What Are Some Ugly Truths About Living In New York City?

Note: I was originally asked this question by someone on Quora, a Q&A website.  

You get a bit jaded.

I think the same rings true for people living in other big cities, but it’s certainly a trend in New York.

When I first moved here, I would answer questions asked by strangers on the sidewalk, talk to people on the subway, give out money to the homeless, and even be excited by the street performers!

Now, if I see one more freaking mariachi band board the N train, or experience another “showtime showtime” dance performance, etc., I feel like my brain might explode. (Note: I still love the guy with the saxophone in Grand Central.)

I wear headphones more frequently. I watch when people are walking close behind me on the street. I carry mace. If someone approaches me, my first reaction is often, “don’t engage!”

I’ve been sexually assaulted on a walk home, and grabbed by strangers on the subway. I’ve been deceived, hurt, and scared while wondering the streets of this city over the last eight years. I’ve also met incredible people in the back of a cab, and chatted with a stranger at a bar until two in the morning.

So there is a constant inner battle: be the polite and whimsical me, or be the fierce and independent me who has learned to have a good scowl when needed.

But I think the ugly truth is…
All of the above doesn’t change my love for New York City in the slightest.


Park Slope, Brooklyn

Park Slope, Brooklyn

Tips for Traveling to New York

  • When I travel, I love getting a Lonely Planet guide book. The New York edition has information about the top spots to visit, places to eat in each neighborhood, and have opening/closing times for big attractions. It’s helpful, especially if you don’t have internet!

  • Consider getting a SIM card if you’re traveling from another country. I always prefer having Google Maps at my finger tips. Note: Read all of the fine print to make sure your phone is compatible.

  • See the view from the Empire State Building, visit NBC Studios, and watch a Broadway show. But make sure you get out of midtown and experience Lower Manhattan—or the boroughs!

What Was Your Biggest Culture Shock Visiting New York City?

Note: I was originally asked this question by someone on Quora, a Q&A website.  

I came to NYC seven years ago and never left. But I moved here from the South, which is a very different part of the United States—so, believe me, I was shocked 100x over. Here are some of the basics that threw me for a loop.

1. You don't ever hang out in Times Square. You see it in movies, pictures, and read about this iconic neighborhood in books. But in reality, unless you work there or frequent Broadway once a week, you will not spend anytime in this (very crowded) area. I don't know why, but I just assumed Times Square was the social hub of NYC. Wrong. When you're visiting, go downtown!

2. There's a reason no one smiles on the subway. I used to think, "These people look miserable. Why don't they ever smile?" It took me about 2 months to get the vibe. In the South, we greet everyone. You wave at neighbors when you drive by, or make conversation at the grocery store. But here? There's just too much. Too many signs, messages, noises—if you interact with every person you come across, you become overwhelmed. Mentally exhausted. This isn't an excuse to be rude, but it explains the blank stares and headphones on the subway. Everyone just needs a minute to themselves.

3. Bodega is not a word in Virginia. I never heard it until I moved here. Now, it is a life source.

4. Mom and pop shops/restaurants still reign supreme. This may be true for many cities, but if you're a child of the suburbs? This is news to you! When I go home now, I get panicky when we roll into Applebee's. That said, occasionally your errands can take forever in the city. To the Polish bakery, to the laundromat, to the organic juice guy, to Urban Outfitters, to the hardware store. There are not very many malls or "one stop shops."

5. Some buildings need a revamp. The grittiness of the city has never bothered me. I suppose I just expected it. But I'm always shocked at how outdated Port Authority and Penn Station are—WTF? 1970s NYC is alive and well!

6. There are many homeless and mentally ill people sleeping on the streets. Old men, families, and a slew of teens. It's totally heartbreaking and becomes such a common sight that you forget it's actually a huge problem.

7. This city moves fast. Everyone is going somewhere, everyone is fighting to be here, and everyone is walking 100 miles an hour, especially during the commute. I also walk an average of 5 miles a day—so if you're visiting, be prepared. Bring good walking shoes! (I’ve worn these tennis shoes, these nice boots, and these rain boots for years.)

8. You still need green space. This one surprised me, but my love for nature has actually increased while living in the city. Take an afternoon to go to Central Park or Prospect Park. Enjoy a booze cruise on the water. And, most importantly, you need to leave the city at least once a month. You'll come back refreshed, and in better shape to take over the world. Promise.

Local's guide to New york city - nyc culture shock

Have a question about living in or visiting NYC? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

New York City Tip #1: Become a Regular Somewhere

The best time to experience the gentle side of Lower Manhattan is most certainly on a Monday afternoon.

While you walk east or west along the quiet streets of the Villages, you will notice a leisurely communal pace. On 7th Street, the hat shop owner is chatting with the barber on her front stoop. The usual European suspects hang outside of an Italian restaurant, smoking, laughing.  An old Ukrainian store, that’s only open till 4 p.m., is at its busiest hour: The matriarch of the business can barely stand up, but she knows each customer by name and greets them in her native tongue. They all buy mason jars of honey from upstate.

