By Katherine Sharpe
When I graduated from college, I knew what I wanted so clearly that I even had a word for it, “community.” Though I couldn’t define the term precisely, I knew how it would feel: like a version of that warm and nebulous thing that had embraced us during college itself.
After graduation, my best friend Anna and I began meeting after work in a dark bar and grill off Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon. Our jobs—hers at a toy store; mine at the local paper, unpaid—struck us as all right, but limited. When we gathered in our sticky booth, what we talked about most often was a big move to a big city, someplace we could find people and activities as promising as we felt ourselves to be.
A few months later, I went home to Virginia to take an internship at a nonprofit organization’s member magazine. The job paid, and rent at my parents’ place was free, though I missed having people my own age to hang out with. Still, when Anna called to suggest, then demand, that we move to New York, what I felt at first was terror. The kind of community I yearned for was slow and warm, more small-town than metropolitan. But hadn’t we sat for hours at the bar, nursing drinks and saying things like “I think New York is the only place in the country where people go if they’re serious”? We had, and because I could not forget this, because I couldn’t not be serious, and because I found it difficult to impossible, at that time in my life, to say no to anyone, I agreed.
* * *
Anna was still on the West Coast, so finding an apartment fell to me. On a cold and blindingly sunny December morning, my mother drove me from our home in suburban Washington, DC, dropping me off in front of a small storefront bus station in DC’s Chinatown, where I bought a 12-dollar ticket and sailed into the unknown. On the bus I met a group of people a little older than me that included a speaker of fluent Chinese. At the other end, he led us to a tiny restaurant under the Manhattan Bridge and ordered wonton noodle soup for everyone. He showed me how to season the broth with plum vinegar and chili oil, how to ask for greens on top, how to make a cheap meal.
A friend from high school who had just started at NYU Law let me sleep on his tiny patch of dorm-room floor. In the morning, I rode the subway to Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighborhood so many people had asked Anna and me if we were moving to we’d decided we might as well.
The area struck me as confusing and ugly. Rows of attached houses with vinyl siding terminated in Italian bakeries filled with dry cookies in sickly hues. There was no skyline, and I couldn’t get my bearings. I started to walk anyway, and as I did the surroundings began to change, turning more industrial, more like the urban landscape I’d imagined and hoped for. Near Metropolitan Avenue, I noticed scruffy people only slightly older than I was trickling out of a scarred brick building the size of a city block. They were all heading the same direction, so I did too, until I popped out on Bedford Avenue and recognized I was home.
Over the next days, I met with a few real estate brokers. To hire a broker to rent an apartment seemed insane, but we’d been told it was what people did. I almost welcomed it—as a sign that New York was different from other places, that life here would be a life apart. The broker I ended up renting with wore a yarmulke, a full beard, and a black suit over a white shirt. He drove too fast, was nice to me in a brusque way, and refused to shake my hand. “It’s against my religion,” he explained. I quickly learned—it was impossible not to—that Williamsburg is divided into sections. North Williamsburg, in 2003, was becoming increasingly populated by artists and hipsters, while South Williamsburg, below Broadway, was home to a large Hasidic Jewish population. A subset of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidism is a mystical tradition that originated in Eastern Europe during the mid-18th century. Nearly destroyed in World War II, Hasidic sects began reviving after the war in several places in the United States, including the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park. (Chaim Potok’s bestselling 1967 novel The Chosen takes place in Hasidic Williamsburg.) Emphasizing piety, separatism, and extreme traditionalism, Hasidic communities are organized around rebbes who exercise charismatic authority over political and religious life. Hasidim speak Yiddish and send their children to religious schools. Gender roles are traditional and large families the norm.
