Mr. Magpie is heading up to New York for business soon, and I went back and forth on whether to join him. I love to visit, and haven’t been up since last February, and yet 2024 has been a year so far (January alone seemed to contain a full 12 months) and I think minimalism is the name of the game for the coming weeks. Do the little thing, I tell myself. Close the ports, I chime in. Simplify.
I was rereading the pastiche of New York learnings and memories below, originally published in March 2021, and I found myself equal parts nostalgic and mystified that I lived there for four years. Was it a dream? Certainly the quarantine/COVID bits felt like a foul nightmare. I still mourn several months of my son’s babyhood, slurped up by lockdowns and the accompanying angst of just making it to bedtime while cooped up in a small space with two young children and a big dog. I continue to feel we haven’t collectively processed that experience, but that ball of wax is tomorrow’s business, and I use “tomorrow” euphemistically. Anyhow, I sit here in my serene suburbia and I feel as though the Jen that lived in New York from 2017-2021 is a girl I used to know. Who was she, marching around the 86th St 1 stop with an air of I-know-what-I’m-doing? Last night, Mr. Magpie muted the television (on screen: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” featuring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine) to listen to the brief wail of sirens running somewhere in the vicinity. It was such an unusual cacophony that we actually paused to listen to it. We laughed at ourselves, then, because those sirens were for a time a kind of white noise, 86th being a major thoroughfare for ambulances and the like. Today, I sit here and wonder: what did it mean, to have that kind of urgent alarm shapeshift into background noise? Looking at it from a more positive lens: how did the constant shuffle of life and music and conversation and traffic — the way New York renews itself on a daily, or perhaps hourly, basis, almost to the point that a time-lapse camera is unnecessary to capture its continuous change — shape my worldview and my writing?
Conversely, what does it mean to live in almost constant quiet?
Thoughts for coasting into this Monday, friends —
As we say, onward —
Ed. note: The essay below was originally published on March 18, 2021.
One subset of the responses to the news of our imminent relocation from NYC to D.C. has taken me by surprise: the many emails and notes that have read “I am selfishly going to miss your musings on New York.” They make me realize how much place seeps into the fabric of my writing, as I do not feel I’ve written extensively on the city. In fact, I have often felt sheepish attempting to wrap language around it. I still feel like a newcomer, an initiate, undeserving of the subtext that I somehow belong here. The day we moved into our first apartment in an an old-fashioned, art deco building on Central Park West, one of the porters appeared in our door frame with a ten dollar bill poking jauntily out of the pocket of his uniform jumpsuit.
“Will that be all, Mr. and Mrs. Shoop?” he asked. He had helped us with clearing some of the boxes and the like. The bill seemed an obvious invitation for a tip. Mr. Magpie and I exchanged an uncertain glance. What was the code here? We had been under the impression you tip at the end of the year, at Christmastime, based solely on information gleaned in conversation with Manhattan-based friends. But maybe you pay a little extra for dedicated assistance? We had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t even know what the term “porter” meant — it felt like it belonged to the lexicon of the 1920s! — let alone the purview of his responsibilities. We tipped. I still don’t know whether we were taken or the practice was the norm. All I can say is that we weren’t “invited” to tip on any other exchange with employees of the building, but that particular porter was very good to us.