This is New York.

But observe these rituals closely because they are a privilege to witness. Students are at school, commuters have made it to their destinations, and the nine-to-five toil has commenced. Our streets are calm; take it in.

Weekdays out of the office often remind me of the year I spent in retail. Saturdays were slammed with patrons coming from or headed to brunch—everything revolves around brunch—and two consecutive days off was an out-of-the-question request. So I began to cherish my random afternoons, spent at a bagel place off the 30th Ave subway stop in Queens.

“How’s your mo-ther,” a man with an Italian accent asked me. I was paying for an everything bagel the size of my face, drenched in bacon n’ chive cream cheese. It was my third week living in New York, and every time I walked into this busy breakfast restaurant, Anthony asked me the same thing.

Why? Because my mother has a way with people.

During my second week living in New York, Toney and Bob decided to drive up from Virginia. Before their arrival, my room consisted of six garbage bags full of unfolded clothes and a sleeping bag that I'd slept on top of because it was so damn hot. But not anymore! The parents were here with my bed, an AC unit, and tons of questions.

“Is it safe?” Mom wanted to know.
“How far away is your school?”
“Do you like your neighborhood?”

What they were really asking was...

To reassure my excited/terrified parents, I took them to a “hand-rolled, water-boiled” bagel shop my roommate had suggested. Alas, we walked in and were immediately accosted by an unfamiliar world.

“Toasted, scooped, with lox!”
“Just a nosh. Mini bagel today, thanks.”
“Whole-grain everything with Nova!”
Whip, whoosh, crinkle.

The three of us silently took in the situation with wide, worrisome eyes. Workers behind the counter were barking out orders, moving golden disks of bread through a well-established assembly line of toasters and cream cheese.  

I decided to try my best.
“Uh, I’ll do an everything bagel, with sun dried tomato.
Er… uh, toasted?”
Whip, whoosh, crinkle. 

Embarrassingly enough, I realized my parents and I had all placed the exact same order in equally mystified tones.
Whip, whoosh, crinkle.

“Ah hello, miss. To stay or to go?” the manager asked my mother. He seemed to take his time with us, perhaps because we were three unfamiliar, slightly anxious faces.

I’m not entirely sure what happened next, but I do know my mother tends to talk incessantly when she’s nervous. Maybe it was because I was moving to New York, or perhaps she was stressed from the long, migraine-inducing car trip. Whatever the reason, this is what I heard from across the room:

“Ma BABY is moving to New Yaaark, Anthony!” The man starts laughing, and Mom motions for me to come back to the counter. “We’re from Virginia! But Astoria seems nice. Britney, come back over here!”

I roll my eyes, like an angsty 14-year-old. My mother could make friends with a parked car.

“She’s ma OLDEST,” Mom says leaning across the counter, Southern accent and all. The line has died down so there’s no one directly behind her. Meanwhile, an internal panic has caused my legs to awkwardly move toward the conversation, but paralyzed my face in a fretful expression. (I’m sure I looked something like this pug being pushed down a slide.)

“Now, you watch ova her,” Mom said, pointing a finger at Anthony.

And by golly, that Bagel Man watched over me until he was hired at a different franchise. He would ask about my mother, about school, and friends. One time, he even scolded me for wearing high heels. “What would you mo-ther say!? It attracts atten-tion.”

But some days Anthony was the only person I would talk to before 5 p.m. Like many who have uprooted to this city, I knew not a soul upon my quixotic arrival. And when you live in a sea of aspiring, ambitious go-getters, you must learn to enjoy those peaceful Monday afternoons—sometimes by yourself, with just the company of the city and its characters.

I’ll admit it. My mother was on to something.

Smile at neighbors
Know your Super.
Be “a regular” somewhere.
And revel in the quirks of our home.

It will make you feel human, especially when you’re alone. 

Many among the regulars of a third place are like Emerson’s “commended stranger” who represents humanity anew, who offers a new mirror in which to view ourselves, and who thus breathes life into our conversation.
— Ray Oldenburg

10 Things I Wish I'd Know Before Moving to New York City

When I moved to New York City in the summer of 2010, there were a great many things I didn’t know about the world, like the expression “served up” or the benefits of renter’s insurance. I was fresh from college and a novice to anything remotely “adult,” ranging from high society social faux pas to basic financial awareness.

It was lucky—I suppose—that when my feet first touched this city’s bustling pavement, I landed in the safe arms of Astoria, Queens. This neighborhood held no pretention, full of old Mediterranean immigrants, middle-aged Latino families, and pockets of fresh-faced actors. Astoria was one of those places with a working blue-collar community that seemed satisfied belonging to the ever-shrinking middle class. It was custom to see the wives of firefighters shopping at the butcher’s, young nurses exiting the train, and plumbing trucks parked along the sidewalk.