After moving to Williamsburg, I got used to seeing ultra-Orthodox people on the street in their distinctive clothes. Men, young and old, in glossy black coats, long pants or black breeches with white knee-high stockings, and, in cold weather, cylindrical fur hats. Women in prim skirts, flat shoes, and pillbox hats. To satisfy a religious injunction that grown females not show their hair in public, most Hasidic women wear wigs. I used to walk the Williamsburg Bridge to Chinatown to buy cheap greens and oranges. Inevitably I’d pass a pair of Hasidic women walking side by side, chatting and pushing old-fashioned baby carriages. I got used to this milieu, but never overcame my fascination. Never had another group of people felt so physically close to me, but in all other regards so far away.
The broker showed me a few places before we agreed on one, a small loft in a former warehouse on Berry Street at South Fourth. It was a pink building whose first three floors had been converted to dwellings, and whose upper two still sat unfinished and empty, their dusty windows forlorn and dramatic from the street. Our place had a stove, refrigerator, sink, and bit of countertop in a strip near the door, and otherwise was just a white rectangle with one large column and a rutted wood floor. A row of factory windows provided a view of the Domino Sugar refinery and the north side of the Williamsburg Bridge. Rent was $1,500 a month, which Anna and I would split. It seemed like a lot, but this was New York.
To conclude our deal the broker drove me to his company’s offices, a few subway stops to the east. An unfinished space with immense ceilings and concrete floors, it reminded me more of the chilly, jumbled administrative area of an automotive service station than anything I would have called an office. I sat in a waiting chair and watched some Orthodox kids who were there, little girls in thick woolen tights and boys with side curls, laughing and tumbling over one another while my guy took a call and raked someone over the coals in what I guessed must be Yiddish, and I wrote out the largest check I’d ever written in my life. My jaw hurt, I felt a choking sensation, and I craved every comfort of childhood: hot soup, a hug. And then, just like that, I became a person who lived in a loft in Williamsburg.
* * *
How did people who weren’t in college get to know people? We didn’t see our neighbors much, though sometimes the woman whose apartment shared a wall with ours came to the door to let us know that our music, or the squeals of the perpetual slumber party in which we lived, had grown too loud. And once in a while, Anna called the super, a handsome man in his 20s who lived at the end of the hall, to unclog the toilet or get the stove to work again. And then there was that splendid Fourth of July when everyone, absolutely everyone—in the building, the borough, the world—turned up on our roof, along with a DJ, and a film crew that was rumored to be there from MTV, and we danced in worshipful frenzy all night while fireworks lit up the East River like the tracer rounds of a festive war.
We hired a “Man with a Van” to pick us up, along with some furniture, from an IKEA store in New Jersey, and Anna got his number. He was in a band and we went to see them. My dad visited, helped us frame out small bedroom enclosures in steel two-by-fours (fire code forbade loft-dwellers from building structures in wood), attach drywall, and hang hollow-core doors. The walls didn’t extend all the way to the ceiling, so our privacy was notional. Anna got a job as a marketing intern at a record label, and I got one at a coffee shop in Manhattan. Mine was meant to be temporary, since I hoped to be heading to graduate school in the fall.
Our path to and from the subway took us along Bedford Avenue, past the health food store and the bagel shop. Further up Bedford was McCarren Park, a green space where, on summer weekends, Spanish-speaking families barbecued in one corner, while the neighborhood hipsters postured in another. We often drank at a bar called the Turkey’s Nest, on a corner at the edge of the park. The place had nothing special about it. The turkey on the sign was cartoonish, in harvest browns and golds, the display font curly and uncool. It was just a bar, with a jukebox, a pool table, a couple of wall-mounted TVs. I liked the place, though, and I studied it carefully, the way I studied everything in those days. Everything was portentous, charged with meaning. Hieroglyphically inscribed with clues about New York, the world, my life.
