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Still a Shock.

We emerged from the Queens Midtown Tunnel after two days of driving and two months of frenetic activity preparing for a cross-country move with an infant, a 60-pound dog, and the emotional strain of shuttering the business we had built together and selling the house we had bought on our own. It was nightfall, and after the submerged white noise and claustrophobia of the tunnel and the hours of rolling Pennsylvania country side before it, Manhattan was a shock. Buildings shot up around us, miniaturizing us on our uptown pilgrimage. The streets were dotted through with lights and signs of life: footfall, yells, figures jaywalking across the blare of headlights, the scent of street cart gyros. I lingered somewhere between fear and relief: we had made it. But I wasn’t sure what “it” entailed.

How will this ever feel like home? I wondered as Mr. Magpie navigated his way up 8th Avenue. Even from inside the familiar pod of our car, fumbling to calm the familiar cries of my travel-wearied eight-month-old baby, New York appeared inhospitable: all sidewalk and bluster, movement and know-how. And yet just beyond my intimidation, I felt a shiver of excitement.

Have you ever seen New York City at night?

She’s the height of glamor and promise. The garishness and no-nonsense of daytime recede and the city runs electric with sophistication and possibility. She is slick and resplendent and — there is no other way to say it — impossibly cool in a distinctively American way.

I felt that then and I feel that now, three years into living here, and six months into living through a pandemic amongst its shadows and concrete. She still moves at night.

A reader once wrote that it takes ten years to officially become a New Yorker. That’s probably true. Do tenured Manhattanites still feel awestruck by the shape of the city under stars? Does she still provoke and intimidate and overwhelm even a decade into living here? Because I still stare blinkingly at the towering cityscape while rounding The Pond on the Southeast corner of Central Park. There is a building being erected down there, on 57th Street, that is so horrifyingly tall and jarringly blue that its sight transports me into a fantasy world and I feel as though it is simply not possible that I live here, that I call this cluster of ambition and dream a home. And sometimes — even on the well-worn paths I take to walk my dog and ferry my children to Central Park, even when I know which corners to avoid and which lights will be red based on the speed of my footfall — I feel myself float outside my body and I stare back at the 36-year-old mother-of-two walking quickly with her stroller and air of unimpressed purpose and I think, “What must it be like to live in New York?”

I used to ask this to myself when I visited my sister here in my 20s and could not wrap my head around the narrow four-story ascent her walk-up commanded of her multiple times a day, or the couple hundred square feet in which she lived. “Where do you keep your pots and pans?” I asked, bewildered, eyeing the Bunson-burner-like cooktop on the counter. “You mean pot and pan,” she returned, gesturing to the tiny stack on top of her narrow refrigerator. “There aren’t many plurals when you’re living in New York.” And I felt — in her unperturbed acceptance of this condition of city living — rube-like and unbecoming.

Yes, what must it be like to live here? I would wonder when we would walk through Central Park with the leaves just-turning and the light just-hitting and I could barely suppress my swooning interjections: “I can’t believe this is real and that you live on this movie set of a scene.” And then again when she would insist we take the Subway against my cringing protestations, and would remain entirely unphased by its grit and stink and occasional unseemliness. And when she would tuck us into a tiny ramen spot, dodging rainfall, and we would wait for an unbearable hour for a table, elbow-jockeying for space among unperturbable New Yorkers, and then slurp up the most outrageously delicious and satisfying broth I’d ever tasted in my life. And when I would spy on mothers my age corralling their toddlers down the sidewalks, or depositing their school-age children in the narrow apertures of intimidating stone buildings on bustling streets, or toting yoga mats under their arms as they scurried off to exercise, blase and busy. And when I would watch the city fly by through the window of a taxi cab, and feel the rush of her air in my hair and find myself stirred by her flashiness and elegance all at once.

“We live in New York City?!” Mr. Magpie and I will occasionally ask one another, a propos of nothing, mystified by how we got here and how we live here. We aren’t really New York types, I don’t think. I am too sensitive and he is too decorous. We are better suited to a suburban kind of lifestyle: quiet and manicured, far from the maddening crowd.

But we do live here. And I still haven’t worked out what it is like, three years in. Even though living through the pandemic has thrown a wrench into that reckoning — leaving me, strangely, missing the city in which I apparently reside — I still find myself awestruck by her in all the same ways I was when I first emerged from the Midtown Queens Tunnel three Septembers ago:

Still a shock,

Still glittering at night.

Post-Scripts.

+More on what it’s felt like to live here during COVID-19.

