Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.
It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:
City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.
If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.
Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.
Cheers from Madrid,
P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.
P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.
Alright, with that out of the way, on to business.
The day is finally here. More than a decade after typing the first words on a long deceased computer, my novel, Yahweh’s Children, is available to purchase.Right now. RIGHT HERE.
“The subway pulsed with the message,” was how the novel began in its original form. That opening sentence remains, albeit altered, but so much of what follows is completely changed from the first draft. The first chapter used to be twice as long before I cut out all the unnecessary exposition. You’re welcome.
This is a novel with many themes: family and love; pursuing passions and losing faith; the evolution of life and language; the elusiveness of truth. Also, aliens.
This book is a part of me, an avatar for me; which means it will probably be off-putting to some and out stay its welcome with others. But, hopefully, there will be those who find its weird conceits, obsessive minutia, and caustic humor to be oddly charming.
Now, I’m going to ask something of you, dear reader, that in the long history of this project and this website I have never explicitly done: Give me money. Buy my book.
I know some of you out there made a resolution to read more books this year. Here’s the perfect opportunity to follow through and support an independent writer at the same time.
I can already hear some people saying, “Can’t you publish a physical version? I hate reading on a Kindle.” And I get it, I still buy physical books and have never actually read an entire e-book. Believe me, there is no greater dream in my heart than seeing my book on the shelf of an actual bookstore.
For now, though, the plan is to keep Yahweh’s Children digital only. That could change in the future, but only if there is enough demand to warrant it. In the meantime, maybe give the Kindle (or Kindle App) a try.
Thank you so much ahead of time to anyone who does buy and read my novel. I can’t promise it’ll be your favorite book of all time, but I can promise it was written with the intent that it would be. That’s all any writer can endeavor towards.
Over the span of my illustrious adulthood, I have changed jobs more times than I’ve gone to a barbershop. Due to my decade-long itinerant ways, that was essentially inevitable, but even if I had stuck with one home, I can’t imagine stomaching one career for very long.
I’ve never had the luxury of choosing a job that matched my career ambitions. I worked at Forever 21, for god’s sake. Paying the bills has always taken precedent over holding out for a dream job, though there are definitely careers I would love to try.
I recently applied for a particularly enticing position with the New York Times as a travel writer, a “dream job” if ever there was one. I’m not going to be hired, I know that. (Yes, yes, I hear you chiding me to put positive energy into the world, but I’ve been screaming “Oprah’s going to give me a million dollars” at my mirror for years and it still hasn’t happened.) Even knowing the odds are slim-to-none, I had to apply. It would have haunted me for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.
This particular job would be especially gratifying because it involves the three things I love most in the world: Travel, writing, and photography (not necessarily in that order). For most of my life, writing has been the main focus of my creative output, but there are times where I find greater satisfaction through other outlets.
Currently, while I’m enjoying traveling (next weekend, I’ll finally be making my first visit to Paris), the activity that’s giving me the greatest thrill is photography.
Behind the Lens
I studied photography in high school. “Studied” is perhaps not exactly accurate. After learning the basics in Photo 1, I took three straight semesters of Advanced Photography (because, for some reason, that was allowed) and spent every available moment sniffing the fumes in the darkroom, attempting to Frankenstein cool images with light tricks and merged negatives. Of the hundreds of experiments I tried, maybe a dozen of them resulted in anything remotely compelling.
My days of shooting and developing film ended with high school as the costs grew increasingly prohibitive and I no longer had free access to a darkroom (I considered Matthew McConaughey-ing around, but I just didn’t have the moustache for it). So, while I will always relish the stark look of film (particularly in black and white), I’ve been shooting in digital ever since college and I’ve come to appreciate the versatility it provides.
How I was in the darkroom, stumbling through hours of failures to achieve one shot I loved, is essentially the same way I am as a photographer. For every shot that comes out well, I have four or five (or fifteen) lousy photos that I just delete. With digital, I can afford to fail. If I were still shooting on film, that technique would have bankrupted me years ago.
I miss film, though, no question. I miss spending hours in the darkroom. It’s not quite the same rush staring at Photoshop for three hours (but I do it).
