So there's the heat. They didn't tell you about the heat. They may have mentioned the cold (we'll get to the cold), but you weren't ready for the heat. Not a dry, desert heat, but this sickening, writhing ... presence that licks you all over with a boiling, slimy tongue. An alive, sentient heat. And when you're hauling all your worldly possessions from a moving truck and into a 4th floor walk-up (oh yeah, there's the walk-ups), in Hell's Kitchen, in August, the heat is enough to glue your shoes to the pavement and stop your heart - hell, it's enough to stop your watch. You'll be able to wring out your jeans like a washcloth in the tub. This is not a joke.
Later, if you're smart enough, or rich enough, to have acquired an air conditioner, there's the electric bill. But that's later.
There are the blisters. You might have thought you had real comfortable shoes, Forrest, but after two days of walking yourself sore and bloody, they'll go out with the garbage. You're going to walk here. A lot. And then you're going to get lost and walk even more. Walk. Get lost. Walk more. Repeat. That's pretty much how it will go. The blisters will be impressive and plentiful, a colony of angry, bulging, ugly dudes on the back of your heels, on the soft skin under your ankles, and - if you're unlucky - right smack on the tender little pads of your piggies. Bust out the band-aids. Grimace. And keep walking. Because you have no choice. You have to keep walking. You have to keep moving in this city or you die and that's a rule, Jack. Buy the $150 shoes. Pray for calluses.
There's the noise. It sounds like a war. In fact, you will dream of wars for the first two weeks, of artillery and grenades and the insistent rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, because the traffic and the construction on 10th Avenue will invade your sub-consciousness. And what is the deal with the emergency vehicles? Every ambulance, every police car, every automobile with a siren, will pass by your window and follow you on your daily excursions, relentlessly, until you have no choice but to conclude that you must be a harbinger of doom, a malevolent talisman of bad luck and tragic fate, radiating broken legs and stab wounds and heart attacks and head-on collisions like some kind of demented, Clive Barker-esque ice cream man on speed.
But we were talking about the noise.
They'll tell you you'll get used to it. You learn to block out some of it by actually adding to it with your own noise, with your walkman, or your cell phone (call people back home on your cell phone while you're on the street and they'll invariable think someone is trying to kill you), or by shouting "JESUS CHRIST, SHUT UP!"* after a particularly long day.
*NOTE: This doesn't work very well and is likely to be misinterpreted by hostile natives.
The noises will all blur together into one constant, inescapable aural fog (jackhammers, horns, conversations in Japanese, high heels clicking on concrete, screams, screeches animal and mechanical, and we've covered the sirens) that you won't ever be able to fully ignore, but with which you might, after time, negotiate an uneasy truce.
Now, you can't really bring up the sounds, can't really even think about 'em, without dealing with the smells. They are partners, allies in a two-pronged sensory assault aimed at unsuspecting nostrils and eardrums. The smells will burn your eyebrows off like Michael Jackson filming that Pepsi commercial. You need to understand this. They'll twist your face into previously unimagined expressions of revulsion. They'll have you thanking your Maker that you were born with the option to breathe out of your mouth. At first, you'll wonder why the streets of Manhattan smell so convincingly, so irrefutably, of baked dog piss. And then you'll begin to notice the legions of dogs pissing on the sidewalks, dogs leashed to sleepy, distracted owners, dogs who have never known a patch of green over which to hoist a crooked leg, dogs whose only bathroom is where you walk. You'll see that, and you won't wonder about the smell anymore. And let's not mention that dude you saw on the subway platform waiting for the F train at West 4th Street.
You've been warned about the legendary rudeness of New Yorkers, but you'll find that it's not so much the disposition of the people here, as it is the sheer number of them. They're everywhere, the bodies. And each body, large or small, occupies a certain amount of physical space. And physical space in a cramped city of offices, hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, stores, kiosks, cars, trucks, buses, billboards and Starbucks locations, is finite. There are laws of physics that apply. You see where this is going. You learn quickly to avoid certain areas of the city, like Times Square (where people travel in tight formations like giant, clothed, bipedal schools of fish), during peak hours. Peak hours being: morning, noon, and night. And weekends. And holidays. OK, you learn to avoid Times Square, period.