+I’d forgotten about this little piece I wrote about New York by night — a different take on its majesty. That’s the funny thing about New York: she is full of contradictions. I know the exact sensation I was writing into submission in this post, while walking Tilly down by Columbus Circle. That corner of the city feels comfortable to me because it was the first place I ever lived here. But she still feels like a shock.

+If you live in a city, you might appreciate this post on great gear for small apartments.

+I am so in love with these scallop-trim napkins. I have to order them.

+Love the sophisticated vibe of this H&M collaboration — especially this dress, which I would love to pair with my Paris Texas snakeskin boots. (Thanks to Nancy for sharing this with me!)

+If you are looking to make a handbag investment and want to know what’s cool in these parts, two words: Bottega Veneta. I’m drooling over this, which is so downtown Manhattan I wouldn’t even recognize myself wearing it. Also comes in an even larger, flashier size.

+The pick-up line uniform for moms at mini’s downtown school: Birkenstocks and a designer crossbody. I stick out like a sore thumb because I wear sundresses most days, but I am unabashedly conforming by buying a pair of these clog boots, de rigueur amongst the moms there, as the cool weather settles. They are practical and chic!

+Your guide to fall sweaters.

+I’m actually dead over this shearling coat. It is OUTRAGEOUSLY chic. It’s pricey at $500 but it seriously looks like it could be Burberry or something well north of $2K. I will be eyeing this carefully for a discount.

+OK, THIS DRESS?! What! Like a Givenchy or something. Where can I wear this?! Oh my gosh, fall fashion is really making me excited.

+My bedroom is in need of a little refresh. Eyeing one of these dramatic pique monogram applique bolsters.

+Love these Manolo Blahnik-inspired mules ($45!)

+Currently on my shopping list.

+This intarsia bow sweater for littles is reminiscent of Gucci.

+And these $118 flats are reminiscent of the Mansur Gavriels I’ve been swooning over.

+Super-versatile top — on-trend but also conservative somehow. Love.

+Lunch box notes for your little one.

+Mark D. Sikes’ new book is out!

+I rarely do black when dressing up but DAMN the tailoring of this dress!!!

+In case you were wondering, Westman Atelier’s Foundation Stick is unbelievable.

+Going way back: the story of our move to New York, Parts I and II.

+Little luxuries for even tiny apartments.

17 Comments

  1. Love this reflection — congratulations on finishing year 3 in New York! It’s a place unlike any other I’ve encountered … and I mean that mainly in a positive sense, while also acknowledging its sometimes-considerable downsides. However, growing up 25 miles away and then living there for 8 years in my 20s means that New York will always be my platonic ideal of a city, and I don’t think anything will ever change that. I’ll always have the biggest, most unbreakable love for it. COVID has been such a struggle for many reasons, but personally, it’s been hard in part because the sense of hurt in New York is so palpable, and I have felt a passing sense of guilt for not living there during one of its toughest moments. Is that weird? Hats off to you and everyone else who is staying and making it work!

    xx

    1. Thank you! It’s been a weird time and you are so right about the strange alchemy of intense positives and intense downsides living here. xx

  2. Oh I love all of this! I have only visited New York as an adult with children! My first visit I was super pregnant and had our nearly two year old with us—truly a Magical place with all the parks and things to see! I found it more overwhelming with two kids but I’ve often dreamed of living in nyc for a bit?

    Funny—in Charlotte NC the pick up uniform is much the same (with some Ulla Johnson loving moms at 9am?!) in the winter golden goose. I grew up in a much more rural area and I love the mixture I get of being in a city yet I’m tucked in a neighborhood I can easily walk around at 9pm. I’m curious if I would feel a bit too contained in nyc.

    1. Thank you, Brooke! I know, so difficult to imagine how I’d fare in a different environment…I often daydream about a less urban lifestyle but here we are. xx

  3. I love this reflection on how it feels to get to know a city. As much as I love having lived in my hometown the past several years, I do miss that feeling of discovery from my days living in other cities, especially those with pedestrian ways of life. There is so much gained from the sidewalk perspective of cities. Your post reminds me of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That” in the best way – as a snapshot of the entanglement between a phase in your life and a place you live at that time.

    1. Hi Sarah – Thank you so much for the generous words. A comparison to Joan Didion is…!!!! Basically what I live for. Ha! Anyway, such an interesting point about the intersection between place and season of life and how they inform one another. Thank you for your readership!!! xx

  4. Ohh! We’re moving to Chicago in November and have been eyeing the No. 6 shearling boots! Would LOVE to hear your thoughts on their fit/comfort after you purchase!