My neighbor was an old Greek man who had lived in the same home since first arriving in New York. He would always ask about my roommate, Anna, or offer up grapes from his garden. Down the street from him was a loony clown with a terrifying, colorful van full of props and dead-eyed dolls. He had a yippy dog that followed him everywhere, and cameras posted outside of his apartment. (He was easily the most unsettling part of my four-year stay in Astoria.)

My landlords were an Italian couple, she a New York native and he an Italian immigrant who barely spoke English. Her northern accent was unbelievable to my delicate southern ears—she sounded like the caricature of a mobster’s wife—but Laura was kind and protective of our little home. Two of their grown children lived in my three-story walkup, a quiet building located about 15 minutes from the N train’s 30th Avenue stop.

You learn quickly when you are far from the comforts of normalcy. I would also argue that living in any large city considerably speeds up the process of finding your bearings.  You sink or you swim. You “make it”—or you don’t.

All of this to say, throughout the next several months I plan to write about the 10 things I wish I’d know before moving to the tiny universe that is New York City. 

I found this (ridiculous) video when I was cleaning out my computer, and it inspired this series. There are so many things I wish someone would have told me—but then again, maybe that would have ruined the story. 

The First Interview

“So you’re from Virginia and you’re moving to New York for grad school.”

The blonde HR representative smiled across the desk at me. He was thin, and wore a well-tailored black suit with no tie. His office smelled a bit like mold, but it was kept cool despite the suffocating heat that had enveloped New York City in the summer of 2010. 

“Yes, I’m headed to Pace University to get my Masters in publishing,” I said with my best interview smile. I looked him directly in the eye, like he was the only person in the universe I had any interest in.

Which, at the time, wasn’t far from the truth. I needed to scoop up a job (any job) as quickly as possible. School was starting in a month, and I’d yet to secure a place to live or any form of income. This is why I sat in the basement of Bloomingdale's, applying for a part-time sales position at $12 an hour—after graduating with honors from college.

The past two months had been a humbling experience, to say the least. I’d quickly learned that if you hoped to work in the editorial field, you needed connections. While this realization reaffirmed my decision to dish out thousands for grad school, it also crushed my idealistic hopes of immediately beginning my career as the ever-coveted “writer type.”

Basically, I was no special snowflake.


“So tell me about your work experience,” Ned smiled.

“Well…” I told him I was a leader, but a team player. I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I respected my managers, and did he need a reference? I could communicate, I loved people, and I understood the customer was always right even when they were oh-so wrong. Couldn’t he see? I was MEANT to work at Bloomingdales!

Apparently I’d passed the first test. Two more executives wanted to “chat,” if I still had time. “Absolutely,” I smiled, silently praying that no one would ask me in-depth questions about fashion.

“Huh. So you live in Newark, New Jersey?” the last (and most intimidating) of my interviewers asked.

“Live” is a word that depends on how you define it.
“Yes,” I smiled. If you count “living” as crashing in a friend’s closet near a church in the projects—then yes. I lived in Newark.

“How is it…?” she asked with some hesitance.
“Great!” I replied enthusiastically.  

If you count “great” as sleeping on the roof of an apartment when the AC blows out, or needing to be home before dark because it’s moderately dangerous for a girl to walk around past 9PM—then yes. It was great.

“They have excellent Brazilian barbecue,” I added for legitimacy.

The truth was, I had no intention of staying in New Jersey for long, but I didn’t want to appear unsettled. Salesgirls in New York City are a dime a dozen, so why give HR a chance to worry? 

(They also didn’t need to know that, just to get to this interview, I’d taken the midnight Chinatown bus by way of Virginia, and walked from Canal Street to 34th Street with my luggage at 6:45AM. Because I couldn’t find the right subway. Or a map.) 

The other truth: I had no intention of working at Bloomingdale's for long. This was a pit stop; a job I would probably grow to hate, and eventually run from the second I had the opportunity to do so.

But every New Yorker needs a job they take, only to make rent. And every college graduate needs to discover life is hard, and getting what you want is even more difficult. I was in the midst of this realization so I unabashedly continued to fake an optimistic smile.

“Can you start Monday?” she asked. 
“Of course,” I replied with practiced nonchalance.  

I had three days. Three days to go back to Virginia, pack my things, find an apartment, and move to New York. Many people had made this same jump before, so I took confidence in the city's collective story.  

Walking out of Bloomingdale's into the afternoon sun, I felt genuine thrill.
What a frantic adventure this life would be. 

The above picture was snapped at The Raccoon Lodge the day I'd gotten  a job offer. (My feet are, to this day, terrified of wearing heels in the city, thanks to this rookie "night on the town."

Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
— Soren Kierkegaard