It was a specific example of a generalized sensation of outsidership. We felt like rubes of a different dialect. New York is that way, with lots of informal but de rigueur behaviors that can intimidate, vex, and confuse. My hairdresser and I were talking about this the other day, and she said, “Oh yeah. When we were doing renovations for this space, my contractor told me, ‘And then you’ll need to tack on $10K for the super.'” As it turns out, if a crew needs access to some of the innards of the building while completing a project or reno, it is common practice to slip the super something. And that something has four zeros tacked to the end of it. “That’s just New York,” she shrugged. It struck me as both irritatingly and quaintly old-fashioned that such exchanges take place, “off the books,” and are the unequivocal standard for doing business. The contractor hadn’t batted an eye. Neither had my hairdresser: “You just get used to it over time.” I am sure variations of this happen everywhere the world over, but there is something particular and pronounced about it here in New York, something shrugging and brusque, and I have witnessed it countless times. It’s a sensation that goes hand in hand with the old New York adage: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
There are many other practices not involving the exchange of cash that run along the same grooves. It took me awhile to accept this, but here, it’s not rude for people to shoulder against one another on the street corners while waiting for a light change, boxing one another out. It sounds soulless, but people don’t mean anything by it. Everyone is just trying to get where they’re trying to go, and are accustomed to the feeling of population density to boot. Related: it’s elbows out if you are grocery shopping at Zabar’s. Elbows out at any grocery in NYC, come to think of it. I was deflated — almost literally, as I was run down a couple of times in the aisles — the first time I shopped at the now-closed Fairway on the UWS. I left on the verge of tears and promptly signed up for Instacart. Other things I have learned: avoid empty subway cars (never, ever a good sign) and do not let a taxi driver roll down a window and ask where you’re going. You must pretend not to hear and climb right in. Otherwise, the driver can coolly evade going in a direction he doesn’t want to go, and you’re out of luck. Wear a crossbody bag with a zippered top when on the subway. Avoid ogling the strange sights you will invariably encounter — as longtime Magpie reader Carmen put it: “Head up, eyes down.” Mr. Magpie and I use “DNE” as a similar shorthand: “Do. Not. Engage.” Always take the subway when it’s raining. You won’t want to (a wet subway is an unpleasant subway), but you’ll get there in a fraction of the time. Avoid maxi dresses (and, when possible, open-toed sandals) when taking the subway, too — difficult in summer, but you’ll be a happier camper. If you are lost in Central Park, look for the green posts. On them, you’ll find a string of characters: the first will be a “W” or “E,” depending on whether you are on the West side or the East side, and the next two or three will indicate the closest numbered street (e.g., if a post reads W6701, you are on the West side, at the 67th street latitude. I don’t know what the last two digits mean. One of many NY codes I’ve not yet deciphered.) I have never gotten fully lost in Central Park, but many of the walkways curve and meander and you can end up well north or south of where you intended. I find the markers primarily useful when running — a quick gut-check as to where I am along West or East drive. Tip the super and doormen as generously as you can and take care to get to know them, as they can make your life heaven or hell. Be leery of “no fee” apartment listings. The fees emerge elsewhere — in elevated rent, or some other loophole. Generally distrust agents involved in renting or subletting apartments. I’m loathe to categorically denigrate a profession, but we’ve been through the wringer on that front. It’s a cutthroat business. Public restrooms are hard to come by and as a rule disgusting; plan accordingly. Never assume a restaurant can accommodate a full-feature stroller. Some don’t even have high chairs. When in doubt, tip.
All lessons learned the hard way, fumbling through the city. With time, some of our initial awkwardness have faded, especially as corners of the city have become as familiar to me as the arrangement of furniture in my childhood home. There are blocks that feel — as strange as this sounds — as if they belong to me, as if they are extensions of my living space here, similar to how it used to feel to pull down the alley behind our Chicago home in order to back into our garage, or to turn onto Tilden Street off Connecticut Avenue in D.C. Safe, home, legible. Those illusions are routinely disturbed by the realities of city life — strange interactions, dog poop, overflowing bags of garbage — but still. This has been our home, and I love her.
