purest self: It’s hot. It’s smelly. The throngs retreat to their more formative communities (home, the Hamptons), and only the lonely are left behind. Everyone else is off on an adventure, and so if you’re not, it’s crystal clear.
Hearing these stories from people much older than me did little to ease my dissatisfaction with New York, but still, I kept pushing for them. Secretly, I loved when people shared those most tender and tragic moments of their lives to me. I built a practice out of it—knowing exactly which movies and songs got people talking. I would always catch the dreamers with Wes Anderson. The lovers with Dolly Parton. The Truman Show was always a big hit with the existentialist types. Unsurprising, given the subject matter of the movie they spoke of: staged, hollow relationships, a search for life beyond.
Behind the bar, I re-read Severance by Ling Ma, where she waxes about the nature of living in New York, zombies, Whole Foods, nostalgia. She writes: “the first place you live alone, away from your family … is the first place you become a person, the first place you become yourself.” This has always been true of me. In many ways, I came to New York because I wanted to become myself. I felt as if that was something that could be done to me, externally, by living here. I was determined to be a New Yorker. I felt that there was glory in Times Square, in block-long lines for gay bars with predatory owners, in seeing rats on the street. I was invigorated by these things, because I wanted to be the person that survived. I wanted to be a hardened, independent, downtown gal. I could be what New York wanted me to be, what I could convince myself of by living here. If I could find myself in the most private rooms, with the most well-connected people, I would have achieved some grandeur that the city promises.
In a neighborhood like Morningside Heights, the numbers dwindle in the summer; the pulp of the community, the college students, all whisked home (or subletting in Brooklyn, cliff-diving in Barcelona, working at Starbucks in Indiana). I spent those months in Morningside Heights, living out the final three months of my lease on 111th Street. When I wasn’t at work, I wandered around the neighborhood lounging in the People’s Garden or getting Thai Market takeout. On these days, I’d pass through campus and watch as they replaced Low Steps. The concrete slabs piled on the lawns left me with a resounding feeling that this place, at this time, was not meant to be inhabited.
“New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.” Ling Ma wrote this; I read it while I emptied a can of tomato juice into a quart container to make bloody mary mix and I knew it to be true. I’d come here with some expectation of what it would be. I stole it from 2000s rom-coms about high-power executive women looking for love, hailing taxi cabs in the snow, eating slices of 99 cent pizza on the subway platform. When I posed the question “why New York?” to customers at the bar, business students cited the finance sector (Wall Street, midtown lunch stops at Sweetgreen), gay-looking people cited the art, the music, the community only a city can provide, dancers cited Juilliard, fashion students cited Sex and the City. It went on like this. Nobody comes here knowing who they are.
We come here because we’ve all seen, in some form, that the city is made for the type of person we want to be. The city is this absent agent onto which we project everything. Absent, because, of course, we’re here and we live it, breathe its air, eat at its restaurants, smoke in its parks—but it does not regard us. It doesn’t mold around us. “It’s eight different cities in one,” a customer in a New York Knicks hoodie explained. There are so many options—you have to identify with something. We’re all fighting to get to ourselves. We enter the city looking to be saved. Instead, we find ourselves in empty restaurants, looking for comfort from bartenders.
And at the end of every conversation, I’d get the same look. They’d all had the same expectation—that I’d have some words of wisdom to offer them, I’d have advice to dispense. In these moments, I’d return to myself and realize I had nothing to say. I’d stare at the half-empty bottles in the well to avoid eye contact. The best I had to offer: “This is a hard place to be by yourself.”
But this does not help. This doesn’t leave my customers better off than when they came in. As I spoke to these people, the very ones that seem so settled in New York, I came to recognize that they didn’t actually have what I lacked. They weren’t the external, fulfilled people I previously believed them to be. They couldn’t give me a road map. Rather, they showed me how universal all my woes are, that I was not unique for experiencing them, and thus, was not alone in it.
“New York, make me a part of you,” sang Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac over the Sonos speakers. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a part of something.