I remember the bartenders. They were young and appeared to have grown up in the city, and possibly the neighborhood. They were cool in a way that did not scream attention to itself, unlike the coolness of the hipster culture that was to swallow the neighborhood whole over the next decade. If they announced any quality, it was the quality of being blasé, relaxed despite their proximity to so much (the towers of Manhattan glistened across the water; after dark, from blocks away, we could see them). It was a quality that we who had arrived on purpose could never quite achieve. No matter what kind of poise we’d later begin to affect, no matter how convincing it might become eventually, the fact remained that we had arrived in the city and the neighborhood precisely not to be relaxed, but rather stirred, by what was around us. In those days, we were searching desperately to be moved.
Sometimes at the Turkey’s Nest we spotted groups of young men in Hasidic dress. They’d be sitting casually on the tubular metal chairs at the bar, their pint glasses of beer streaming with condensation as they watched a televised sports game. I always wondered about them. Did their families know they were here, some dozen blocks north of the ultra-Orthodox part of the neighborhood? Were they married, or single? Was coming to a bar normal and no big deal, or was I witnessing a small act of rebellion? (A 2010 article in New York magazine quotes a Hasidic rebbe referring to the influx of hipsters—artist’n in Yiddish—into North Williamsburg as “a bitter decree from heaven.” Though this was 2003, and maybe things hadn’t gotten so fractious yet.) But we never would have tried to talk with them. Propriety seemed to forbid it, and I doubt they’d have wanted to talk to us, either.
Instead we sat by the baize of the pool table and talked about our own things: sex, books, shopping; the personalities of the people in our jobs and love lives, as if deciphering them would allow us to level up, to enter a new plane of existence that would be more complex and rewarding. Except we didn’t think about it that way, consciously. Talking about people’s personalities was its own reward: a game, perhaps, but not one with levels and winning. It was more like an unfolding map of the world, or a scratch-off lottery ticket as large as the city itself, one we were each constantly rubbing at with the dime of our existence, comparing what we’d uncovered. If we came to the city to be amazed, we had only the vaguest idea of by what.
* * *
Years went by. I moved away from the city for graduate school, missed it, decided I didn’t really want a PhD, came back, lived in other neighborhoods, got a job “in publishing.” But I never lost interest in New York as such. That’s not unusual: for a lot of New Yorkers, I found, their relationship with the city itself is one of the primary relationships in their lives. In a way, I thought about New York even more—though with increasingly more alarm—as I became aware that the fact of living there was putting me on a different track from people I’d known in other places, people who were settling down, in every sense, in ways my city friends weren’t, and couldn’t.
The Hasidic men drinking in the bar eventually became a footnote, a detail in the kinds of stories I would tell to friends from the outside world, to whom I felt a need, I suppose, to justify my existence. My life is exotic; it’s something you can’t possibly understand. My New York friends and I would tell each other these little stories, too, over the years, as if we were also trying to justify ourselves to ourselves, or consciously to remind ourselves that we were in a special place, an exceptional place: I got trapped in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. It’s a bar in Red Hook that’s only open on Thursdays. I got off at Bryant Park and I forgot it was fucking Fashion Week. I’m hungry for something, like you know, maybe a black-and-white cookie? Can you believe my boss tried to bargain with a guy who was selling bananas on the street? Can you believe the G train is running in sections?
We had to reference the things that were different here, almost compulsively, it seemed: the way the hawkers selling umbrellas appear in force about five seconds after the beginning of any given rain shower. The word “bodega.” Instances of partying on roofs. The way that when you visit other cities, everything is so inexpensive, and the bathroom sinks in restaurants seem so large. How the city has a force field that makes it hard to leave, even for a weekend. The way that some people you knew in college changed, when they came to the city, so that you began to feel you didn’t know them anymore, and then to wonder petulantly whether you ever had.