Okay, this next part's important: You won't want to move here with less than about, oh, 3.5 kajillion dollars in your checking account. That should just about cover first month's rent for your new apartment, broker's fee, security deposit, and a slice at the corner pizza place - where they'll ask you if you want your order "to stay or to go." Forget the old familiarity of "for here or to go," you've heard all your life, because nobody says that in New York City, ever. Also, the credit card readers at grocery stores will ask you to "wipe" your card, or, occasionally, to "dip" your card and you need to know this, because your credit card will be seeing a lot of action after you polish off that slice, and the last of the 3.5 kajillion dollars with it.
It costs a lot of money to live here, about 10 bucks a breath actually, if you do the math. You'll go into sticker shock over the price of a bottle of water. Chain restaurants charge more for the same entrees they're selling everywhere else in the country, just because they can. And they'll be no free refills on sodas or iced-tea. Not in the 212 area code. A bottle of Budweiser will set you back 6 dollars. At a cheap bar. During happy hour. A martini? Close your eyes and "dip" your card, buster.
The aforementioned slice, by the way, is one of the perks of the place (yes, there are perks. Be patient). Big, hot, cheap slices of thin crust pizza are on practically every street corner. And they're out of the oven, dripping cheese and grease, minutes after you place your order. Hard to beat, as long as you're not, like, trying to be healthy or anything.
Remember when we said we'd get to the cold? Well, we're there. We've arrived. When the cold hits, you won't be ready. You're from southern California, so you've been prepped about the cold. You've been advised. For the first time in your life, you own a scarf. But none of this can help you prepare for that first winter morning any more than reading Buck Rodgers comic books prepared Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. Simply put, you're out of your element, Son. One morning, you'll wake up, and the temperature will have executed the meteorological equivalent of an Olympic high dive. And it won't resurface again until spring.
The cold, more than anything else, will leave you knock-kneed, sniffling, and wondering just what in the name of sweet Christ you were thinking when you moved to New York City from San Diego. And when you're not wondering that, other people will wonder it for you. "Geez, what in the name of sweet Christ were you thinking?" they'll ask. And you'll suppress violent urges hit them. Or cry. Because when the freezing wind comes hurtling down that man-made wind tunnel called Manhattan, lashing against your muffled form until your ears turn to chips of ice and your whole face numbs up and falls off, you'll be asking yourself the same question. And you might not remember the answer; you might be too busy thinking about how nice it was when you drove a car.
This is not to dissuade you. This isn't meant to discourage you. It may feel a bit one-sided so far, this little primer. Sure, there are lots of amazing things about New York City, things no other city in the world can offer. The theaters, the food, the people you'll meet, the wonderful little neighborhoods, the parks, the intoxicating buzz of opportunity, too many things to list. You know about those things. You moved here for those things. That's not news. You see, there's another, much greater reward. And it can't be separated from the pains of transition, the pains you're enduring now. Here's what you must do:
You must think of this move as a unique test of character. An extreme character-building exercise. No, wait. This is better. Think of each of these little hardships as a merit badge challenge, like the ones they had in Boy Scouts. For each New York adjustment you successfully navigate, you get the corresponding merit badge. And you get to sew that badge right into your developing New York psyche, and wear it proudly. Eventually, you'll work up to the higher ranking badges, like the "Acute Loneliness" badge, and the "Public Transportation" badge, and you'll sew those in there too.
Get enough badges and, well, you just might get to call yourself one: A New Yorker. That elite club of millions may open its big, loud, smelly doors of membership to you. And the pride you'll feel, the sense of accomplishment, will be worth the struggle, the heartache, and all the dues paid to the club's coffers. You'll have bonds like those between soldiers with your fellow New Yorkers, like those between prisoners, and those soccer players that crashed in the Andes and had to eat each other. Powerful bonds. You'll recognize fellow members on the street and exchange quiet nods of shared, rare experience, like two punks sporting the same collection of painful eyebrow piercings. You'll be like King Harry's men. You'll strip your sleeves and show your scars.
And gentlemen of L.A., now abeach
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks
That lived with us upon New York, New York!
You will have taken the measure of your own mettle and needed a yard stick to get the whole thing. You will have made a home inside the dragon's lair, the lion's maw, the elephant's arse, and every man in the city will be your brother.
Only, while you're collecting those merit badges, don't mention the whole "Boy Scout" thing to anybody who lives here. They'll kick your candy ass all the way back to La Jolla.