It wasn’t the first time a near-stranger had helped me lug a suitcase up a flight of stairs. This time, it was an actress who muttered, “I’m used to it.”
It had all happened so fast. LaGuardia Airport was just 10 minutes away from the apartment. I’d been dropped off outside a small brick building and here I was. My new roommate opened the door, helped drag up the cases containing my life, and before I knew it we were talking about finding work as a performer in the city.
She’s heading west as soon as she can. And here I am, almost as east as you can be without hitting the Atlantic.
The first time someone had carried that big blue suitcase to my new home was in Paris, when my host dad helped me navigate the twisting flight of stairs in his family’s Haussmann apartment building. The architecture was different now, and I’d like to think I’d grown and changed since then. But I was once again surrounded by strangers. I didn’t know what lay beyond every corner, and I had no idea what was going to happen next.
I like that. More than anything, that’s why I left Minnesota and took a job in New York.
Day 1: Astoria
The actor showed me a bright blue room at the back of the building, where two long windows had lime green curtains shifting in the breeze. A fan blared. I wasn’t enthusiastic about unpacking all my sweat with my belongings, so I took off for a walk around my new neighborhood: Astoria, Queens.
The first thing I noticed about the area was that it was full of tiny brick houses with even tinier square gardens. A lot of them had elaborately trimmed bushes, statues of religious figures; even fountains. The houses huddles up next to each other in every shade of brown, with the occasional yellow or pink thrown in for fun.
I’ve since come to learn that the neighborhood is historically Greek — hence the Mediterranean blue patios and handful of orthodox churches with beautiful domes just a few blocks away. There are Greek restaurants and bakeries on almost every block, all of them seeming to have been around for generations. You hear Greek on the street, plus a lot of other languages — Spanish; Arabic.
That first afternoon, I walked through Astoria Park, a vast hilly park right on the water. Across the way, I could see Upper Manhattan. People walked around in bathing suits, kids played at the playground and friends hung out on blankets.
I made my way up Ditmars Boulevard, which got busy the closer I got to 31st Street, where an elevated train cast shadows over the street and takes people into Manhattan. I hit up the home goods store that was having a closeout sale (my new roommate gave me some shopping intel) and got a few groceries. Right away, the prices hit me pretty hard. I knew New York would be expensive, but carrying $50 worth of groceries without breaking a sweat (well, I was sweating all day, but you get the picture), made it feel a lot more real and terrifying.
I’ve still been here less than a week, but I’ve walked around Astoria more and loved it. It’s quiet, homey and full of flowers. One block might not look like much — a gas station that looks like it closed down in the 80s, for instance — but the next might be beautifully preserved brick houses with charming iron fire escapes in every color.
It was completely by chance that I ended up in this upper corner of Queens, but so far, it’s been a great place to escape back to after an chaotic day in Manhattan or a bit-too-social afternoon in Brooklyn. Which brings me to:
Day 2: Brooklyn
A bit exhausted by the heat, and perhaps by the sticker shock, I didn’t make it out of my neighborhood until the Fourth of July, my second day here. The second after I bought my Metro Card, I turned around and spotted one of the only people I knew in New York: Sinjun.
I screamed her name and ran to the turn style. She didn’t turn right away because she only knew one person in this far-flung area … until now. We talked about her travels on the train, and she invited me to join her for a barbecue that evening.
So, with a bottle of requested St. Germaine in hand, I made my way over to Park Slope, Brooklyn — an hour-long train ride from my place. Sinjun opened the door to a beautifully renovated two-story house. I met the hosts and Sinjun’s friend who invited her. We climbed a pool ladder from the deck into the back yard, sitting under twinkle lights and playing Uno as we sipped a drink and ate grilled stuff.
Then we made our way to Red Hook, a historically industrial area of town that’s being built up into trendy studios. The father of Sinjun’s friend has a wood shop there. We climbed some metal stairs into the dusty loft, then he showed us to a ladder leading right up to the roof. Soon, we were watching fireworks in every direction: flickering distantly behind the Statue of Liberty, on Staten Island; in Jersey City. They bloomed crisply over Manhattan and exploded in messy bursts just a few blocks away. We drank from cans of Brooklyn Brewery and lay on our backs, happy to be out in the fresh air, which was finally almost cool.
Sinjun and I made our way back together. She’s been here for four years. A film photographer, she’s crawled through they city’s hidden places to do photo shoots and knows the busses and trains like she does her 1940s camera. “How did you feel when you first got here?” I asked. “Stressed,” she said. Mostly because as soon as she got to her sublease after a 7-hour drive, the landlord told her she wasn’t supposed to live there.
Sitting on upturned buckets at the wood shop, the friend’s dad talked to us about the city. “People either like it or hate it. You know right away.”
Hot, a bit homesick and pessimistic about the details, not every moment here has been euphoric. But on the sleepy bus ride home and standing with the multitudes at the Queensboro Plaza Station, I felt an energy I only had in big cities – in Paris; London; Berlin — at once a cog in a giant machine and completely free. But I reminded myself I was in no other city but this one. I want to figure out what makes this place this place, but is that even possible?
I guess I’ll find out.
Day 3: Midtown
The day after the Fourth of July, I began my new job. I got up with enough time to work out, sweat profusely, and reduce the sweating before walking up 23rd Avenue to the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard Station.
Riding the elevated train, I watched sunlight reach between buildings. I re-read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I first read the summer after graduating high school. In that time of change, New York was an unknown.
Early to work for perhaps the only time in my life, I sat in Greeley Square on North Broadway, two blocks from my office building. Just a few yards from busy traffic and countless walkers, the trees muffled the sound and the colorful tables and chairs made it a laid-back place to get ready for whatever was about to happen next.
Then I got up and walked the two blocks, paying even more attention when crossing the street. Sixth Avenue seemed to go on forever. But, before I knew it, I was at the Art Deco door that opened to all the other less literal ones. I grabbed the silver handle. I walked to the elevator. On the eighth floor, I got out, and found the office door.
I only knew so much about what was on the other side … .
Photos: New surroundings
Here’s more from Astoria, and from parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan as I explored during my first week here.