We dwelt on the differences, the “only in New York”s—a phrase Anna and I used to turn to each other and scream at the top of our lungs during our first months in the city, satirically but also not. We grasped at these moments as if they held the answer. Why did we feel the need so urgently for an answer? What was the question? Our efforts to derive one went nowhere, but the details piled up: The way people here do their hobbies like they’re jobs. The way they identify with their jobs so completely, in a way you don’t even notice, really, until you go to visit friends in Portland or San Francisco. The self-conscious contempt New Yorkers carry for any change to the city that occurred after their arrival. The sexual etiquette of railroad apartments. How it costs 20 bucks just to leave the house. How we don’t get married in New York, we don’t get married, and we don’t have kids. Who can have kids? I’m too busy riding the F train to the last stop, with this black-and-white cookie, to buy special cat food, because I’m out of the cat food my cat needs, and the place that delivers it is closed.
* * *
When I finally left New York, I left it in stages. First there were the years of simply telling people I was going to leave. I’d roll my eyes and toss my head and say, “I was raised in a house,” as if that explained everything. “I’d like to raise my children in a house”—never mind that I didn’t have any children, or even an especially promising boyfriend—“and own one someday, and that’s just not going to happen for me here.” But it wasn’t really about money, though, or housing, though they both were considerations. It was about something deeper and harder to define, something I surely couldn’t put into words for myself then, or wouldn’t have cared to; a feeling of failure, perhaps, to achieve the dream that had ushered me into the city. Or a preemptive fear that I would fail. Like a not especially promising boyfriend, New York City had lavished me with many flirtatious, loving touches, without ever making me feel that I really belonged. Maybe my best move was to leave while I still had a hope of eventually belonging someplace else.
I still remember the hit of pleasure I got at my cousin’s wedding in the Berkshires one year, where my uncle’s girlfriend, who was studying toward a master’s degree in counseling psychology, gazed at me with her lambent therapist’s eyes and said, “You don’t seem like a New York City kind of person.” I felt that she had given me a blessing, that she had truly seen me. At that point, I didn’t want to be a New York kind of person. I dreamed of getting out, somehow, intact.
Even so, I crept out bit by bit. In 2012, when I went to try out California, I hired a storage company whose tempting offer was this: they would move your items to their facility for free. I called Moishe’s Storage and described my belongings to a representative: bed, sofa, table, dresser, and chairs; boxes of kitchen items and books; boxes of clothing and shoes; green velveteen armchair from St. George’s Thrift Shop off Gramercy Park. A cowhide rug. An ironing board. Two of those fluffy dusters on sticks that you impulse-buy at IKEA, thinking you will use them. A black two-drawer lateral file cabinet brought home in a Zipcar—bought filthy, for 25 dollars, off a greying male artist who’d had the good sense to move to Park Slope 30 years ago and stay there.
By this time, I had squeezed my way out of a magazine job that made me miserable, and landed a deal to write a nonfiction book, a version of a project I’d wanted to complete for years. The contract represented a huge pay cut, but also freedom and artistic glory, and I signed on with gratitude. But during the year of composition, the year I was 31, something went wrong. While writing it, I succumbed to a kind of insanity. I fretted anxiously about the book, whether it was any good, and dealt with the anxiety by adopting a punishing work schedule. I lost my appetite, lost 15 pounds that left me looking gaunt and skeletal. Shortly after signing the book deal I had moved into a place of my own, where I could afford it, in a sleepy family neighborhood in Queens. My own place in New York was supposed to be a milestone, but instead, loosed from my office job, the day-in, day-out aloneness proved too much for me. I had broken up with a boyfriend before moving, and the landscape of my friendships was changing, too; some good friends had left the city, while the ones I still saw were increasingly involved in their own adult lives. I cried on the subway, and started to believe there was something wrong with my circulation. For a while, I felt less like a person than an angsty ghost. By the time the writing was over, I just wanted to get the hell out.
A couple days after that first call, a Moishe’s representative showed up at my house. He was a middle-aged, solidly built man who perched on the edge of my blue couch and filled out a manifest, assuring me he was pretty sure my things could all fit into a 10-by-12-foot room, for a fee of $239 a month. Never mind that $239 is nearly rent itself, some places. I wanted that stuff gone—actually, not gone, but in the precise kind of limbo that a storage unit offers. So they would be out of sight but not destroyed, giving me the freedom to explore California, and a guy I’d met who lived there, and also a plausible alibi of still living in the city, the illusion that I hadn’t necessarily left. A way not to make a choice, or to conceal from myself that I was making one.
