My first bite of the Big Apple

Arriving in New York felt a lot like going back to sleep after hitting the snooze button. It was a return to a dreamscape I’ve seen before; in movies and photographs. I’ve heard about it in songs, and I’ve read about it in novels. The landmarks have the same familiar sense as the things I’d see riding my bike around at home, and at the same time, they have the power to knock the wind out of you.


Our first day included a visit to Times Square, a quick glimpse at the Empire State Building, and a stroll through Central Park. We walked past the I *Heart* NY Store, and while souvenirs scream from every shop window and billboard, I’m surprised by the relatively small amount I’ve bought a week later, not because of any concerted effort, but because just being in New York feels like enough. It’s like I’ve broken off a little piece of golden age Americana, that I’ll be able to carry home with me, something I can shove in my pocket and tote around from this moment forth, like a lucky rabbit’s foot.


A major slice of my first big apple experience included time at the New School, where I spent a week at a publishing intensive. By Friday, when the course ended at the offices of Simon and Schuster, my head felt like a helium balloon, pumped and stretched to the brink. Rubber and bone aren’t all that different, one gets pumped with gas, the other with ideas.


My most tangible takeaway (my boss would be thrilled to hear me use those words) was that we are living through a crucial moment for books, readers, writers, and the industry. Normally, I would define this as a watershed moment, but in this instance, I’ll say it’s more like a subway transfer. Uptown, downtown, crosstown, it’s a divergence of numbered and lettered lines that weave a rainbow worthy of the Pride Parade (an event I was caught up in as I wandered Manhattan on my first day). For the industry, that divergence represents a change, wherein the small presses and major publishers face an evolving landscape defined by their readership and the world of e-commerce. While some say the industry is compounding (and others say its dying) the consensus from my week in New York seems to be that it’s actually an exciting time to be a publisher, there are new technologies, ideas, business models, and of course, writers. As one of the writers hoping to make it in that industry, it was interesting to hear from the people who spend their time balancing the other side of the equation. I think that writers are now at a similar interchange, where there exists a multitude of new pathways to publication. While writing a bestseller and getting it out into the world may take leaps and bounds, there are more ways than ever to get your work in front of readers.


What remained consistent, was the need for the writer to build some kind of community, in part I suppose that’s what this blog is about, to get some of my thoughts out there in a way that is new to me, to try to connect with others. New York was the perfect place to learn that lesson; it makes you feel bigger. It makes you feel like you’re a ‘part of it’.


I am enamored with New York. It is a city with a rich and celebrated history, vibrant, and well documented. Its story competes with the metropolises of the ancient world, but for as much as it has captured me, I can see that life is tough here. While it may be the land of opportunity for creatives, artists and entrepreneurs, it is also a place of great disparity.  Riding the subway from the Met, a man with HIV is begging for change. Another man on another ride threatens and rails against his oppressors and the disadvantage he has felt his whole life, a pregnant woman sleeps on the curb outside a Broadway playhouse, and even the New Yorkers who swear madly that they would never live anywhere else work three jobs, six (or seven) days a week, and while the publishing houses, jazz clubs, and even the lights of Times Square have an appeal that draws you in, there’s a certain fear that you might be on your way to a neon bug zapper. While I was studying, Cheree – who has explored enough now to feel well on the way to being a New Yorker – was told by one of her tour guides that ‘to make it in New York, you have to be exceptional’. If success is exceptional in this case, what does that mean for the norm?


My friend Will moved here from Melbourne six months ago. We were lucky enough to catch he and his partner on that first day after the Pride Parade, when they took us through a walk (on already blistered feet) through Central Park.


‘I think everyone that lives in New York has a love-hate relationship with it,’ he said. ‘I miss how easy things were at home, just think about things like grocery shopping here, lugging all your bags on the subway, and in winter you’re doing that in -15 degrees. And everything is so expensive!’


Maybe he has a point. I scoffed a little when I heard that from him – we were walking towards the upper east side and I was reflecting on just what the word ‘Skyscraper’ really means at the time, but a little more than a week later I can see where he was coming from. The days here have been thrilling, but once again I realise that I’m enjoying them from that rare position of traveler’s privilege. I don’t have to work, I’m seeking out fun, and I’m not worried about any of the day-to-day things that fill my life at home. The idea of shopping for groceries is far from my list of priorities at the moment.


Still, at the end of each day, I have been tired, worn out in a way I rarely feel in Melbourne. I could put this down to the twenty thousand steps a day spent wandering, or the constant buzz of excitement, but I don’t know if that’s completely true. The grind is constant here; and while the way the machine keeps ticking along has a kind of beauty to it, if you don’t fit into that mechanism there are problems. One New Yorker in my publishing class actually uttered the phrase ‘I want to be a gear’ when discussing her employment prospects. Suddenly those New York, New York, lyrics have a whole new level. It rings true on ‘making it’, but what does being ‘a part of it’ mean? Is that being exceptional, or being fuel?


We found this sculpture in Brooklyn, on a mid-blog burger run. It’s a piece by an artist named Tom Otterness, who was commissioned to create a series of sculptures for the subway system, he called it Life Underground.


Life Underground Tom Otterness
Life Underground Series, Tom Otterness. 


For me, it sums up some of the reflections I’ve had on New York here. For those who prove themselves exceptional, who are willing to conquer the grind, there is an endless offering, but for those who slip, there’s a hard reality waiting in the cracks of the façade; those same cracks we’ve glimpsed a few times since being here. They’re issues that occur in Australia, and around the world, but I have come away with a new-found respect for some of Australia’s institutions. Things like Medicare, that caters to the sick, Superannuation, that helps you save for a secure future and retirement, and HECS, that creates manageable pathways to education, these are all institutions that provide some structure to our world, and some security. While New York fosters creative, entrepreneurial spirits, there is little in the way of a safety net. What’s more, as the cost of living rises, neighbourhoods gentrify, and employment becomes less secure, more and more people are being forced to either the outskirts of the city, or to leave entirely. If it becomes the norm that no-one can make it in a place like this, will it continue to be a place of opportunity at all?


The New Yorker spirit is tough. It’s resilient and ingenious. Given an environment that offered a little more in the way of structure, imagine the world these people would build.


I hope to take just a small piece of that spirit home with me, and I hope to be back soon. There is an infinite amount to be learned and experienced here, and I can say with certainty that two weeks has just not been enough.