Whatever the tools, I am enamored with photography, both as an art form to appreciate, and a medium with which to express myself. I wouldn’t call myself a particularly skilled photographer, but I am eager to learn and constantly trying to improve. My aim is to understand more about my tools, both my camera and the photo editing software. And, then of course, my own eye.
During 10 Cities/10 Years, I was usually alone when I explored. People don’t tend to get too enthusiastic about wandering their own city, so I spent many afternoons walking aimlessly, just me and my camera. My photography from those years, as a result, generally reflects a solitary eye looking for the sublime or unusual in the ignored or seemingly mundane.
I will always enjoy that sort of photography, but as with everything else in life, I’m compelled to keep trying new things, pushing against the boundaries of my style.
For the last year, I’ve been attempting to photograph more human subjects, mostly candid. Major cities are a fruitful place for this, because the citizens there have all essentially grown to accept that they’re being photographed or filmed all the time. Don’t get me wrong, some people definitely aren’t happy about being on camera.
Most of the time, though, people just look through me when I point a camera in their direction. Those are the results I enjoy most.
Now that I’m in Europe, I find an essentially never-ending supply of remarkable vistas to inspire me to reach for my camera. There’s so much unexplored territory (by me) that I never grow bored of shooting. Even better, I’m surrounded by fellow displaced travelers.
My co-travelers here in Madrid afford me a bevy of opportunities for collective candid shots and unplanned moments (like when they’re trying to pose).
Additionally, I’ve even gotten in a few “model” shots, which is a whole other world of photography that I’ve never even considered trying my hand at.
In the past, I was always hesitant to shoot people (er, photograph people); there’s something so intimate about photography, it can feel strangely intrusive. But, of course, that’s also why it’s so compelling as a medium. I envy the boldness of photographers who manage to capture truly evocative candid images, the kind that feel like you’ve been granted a private window into someone else’s life. That’s what I aspire to.
I’m growing and I’m learning. I’ll keep pushing myself, because I enjoy it.
It’s not that I believe I’ll ever cultivate a career in photography. That’s extremely unlikely, and honestly, probably not even something I’d want (trying to monetize art always makes me queasy). I simply find immense satisfaction in nurturing the hobbies and pastimes that give me a reprieve from whatever job I find myself stuck in at any given moment.
I’ll always have to find some gig, more or less temporary, to pay the bills. As long as I have my creative outlets, though, I’m able to bear any job for at least a little while. Even Forever 21.
New York City, split into five boroughs and a thousand neighborhoods, cannot be defined as one thing. When someone dismisses this city with some hoary cliché about hipsters or millionaires, I know they’ve never actually spent any time here. This city has as many personalities and styles as it has corner bodegas.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan, rarely been to Queens, coasted through the Bronx, and touched my toes on Staten Island. I’ve had one experience of the city, and it is hardly representative. But it is still authentic.
As I’ve done for previous cities I’ve lived in and left, I’m taking time to look back on my time here and grade various aspects of the city. Let me stress, though it should be obvious, that these grades are based on my experiences which have been shaped by a lot of factors that are not universal. This isn’t an attempt to give a definitive grade of the city, only to organize my final thoughts on yet another one of my short term homes.
Let’s get going.
Public Transportation – Hoo boy, this is a loaded topic right now. On the one hand, New York’s subway system is the most extensive in the country, one of the biggest in the world, and connects culturally distinct neighborhoods to create a melting pot like no other place in the world. All that, and it has free wifi.
On the other hand(s), MTA is riddled with systemic problems and hopelessly obsolete equipment, all coming together to create one of the greatest metropolitan clusterfucks of all time. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Hurricane Sandy only exacerbated the issues and an already strained system – which has a ridership far outpacing its capacity – is currently in a transitional period. Repairs and improvements are possible, but the costs will be staggering and will necessitate massive disruptions, all of which might prove worth it in ten or fifteen years, but for current New Yorkers (not especially known as being even-keeled), it is going to be a nightmare. (One of a number of reasons I’m happy to be leaving now.)
There’s a lot of blame to go around, though currently it’s mostly falling on Governor Cuomo. There’s no question that he deserves a chunk of it, but in reality, the underlying problems are the result of a kick-the-can mentality that has existed for decades. This city – and state – needs to act now or matters will only get worse and worse.
And, yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve personally been quite lucky. When I first moved to the city, I was on the C and A lines, which are inconsistent and overcrowded, but by no means the worst in the system and generally within spitting distance of being on time. Better still, since moving to Crown Heights, I’m right off of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 lines, four of the most accessible and reliable routes in the city. That might change when other lines get shut down for repairs, but for my time here, it’s been ideal.
To give a fair overall grade, I have to consider both my personal experience and the general quality of the system. I’d give it top marks if I were only reflecting my experience, and it’d barely get a passing grade if I were solely grading on the big picture. So splitting the difference:
City Planning – From the very first time I walked through Manhattan, some fifteen years ago, I was awestruck by the sheer grandeur and scope of this modern wonder. When people think of a city, whether they’ve been here or not, they’re thinking of New York. As far as modern metropolises go, it remains the truest form.
There are a lot of ways in which NYC is falling behind other major cities (see: Public Transportation), but it will forever remain one of the most unique and successfully laid out cities in the world. Even more impressive, a lot of its “city planning” was achieved by mere chance, a natural evolution guided less by intentional design than by individual actors pursuing their own interests and somehow forming a cohesive whole.
Yes, many neighbors make strange bedfellows: Chinatown and its pervasive fish smell flows over to some of the most expensive and ostentatious avenues in the city. That’s just part of the charm. There is nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk through urban spaces, and what New York offers more than any other US city is an unending kaleidoscope of facades and personalities. Sure, in a post-Giuliani world, it’s lost much of its aura of danger, and Times Square is a logo-ejaculating neon nightmare, but there’s still plenty of grime to be found if that’s your bag, and if that’s not your bag, something more to your tastes is only a short subway ride away (assuming no delays).
NYC is massive. While there are many neighborhoods that feel downright suburban and there’s no shortage of economically impoverished areas (I’ll leave the debate over gentrification for someone else), this city manages to both be an explorer’s delight and still absolutely accommodating to a homebody. I can’t tell you how many Brooklynites I’ve met who rarely leave their neighborhood, let alone the borough. Truly, something for everyone.
Bars/Nightlife – Um, yeah, New York has nightlife. What really needs to be said? If you like to drink and hang out late with other people who do, you are never going to be out of luck in this city. When I first moved to the city, I happened to move into one of the few bar deserts in all of Brooklyn, a yet-to-be-gentrified portion of Bed-Stuy where you could walk for fifteen minutes in any direction and not find a watering hole. Truly, a rare spot. It didn’t last long, because at the beginning of my second year in that apartment, I stumbled across The Evergreen, newly opened and within walking distance of my apartment.
Other establishments were starting to open in the area by the time I moved to Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has no such dry spots. It matters not where you live, though, because a train or a bus or a car will deposit you into some form of nightlife within minutes.
In terms of bars, Manhattan is overrun with the flashy, expensive joints (meh), Irish pubs, and dives that still charge you ten bucks for well whiskey. Brooklyn does hipster and trendy, naturally, but you’ll also find plenty of true dives and neighborhood haunts and whatever else might be to your taste. Of course there are clubs and secret raves and strip clubs and whatever it is that floats your boat. Oh yeah, they have boat parties, too.
The point is, if you come to New York City looking for nightlife, you’d have to be a real twit not to find a scene for you.
Art Scene – When you think of art scenes, New York City is always going to come to mind. Granted, that’s partly due to its history: whether you’re thinking of the writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol’s Factory, this city has been synonymous with art since the 19th century.
Even now, there’s Broadway, and the Met, and Carnegie Hall, and all the other famous venues, big and small. TV and movie crews are a fairly regular sight, especially in Brooklyn, and every major musical act in the world passes through here for at least one night. If you’re looking for big name performers, they’ll be here.
The real test of a city, though, is how well it fosters the smaller art scenes; do artists still come here to pursue their dream at the cost of everything else? Of course. Does anything come of it? Of course, for some. A lot’s been made of the city’s astronomical rent prices pushing out struggling artists and hampering similar art scenes from growing up here, and there’s unquestionably some truth to that, but frankly, we’re living in a pretty terrible time to be an artist no matter where you’re living. I would know. At least in NYC, you’re likely to find a sympathetic audience. Well, not antagonistic, at least.
