Sitting in the art-deco-meets-botanica Domain Café (understood to be the Andrews of downtown Manhattan, given the prevalence of Asian-inspired food options), I feel exhausted. A frontal lobe headache is developing, and my eyes just can’t seem to adjust to the light. This is partly because I got up early to beat the rush hour traffic, but more so because I’ve gotten questionable sleep for the past four days. To save money on New York hotels and accommodations (so as to spend it all on New York food and drinks), I am bed-sharing with my friend’s ex-girlfriend in her studio. My boyfriend came along, too, and he made a similar choice, staying with his friend in Chinatown above a laundromat. It’s a Monday, and the light in the cafe is too bright for both of us. It’s not a hangover we are nursing—we did not partake in nightlife the night before—and yet our living situations alone are enough to imitate the effects of staying up ’til dawn.
It isn’t the best feeling all around. Physically, because of the obvious. But mentally? Spiritually? Something’s amiss. I can’t help but reflect on why I suddenly feel so estranged from this city. It’s New York, after all—there’s a myriad of things to see and a myriad of things to do. It’s a place with endless hustle and bustle, where there is supposed to be something for everyone. Just looking at the slew of cuisines and consequent fusions (curry bratwursts were a first for me), intricate shopface decor, and creatively named drinks, it’s hard to put a finger on why I feel so off.
It’s not that New York isn’t absolutely beautiful. Walking through the streets during Christmas time is pure delight, and the crispness of the air only adds to its appeal. It’s hard to believe, but long-distance running is enjoyable when in Manhattan—there is more and more to see from block to block, with the extravagant candy canes, garlands, and larger-than-life Christmas trees all very much lit up during the daytime. There is so much life on display in the streets: shopkeepers wheeling in their daily produce from the curbs, a surprising number of like-minded joggers, and corporate worker bees in pairs or groups on the way to or from a coffee chat. Traversing these streets, a whole hour can go by, and it would feel like no time at all. The majority of people, however, are clearly tourists—out-of-towners who have been walking down Fifth Avenue shopping for advent calendars and directing their family over steaming manholes since 8 a.m. Something about this activity says, “I’m just passing through, like everyone else here.”
It all seems to thrive on novelty and instability. Both New York and Beijing assure their residents that they will never need to dine at the same restaurant twice in their life if they don’t want to. There are enough restaurants for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack for 25 years without repetition, and given most restaurants don’t last for more than three years, a lot more math can be done here. The idea is that only the good ones stick, and the dog-eat-dog world will take care of the rest. It’s all “just business”; things come and go like the people, and even institutions and restaurants don’t come to stay. There is an explosion of attraction but an implosion of meaning. It’s so big—too big, too crowded, with too many things going on at the same time, none so inviting. There is no space for you to find rest and respite or privacy, just a temporary allotment of space before you are expected to move on.
Growing up in Beijing, and later Sydney, and then Beijing again, New York seemed no different from the other metropolises I called home. Sprawling urban areas with distinct neighborhoods, historical significance, and overly intricate public transportation networks interweave with broad avenues and a generous dose of visible wealth inequality. The downtown district with its financial hubbub, arts district full of museums and tourist traps, and insane amount of travel time needed to get from one thing to another are always givens. Growing up, cities being huge seemed to be more of a rule than an exception; before Brown, big cities were all I knew. The essence of city living comes down to feeling as though there are options for everything. The roller rink could come with a full bar, be attached to a movie theater, or be a combination of both. Searching noodles, then Asian, then Thai narrows your search result options from 1000+ to 400 to 30. And, I’m putting my foot down about this, an ice cream shop should never offer more than eight flavors (the average in cities is like 209,358).
It felt like I left it all behind when I moved to Providence. I remember thinking how bored I would be when the entire radius of activity was around two km for four years, and being scared of the restrictions that fewer choices would impose. Small cities seem to have fewer choices, but each is a solid option. Local mainstays like Jahunger, Champa, Glou, and PVDonuts, mixed with the multitudes of small cafes, all immediately spring to mind. Have I missed Japanese food? Yes. But, it didn’t end up mattering all that much. The need for a plethora of choices played a meaningful but not essential part in my experience, as it ended up paling in comparison to the other continuous aspects of living. The acclimation process seems to have happened subconsciously ever since.
Traveling around New England, I notice that most towns exist in a kind of peaceful solitude. The trees impose a sanctity on these places. I can’t honestly say that there is more to do and more to see in these towns than there is in New York, but there is an urge to see all that they offer. Breathing is easier, and the trifles of life seem insignificant. It’s not a catch-all, but it feels easier to have oneself to oneself, to remember, to think, to feel, and to understand.
It’s in this cafe, over some dry tiramisu, next to the heavily trafficked artisanal coffee bar, as we are debriefing the weekend, that my SO says, “I miss having our own space; there’s nowhere to do it in New York.” Perhaps all this reflection could have been avoided if we had just got a hotel. It was this sentence that I liked so much, I needed it to be the title of an article. Maybe if we did get a hotel, this article wouldn’t be about how in big cities, there is little to no space for the individual, and no allowance for downtime in public, that one must have one’s own quarters for peace and silence and the individual. It will instead be about how capitalism, left rampant, will destroy us all. Thank goodness we didn’t get a hotel.