So a couple weeks later, Moishe’s took my things. A crew of four men came and swathed my possessions in plastic wrap, as if they were leftovers destined for a fridge. These men—Moishe’s avatars—took my stuff away to a facility in Long Island City and gave me a long pink receipt in place of it. I left the apartment with the battered parquet floors and the view of an inaccessible concrete courtyard. I went to Virginia, and then I went to California, not confidently, but tentatively, as if I’d fallen a great distance and was surprised to find myself still alive. In California, I ate vegetables of every color, stopped wearing makeup, swam and bicycled until I was strong again, then stronger than I’d ever been.
When paying Moishe wore thin, I went back. The book I had written had just come out. I didn’t know what I wanted, but returning to the city didn’t seem like it, and my parents could hold my stuff for free if I could get it to them. My boyfriend and I rented a truck, the only available truck that day being in New Jersey. After a long subway and PATH ride, and a walk, we drove the U-Haul through the Lincoln Tunnel, and across midtown in gridlock. On 42ndStreet I jumped down from the cab and ran to make an appointment at the Wall Street Journal offices on Sixth Avenue. I had written the Sunday essay, and there, with two urbane weekend editors, I taped a short video expanding on the essay and on the subject of my book. I changed shirts and fixed my hair in the Wall Street Journal bathroom, and in the video I look surprisingly fresh-faced. I felt the pleasure of momentum, like a monkey swinging through the trees.
Afterward, I rode the 7 train to Long Island City. The sun was already low in the sky. My boyfriend was up in my storage room, a place I’d never seen before. I ruined a fiberboard dresser by dropping it on its side, but the rest of the things we moved down slowly to our rented truck, on a wheeled pallet that cornered badly.
We filled the truck. Finally, I took the keys to the room and my pink manifest to the office to have someone sign off on it. He had a warm Central American complexion and I think he smiled at me, the sweet smile that a sort-of-young woman gets when she’s seen out doing something domestic with a man, something that makes her a little sweaty and a little disheveled, something that hints at the logistical absurdity of building a life. We signed off together—and of Moishe’s, and New York itself, I was free.
* * *
Who was right: Anna or me? Was New York the place that people of our talent and ambition simply had to be, or was it Moloch, a place so hard-edged and fast moving, so fundamentally lonesome that a person like me could never find comfort there?
Sometimes I have a hard time squaring how much I loved the city, how euphoric it made me, with how thoroughly I came to vilify the place: it was a structural failing of New York’s, somehow, that I hadn’t met the love of my life there, or that a series of apartments, some lovely, never snowballed into a permanent sense of home. Surely if I’d mastered my worry and stayed, I think now, I could have found everything I needed to live.
But I did leave, and for a while afterward I wished I could have gone back and done it all differently: started my life in a smaller, easier city, somewhere I could have really dug in. Yet if I’d done that, I never would have known New York, and that too seemed intolerable.
What gets me out of this bind is acknowledging that I did find community in New York. When I worked at a science magazine, I found it among the young reporters and science writers I came to know; all these years later I still regularly spot the bylines of people whose paths crossed mine. I felt the kinship of specialized activity, both in a field of work, and in living in the city itself: thousands of other eyes partook in the scenes I consumed daily, in the subway, the neighborhood, the city’s public spaces. And there were close friendships as well, and romances, plenty, even if they skewed more to the ridiculous than the sublime.