In my three years here, I’ve attended massive arena concerts, shows in the park, and intimate venue gigs; I’ve been to an independent movie premiere, an off-off-Broadway play, and burlesque, drag, and fashion shows; I’ve read my terrible poetry to a too-kind audience and watched a woman perform a folk opera; I have been to museums and galleries, passed buskers on the streets and subways, and checked out street dance crews. Oh, and I’ve seen a few dozen movies. If I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I could have seen a whole lot more, too.
The point is, New York City might not be the most hospitable place for artists, but art lovers really have nothing to complain about.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A
Living – By certain metrics, New York City is the most expensive city in the country (in terms of affordable housing options, San Francisco and Boston are actually less viable), so that is going to affect one’s way of life here. Sure, if you come here to work on Wall Street (or to indulge your fetish for grown men in superhero get-ups), you’re going to be living large. For most of us, though, the astronomical cost of living puts a damper on life.
And yet, for every $34 cocktail, there’s a half dozen free concerts or movie nights. There are always free days at museums and the botanic gardens, and if all you’re looking for is to get drunk, there are cheap options. No, you’re probably not going to find New Orleans’ rock bottom prices (and no Nickel Shot Nights), but a night of drinking doesn’t have to cause you to break your lease (unless you have one of those friends that insists on drinking in the Lower East Side). The point is, moving to the city does not require one become a monk, just savvy.
Then there’s the issue of housing. The stereotype is real: Some NYC apartments really are hamster cages without the views. If you’re deadset on living in the trendiest neighborhoods (did you immediately think Williamsburg? Congratulations, you’re already passé), then sure, expect to squeeze a twin bed into a closet. Otherwise, there are plenty of very good areas in this city that have reasonably affordable, human-sized digs still in walking distance of public transportation (see above for that mixed bag). Who knows how much longer that will be true?
Affordable is, of course, a subjective term. When I’ve told family members back in Kansas what I pay for rent, they balk, and my rent is one of the cheapest in the city. Some people come to this city with lucrative job offers, while many others don’t enjoy that privilege. Like most American cities, New York is basically intentionally pricing out the poor. On the other hand, NYC has embraced the $15 minimum wage (it’s being gradually phased in over a number of years), so that’s small relief.
The bottom line is, this city is expensive – depressingly so – but if your dream is to live here, to make it here, that dream is still within reach. You’ll just have to hustle.
People – Man, what can you say about New Yorkers that hasn’t already been said by every single movie and TV show you’ve ever seen? Well, a lot, actually, because media representations are always incomplete at best, or bullshit at worst.
Are the characters from Girls real? You betcha. Sex and the City? Probably, but I couldn’t afford to hang out with them. Friends? If you mean white people, then yes. Looking for something less Caucasian? Well, Spike Lee’s joints truthfully capture an aspect of the New York (Brooklyn) way of life, but those are more historical documents these days. For every popular depiction of New York City out there, there are still plenty of stones unturned. Some people will never see themselves represented on TV.
Let’s just say it: New Yorkers are loud, impatient, and rude. They wouldn’t argue the point. But I’ve only lived here a few years and I was already two out of three before I got here, so I don’t think you can blame that on the city. Get past the stereotypes and the fear, and the people here are really just a microcosm of all of society. Sure, that’s a cliché of all cities, but more than any other city in the country, NYC truly defies easy generalizations. People from all over the country and the world have traveled to live here. How could only one personality type exist here?
Also, nice people are the worst.
My experience of the people in this city, both locals and my fellow transplants, is that they’re generally friendly, at times confrontational, but usually happy to let live. They get heated about politics and sports, and they can sit in a bar and talk to a stranger for three hours about their favorite bands. They’ll screw you over from time to time, but they’ll also watch your back; their faces will light up when you walk in after a month’s absence. They’re people. This is New York. This is everywhere.
And if you’re wondering, “Do they think they’re better than me?” Yeah, probably. But if you’re worried about that, then aren’t they?
I’ve used this blog to tell my fair share of stories about living in New York City, but sometimes you just have to step back and let the city tell its own stories.
When my first year in New York came to a close, I posted some of my favorite photographs from my time so far. Here, then, are more of my favorites, these from the last two years of life in (and around) the city.
Next week, I’ll be dusting off an old feature as I give NYC it’s final grades. Until then, enjoy the photos.