When my Dad visited earlier this month, he insisted upon running in the Park despite extreme winds and ultra-cold temperatures. “I had to pay my respects to Jackie O.,” he said, and I knew what he meant in a visceral sense. There are many corners of this city to which I feel pulled to pay my respects as we wind up our time here — most of it in and around the blessed Park, that bastion of green and hope that buoyed our spirits and enabled our life to go on the past year. In it, we have identified optimal sledding hills, preferred benches for coffee and conversation, ideal running routes depending on conditions (like my father, I love running around Jackie O., but the bridle trail is too muddy if raining), favorite playgrounds, and sloping greenswards perfect for picnics that are less trafficked than Sheep Meadow and more accommodating of our dog to boot. There are areas to avoid (mainly south, where all the semi-dead horses cluster and poop) and playgrounds too big and busy to be enjoyable (I’m looking at you, Heckscher Playground, where, incidentally, I caught a man attempting to filch my wallet from my stroller! Shame on me for not knowing better, but still. Another lesson learned.) I feel most at home on the 1 train. I know all its stops by heart, including the one that lets me out literally beneath my best friend’s apartment. I spent many afternoons and evenings skipping up its steps en route to see her, and then her growing belly, and then her sweet baby, born three months before my own son. There is a narrow dirt path along the north side of Sheep Meadow that blooms overgrown with fragrant lilac in the early summer and I cannot help myself: I must cut through there whenever I can. There are streets on the Upper West Side — namely W 85th and W 87th between CPW and Columbus, and then a string down in the low 70s — that make my soul sing. They feel gracious to me, the faces of the brownstones somehow arranged into beneficent smiles, the trees posing proudly in elegant arcs, the foliage generous. I love emerging at the Christopher Street stop downtown — home to many of my favorite restaurants in the city and positively alive. There is a block in the West Village where my girlfriend Inslee used to live and when I think in some abstract sense about New York culture and art, I think of that block, and the many beautiful things she painted while perched in her beautiful studio upon it. And I think, too, of the year I held an in-person book club with Magpie readers, and we occasionally descended upon her studio or her adjacent apartment to discuss books and life and how they intersected and it was one of the most meaningful threads of experience in my life. Flatiron is like a second home to us, as we have faithfully dispatched our daughter to and from that neighborhood every day of the school year for the past two years, often ducking into Eataly for groceries after, or occasionally treating ourselves to coffees at Ralph’s or Devocion (neither far away). I will never forget the bloom of the trees flanking the playground in Union Square, where we’d often let mini roam around after picking up goodies from the farmer’s market there: her face peeking through the bars of the playground equipment while the pink magnolia petals rained down on my sister and I, watching her from a few feet away. Then the picnic my sister and I enjoyed in Sheep Meadow while I was eight months pregnant and desperately uncomfortable — the way my sister listened to me and chased mini for me and then walked me back to my apartment at the chelonian pace of which I was then capable. Meanwhile, my daughter learned to scoot on the wide plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera, and enjoyed countless dripping ice cream cones while gazing distractedly into its dancing fountains. My son learned to walk in the grass of The Great Lawn in Central Park. His first few days of life were spent in a small bassinet looking out across Fifth Avenue towards Jackie O. Reservoir. I cannot take a cab up Madison without several intense flashbacks to the many trips to the hospital for testing and sonograms while expecting him and then the morning I went into pre-term labor that eventually, thankfully fizzled out. I remember standing at the corner of 98th and Madison, calling my mother to let her know it was a boy. “A boy! A boy! Oh, Jennifer, I am so happy for you!” she said, and that conversation, in the shade of the hospital, against the whizzing-by of cars, is the primary memory I call upon when thinking about that pregnancy. 98th, Madison, my mother’s happy voice, my heart in my throat — a boy, my boy! My New York baby.
So yes – perhaps against my better judgment, in the sense that I do not feel I have fully earned the right to write about her – she has been here, steadily coursing through my writing, an anchor to my musings and an umbrage to my thoughts. Will the move to D.C. alter the ebb and flow of my essays? Will my thoughts expand, or contract? How will the rhythm change?
These are things I cannot know, but —
At least I have a couple of years of writing to revisit when I am feeling lonesome for New York. Even the pieces not explicitly about New York, as I have discovered in the course of writing this post, sing a New York song. I’m proud to have sung it.
+A few posts specifically on the topic of NYC:
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.
+Boden has such great pieces out at the moment. I’m loving this happy striped midi, this colorblocked rain coat, and this striped dress. You’ll never regret the striped dress. Style up, down, under a cardigan or scarf, with sandals or heels. The best.
+A sweatshirt in the perfect shade of pink.
+Nike issued these leggings in such fun colors.
+This crochet sweater from Zara is such a fun way to get in on the trend. Pair with white/ecru denim and brown leather flats/sandals.
+Not to get too ahead of myself, but $20 Easter jammies for littles!
+Gorgeous gift tags for a wedding, special occasion, etc.
+Conversation cards for dinner parties, couples, offices, etc!
+Swooning over this denim varsity jacket for my son.
+These patterned trousers are so fab.
+A “Montessori” book shelf.