If these bonds were less tight-knit, unified, or nourishing than I’d once hoped for, I can name two reasons why. First, as much as I longed for stability, I feared entrapment so much as to make permanence hard to achieve. Part of New York’s thrill was in its perpetual alternating current of intimacy and anonymity: the very lonesomeness of the city is probably part of why the place worked for me for so long. Second, I may have simply overestimated and romanticized what “community” can mean. At 21, I’d envisioned something like living in a commune and being best friends with everyone forever. But that’s not what most modern people actually choose. And what I realized after a handful of years in New York—that my best friends would not be my family, or would not continue to do so past my 20s and into the rest of my life—was something I likely would have realized anywhere. Like it or not, most of us pin our hopes for belonging on more ordinary, portable things: a nuclear family, a career, old friends you can call whenever.
That’s not to say I don’t still fantasize about a different kind of belonging: something deep and ironclad, a world where people live in extended family groups and don’t leave home. When I remember my time in Williamsburg, I think that the Hasidic community fascinated me because it was exotic, but also because it appeared to model this type of belonging, which was so closed to me, but which I imagined would feel so good. If I failed to find “community” in New York, perhaps it’s because I didn’t grasp that I could not have both, that I could not be modern and educated and forge my own path, while at the same time feeling held by something vast and ancient, beyond my own choosing. The former was open to me, and it was possible for it to include deep friendships, meaningful associations, passionate loves. The latter was never possible, from the moment I was born into my secular humanist atheist family, nor would I probably even choose it, knowing it would preclude so much of what I’ve known of life. But I yearned then, and still do, to know what it must feel like.
A memory returns from my first New York year, when I was still in Williamsburg. When it was all still new and vivid to me, as if the city were something I was injecting daily into my veins. There was a Friday night that began on somebody’s rooftop in the East Village and ended, by surprise, at an all-night rave in DUMBO, Brooklyn. A bunch of us together, though I forget exactly who. As the dancing subsided, a beautiful, wiry boy we didn’t know, a pint-sized Jim Morrison, ran up and kissed each of the five or six of us on the lips. He handed us a flier inviting us to an after-party at his place nearby. We went, and sat around, and danced a little, tiredly, in a cavernous loft packed with props for a Burning Man camp. Afterward, standing on the sidewalk outside the building where the party had been, I was overtaken by a pang of bitterness and loneliness so stealthy and quick-moving it almost choked me. There was Anna, calling a livery cab, with her arms loosely twined around a boy from our college we both had a crush on; she was taking him back to our apartment, to do the predictable. When the cab pulled up a minute later, the two of them tumbled into the backseat and waved for me to join.
“No,” I said, impulsively. “I’m going to walk.” It was five or five-thirty in the morning, the sky the color of an exquisite dark ink. Williamsburg was miles away, generally to the north. I had a sense that if I kept the East River and its industrial tangle on my left-hand side, I’d be O.K.
“What do you mean?” said Anna. I was punishing her, and them, yes, but I also suddenly, sincerely wanted to walk the length of Brooklyn, all the way home. She gaped, I gaped; I shut the door of the Town Car between us, with a meaty click. There was nothing she could do.
I walked, with the Navy Yard on my left, as the sky progressed through shades of cornflower and robin’s-egg. No one bothered me. My anger burned off and I marveled at the place where I was. Eventually the industrial surroundings became residential again. I passed row houses with bars on their lower windows that bowed out to accommodate A/C units. It had, somehow, become daytime. It was Saturday morning in Williamsburg. Men, thin and sturdy, walked in crisp white shirts and glossy black coats, though the warmth of the air portended a hot day. Accompanying them were women in below-the-knee skirts, wearing wigs of blond and brown under pillbox hats, and children with curls and yarmulkes, walking to morning service. Only then did I see myself as I must have looked, a young woman, pasty and underdressed, hair sweaty and matted down, not belonging here, or anywhere, at this hour of the morning. I felt self-conscious of all my exposed flesh, and though there was nothing I could do to hide, I cast my eyes down, and tried to walk in such a way as to call no more attention to myself than was already inevitable. To walk in a way that said I meant no harm or disrespect, that I was just a stranger, slightly off-course, passing through.