    As always – I love following along! 🙂

    1. Will absolutely report back!! Yay for the move to Chicago — you will love it. It’s such a livable city. xx

  5. I love your description of NYC and all the feelings. I have only lived here for a little more than a year – and I am still mostly in awe that we actually live here. At least while living in the U.S. (I am German, my husband is American), I can’t imagine living anywhere else anymore. Manhattan is just too great a place, no matter if with all the crowds and noise or with Coronavirus and some peace and quiet.

  6. Thank you for the wooden utensils recommendation! And yes, too familiar with the darker bits of living in the city… sounds like quite a week but best to keep the positives top of mind like you did in the post, especially during these times!

  7. I too lived in the city for 9 years and the same things that I was in awe of when I first moved to the city were the same things I was equally in awe of when I left 4 years ago and still to this day. I will never forget fireflies on the large path to Bethesda fountain as evening fell in the summer, the view of the cityscape from the reservoir, fining dining (my favorite being dovetail on the UWS, which has since closed, but the chef was John Fraser, and it looks like he’s since opened up several restaurants in the NY area), etc. So yes, I do think you will likely feel the same feelings you describe in the post over the course of your residency in the city. That said, I also felt a deep sense of calm after moving away to DC… the cleanliness! the gorgeous row homes in Georgetown! And hidden gem restaurants even better than those in NY (Tail Up Goat, Rose’s Luxury, Masseria, Bad Saint, etc.). While I do miss so much about NY and love being a visitor, I am also relieved to no longer be a resident. Yes, I do sometimes daydream about living in the West Village and having access to equinox once more… but then I remember the trash bags lining the streets and the grime of the subway! What I’m trying to say is that probably every NY resident has fluctuating feelings about living there, and as someone who has decidedly loved or disliked the cities I’ve lived in since, that fluctuating feeling makes NY unique.

    Unrelated, the dyson airwrap was unfortunately not my favorite. Better styling can be achieved with products that heat up to a higher temperature. That said, I love the blow dryer and would recommend it should you choose to move away from revlon.

    Last thing, I am in the process of styling my kitchen counters and saw in an earlier post that you recommend wooden utensils from a restaurant supply store. Are there any in particular that you’d recommend that can be ordered online? Thanks Jen and hope you have a fantastic day!

    1. Hi! YES! The fluctuation in feelings is so accurate. The other half of the rosy picture I’ve painted here is the unsavoriness of the city even before the recent spike in crime (but especially now). It is stinky, messy, dirty, and occasionally harrowingly scary. In the past week alone, I saw a fist fight on a subway platform, a man tried to start a fight with my husband over nothing, and we dealt with all the usual grossness of the city that I won’t further disgust you with but with which I KNOW you are familiar. Sometimes I feel the luckiest to live here and sometimes I absolutely despise it. Fluctuating emotions is the name of the game…

      For wooden utensils, something like this six pack for $15 looks just about right:

      https://bit.ly/2R9JCxZ

      1,000+ five star reviews! Honestly the simpler and less fussy the better. I’ve never ordered from an online restaurant supply store, so I’d probably just stick with Amazon.

      And thanks for weighing in on Dyson!! I hear such polarizing opinions!!

      xx

  8. There must be one of those untranslatable German words for what you described here, that feeling of looking upon a brand new experience you’re about to enter into and knowing that for all its foreignness, it will soon be familiar and known to you. I felt myself nodding throughout this piece, although I have had a somewhat different NYC experience- my father was an 11th generation born and bred Manhattanite, so when I moved here 9 years ago, it felt a lot like coming home. The city still felt foreign and different from other places I had lived, but I enjoyed the process of carving out my own home in a place steeped in family history. I felt supported by the invisible web of history around me- like I was adding another chapter to our book.

    1. HA! 100% on the likelihood that there is a German word for this feeling, or possibly a French one. Wow, I can’t imagine the nest of emotions you must have been feeling moving into the city with such strong roots here! The feelings of belonging / not belonging are so intense, and they are often driven home or exacerbated by the local patois. I remember I was so totally confused at first by the Subway. What’s express? Why do some of the 1 trains run all the way up to 242nd and some don’t? I didn’t even fully understand what the signs on the platform meant — they’re written in a strange clipped shorthand like “ALL UPTOWN ACROSS PLATFORM // ON NIGHTS USE LOCAL 1.” What?!

      Anyway, thanks for writing in and reading along, as always.

      xxxx

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