Lessons from New York City

'Believe' lit up on the side of Macy's on 34th Street in New York City. 'Believe' lit up on the side of Macy's on 34th Street in New York City.

Between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30, my younger sibling and brother-in-law played tour guides to me and my mom in New York City. NYC is always busy, but it is a whole other kind of crazy during the holiday season and even more so during a global pandemic. What were we thinking? 

Well, we were thinking we missed Leilah and Ryan and we’ve always wanted to go to the city at Christmas. We had to cancel the trip we had planned for April 2020 during the first months of the COVID-19 Pandemic and damn it, this Omicron variant wasn’t going to stop us this time. We came armed with the vaccine, the booster, N-95 masks and lots of hand sanitizer. 

In the few times I’ve been in the city — 2006, 2013, 2018 and 2021 — I always bring home a fresh perspective, a new respect for how others live and an appreciation for the life I live here in Appalachia. For me, that’s what traveling is all about. I love every minute of it and then I equally love the feeling of returning home. 

This visit was starkly different from my last visit in the summer of 2018. What’s New York without being crammed elbow to elbow into a hot subway car or sitting down in a fancy restaurant to eat delicious food or pushing your way through a crowded bar to sing karaoke with a drag queen? Ah, New York! 

As the Omicron variant continues to spread, tents are set up on sidewalks throughout the city for COVID testing and they all have lines a mile long. Of all the restaurants open inside the Rockefeller Plaza, there’s no tables for people to sit and eat. Lines to the museums were wrapped around the buildings during the holidays due to limited capacity requirements. We didn’t sit down in one bar or restaurant. We ate at places with outdoor seating, not even caring if it was 45 degrees. 

What a wild time to be alive, right?

Coming from Waynesville where masking is lax to say the least, I have to say it was frustrating to feel like I needed to wear it all the time due to crowds, closeness on the subway and requirements on the airplane. 

I’m not saying that to complain, just to recognize my gratitude for living where I live and knowing I can walk outside and be socially distanced from others without having to cover my face. I can get in my car to get where I’m going without having to worry about being exposed on the train. 

Living in New York City is not for the faint of heart. I have a deep respect and appreciation for the people who live and work in the Big Apple. They have grit and perseverance to keep going amid the chaos. Spending hours of their day commuting by ferry from Staten Island, by train from the boroughs or through the Holland Tunnel from New Jersey. 

Or they work from home in apartments with no outdoor space, little sunlight, old radiator heaters and buildings more than 100 years old. It’s not bad — it’s just different — and yet there is such a beauty to it. The rhythms and flow of the city. It’s just a whole other way of life than here in the South.  

I’m southern through and through, I guess. Leilah makes fun of me because they think it’s weird that I say hello or smile at everyone I pass on the street here or when walking around Lake Junaluska. They were very clear that I did NOT need to do that in NYC. In fact, don’t even look people in the eye, they said. 

My brother-in-law explained this seemingly rude gesture as simply giving people some kind of personal space and privacy in such a crowded city. I can understand that, though it’s still difficult for me to not compliment the woman sitting next to me on the subway for the amazing shoes she’s wearing, but I digress.

On the last day of our trip as we made our way back to Leilah’s apartment in Brooklyn, they said, “It’s exhausting being a tourist in New York City. I probably won’t go into Manhattan for three months after y’all leave.”

I was convinced they were joking, but really they don’t need to go into Manhattan to enjoy their NYC life. Their Little Carribean neighborhood has everything they need — a bodega and food market down the street, Prospect Park right across the street and some of the best ethnic food just a block or two away. Why would they need to go to the city? 

It reminded me of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The world only exists in your eyes — your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to.” 

It’s a big world out there, but it’s so easy for many of us to get lost in our little personal worlds, especially during this pandemic. Getting out of our comfort zones to explore how others live is refreshing. It forces us to re-examine our own way of living and whether it aligns with how we want to live. 

I challenge you to make your worlds a bit larger this year, do something that makes you uncomfortable, see places you’ve never been! 

I’m so proud of Leilah and Ryan for succeeding in the city with great jobs and a sense of adventure. I’m also sure I’m exactly where I belong. I will continue to travel to learn about myself and others, but I’m grateful to be able to return to these peaceful mountains where others only dream of escaping. 

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