“New York City — the center of the universe.” That single quote from Rent, tinged with sarcasm and anger about our metropolis, floated often through my high school-aged mind. I resided in a small-town ecosystem in Western Pennsylvania where the inhabitants were white humans with only a smattering of ethnicity, and the environs consisted of Applebee’s and the world’s smallest mall. After 18 years in a bubble of rustic simplicity, I wanted to hear sounds not spoken in English and to go out with men who weren’t attending Friday’s football game. It was easy to forget that the characters in Rent had a hell of a hard life — I just longed to be in the middle of all existence, and if that was New York City, so be it. For a time I led the life of an itinerant college student, studying in Spain and Peru, taking exams about cultures that were not my own, and wandering about the quasi-urban neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. I finally moved to New York City in the fall of 2010, and it felt like sliding to the center of one of those giant funnel-shaped waterpark slides — the result of a gravitational force over which I had little control, but still immensely enjoyed.
It’s always been the little quirks of my foster cities and tourist destinations that ultimately get me hooked. While living in Valencia, Spain, I was obsessed with dragging visitors to the “Cat House,” a small but elaborate facade carved into a wall around a hole built for feral cats (you’ll find it on Calle Museo, if you’re interested). On vacation in Osijek, Croatia, I was both disgusted and charmed by the fact that I almost ate an obscenely huge chicken foot from a bowl of soup — and then watched my friend (a local) scoop it up and bite a hunk off, caveman style. New York is full of tiny surprises just like these, which is probably why it has enamored me so. The smallest slivers of New York life — say, a rowdy, drunk Yankees fan or the décor of a homey pub — are worth an entire summer of exploration.
While high on the thrill of the hunt for tiny details in grand cities, one is bound to get the munchies. Culinary discoveries are the happiest of accidents. I’ve come to find that bubble tea and its comfort food cousin macaroni and cheese are not just food I eat with my friends — the food is a friend in itself. My search for New York’s best bubble tea is always on. On a day where the stress of a bustling New York office is forcing your teeth to clench, nothing softens the gnashing like chewy, gummy tapioca pearls. When the weight of graduate school becomes too difficult to bear, I call up my classmates and the lot of us head to S’Mac in the East Village. Their menu consists of only macaroni and cheese, and scraping the last bits of creamy elbow-shaped noodles from a skillet is healing — to us as least. This summer, I’ll be continuing my appetite adventures, though don’t expect me to be reviewing Per Se or Le Cirque. The best holes-in-the-wall are the heroes that come to your rescue (I was “saved” once, maybe a hundred times, by a bowl of sweet potato fries.)
Then there are the cultural enclaves calling to me. Upon moving to New York, I promptly purchased Naomi Fertitta’s New York: The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods, an intriguing field guide on each borough’s ethnically diverse pockets of citizens. As someone so accustomed to packing my bags and passing long hours on buses and trains, it will be a relief to visit Sri Lanka (okay, Little Sri Lanka) on Staten Island just by hopping the ferry. Near my own neighborhood sits the Bronx’s take on Little Italy. I’m hoping that when I have the chance to explore its restaurants this summer I’ll find simple pasta dishes for less than $20, or whatever the going rate is these days for boring, bland Italian food in Manhattan.
Real estate is another adventure (but mostly a challenge) that looms in the coming months. It’s probably time to man up and experience my first full-fledged NYC apartment hunt. By a stroke of luck I have a lovely friend, a Queens native, whose massive extended family rents apartments in their houses. Her aunt and uncle now lease to me what I affectionately call my “Riverdale lair.” Here, mariachi music sinks through my ceiling every weekend and my TV doubles as a book shelf. Despite all the charm of my home, it might be time to strap on the big-girl boots and wade through the Craigslist pool of bargain apartments. I feel compelled to dig for rent-controlled gold in Sunnyside, Queens, somewhere among the boxy brown buildings and Queens Boulevard diners. In grander daydreams, I envision inhabiting an Upper West Side one-bedroom with beautiful wood floors — my own El Dorado.
As the center of the universe, New York has more delights plucked from the world orbiting around it than I can tackle this summer. However, it’s the attempt to discover every detail that creates true New Yorkers. It’s a little like falling in love. To get to know a city as best you can, loving it because of every beautiful moment and despite every regrettable flaw, you become a part of the city. I am thrilled to begin documenting this summer’s journey as I take my new lover, New York.