About eight years ago, according to a good friend, Rob and I started talking about moving to NYC. Just for a year, to try it out. But as I told friends before moving, I could picture myself with my grocery-cart walker strolling around town as a well-advanced Senior citizen, so we were thinking long term. I loved the idea of anonymity but also adventure — a city that never slept, just like me! Well, I sleep, but not great.
I imagined that we could become better activists and artists in a city full of events, people, and culture. Sort of like boot camp. I also imagined the New York of a romantic mind; bohemian New York. Dive bars. Hidden spaces. Cool stuff that you would never see anywhere else.
In the 2017 documentary, Shadowman, someone said how the Lower East Side was like the Wild West back then. Everything was desolate, bombed out.
I can relate to this in our move to Durham, NC back in 2005. I even called it by the same name (“Wild West”). It felt like anything was possible. And the mainstream hadn’t caught on to the hidden treasures that lay beneath the scrappy veneer.
But there were hidden gems: galleries, performance art, restaurants. You had to work to find them. That, I realize, is the difference between then and now. A quick walk through NYC will tell you that. All its restaurants and offerings are boldly front-and-center. For sale. For you. What’s hidden has been found, and it’s not as fun anymore. Everyone wants in, and you’re running into them and their need every time you leave your apartment.
For our first month, we stayed in a room at a Bedstuy AirBnB. After a fruitless search for a co-op (as documented by the New York Times in The Hunt) we ended up renting where we could afford, and found an apartment in Harlem. In the “valley” to be specific. Just down these stairs:
We were very excited to be living in Harlem, with its rich history in literature, music, and the arts. And yet, that wasn’t quite enough. And for what follows, I describe not only Harlem, but most of NYC.
It wasn’t glamorous. Our first collage, in fact, is dedicated to what I’ve come to call the spectrum of garbage to art. Now, bear with me, people who can actually draw:
From people leaving their dog crap on the sidewalk, discarding bottles, cans, food, and bags, spitting everywhere, and just generally not giving a shit, living in NYC has been like being surrounded by negative effort. It’s a bit magnified when the discard is right outside your door (cigarette butts, tissues, beer cans, dog pee, puke) or in the elevator (puke, human drunk piss, and again the beer can).
It is here I present my first collection…
1. Garbage n’ Art
Examining this further, I initially scolded myself for caring so much about the surrounding conditions. “Stop being such a prima donna.” I told myself. (“Primo Dono” for those men out there.)
Of course garbage can be art; the difference is all in the effort, whether intentionally by the artist or unintentionally by the viewer, like the floating plastic bag in American Beauty. (Coincidentally, we have our own plastic bag art, hung by the wind with care into the winter tree branches.)
The left of the spectrum is the most easy and effortless. It says, “I don’t care. Or I don’t want you to think I do.” Maybe it’s your only power. To the right, one is making an effort. Intentionally creating something beyond what’s required. An effort beyond one’s comfort. I can feel that in my bones. Bad art is like garbage … without feeling.
Then there is the “shopping” part of NYC. One of Rob’s friends said that NYC was now like a suburban strip mall, and he wasn’t that far off. When there isn’t a Duane Reade, TD Bank, or Dunkin Donuts there are endless shops selling cheap, disposable, unhealthy crap. This includes the thousands of deli bodegas, which unlike the chains can be owned by families and are considered very “NY.” Most, though, seem more like chains, selling the same potato chips, smokes, roach killer, and grocery carts. Arguably, though there are several on most blocks, these smaller operations serve as community hubs … and our being here a year does not give us the authority to dismiss them. But … the endless ALL CAPS signage, old posters, and blinking lights, all announce that their baseline is a cash transaction in chip, candy, or lottery ticket. Rob might disagree — he got to know the bodega owner around the corner over several beer purchases, and Syba was welcome in the store which was a nice change from typical NY. But for me, it’s not a place I’d hang out. (Probably since most of the stuff isn’t something I’d buy – chips, soda, deli meat, etc.)
In addition to the sadness of the inanimate object surroundings, many people were sad too. Rob took this photo of a man sleeping outside our door in the hallway one early AM as he headed to a background acting gig, which I share only because he cannot be identified in any way:
We asked and it seems he has an apartment in the building but just didn’t quite make it there. (He may be the same man whom two friends were assisting one evening, holding up the elevator as they tried to figure out to which floor he belonged. Meanwhile, he peed in the elevator.)
What compels people not to care? New York is notoriously dirty, this is nothing new. Here is what I think is happening.
I was immediately impressed, when we moved here, with how efficient the city was. It has to be. This efficiency creates some level of expectation among her citizens. When you throw your garbage onto the subway tracks (despite the numerous trash bins) it will be picked up (or will catch on fire and derail the subway). Some degree of entitlement takes hold among those in this factory-farm-like big city, where services are so efficient that your garbage, your poop, your spit, your snot rags, and your discarded condoms will always be removed; your walkways are hosed down. Then repeat.
There were plenty of things to like: the area was a lot more chill than the rest of NYC, and the older-time residents reminded me of Durham in their friendly “Hey honey” greetings and polite inquiries about Syba. The endless benches (every city should have so much outdoor seating), the friendly folks, and the green parks. The parties in the summertime, the music. The dumped charcoal from said parties on the sidewalks Syba would try to eat. The endless trashed balloons, equipment, papers, parts.
Oops, back to positive. It turns out that Rucker Park is right by our Subway stop, #155, and as I made my way to the subway I always planned to go to a game but never made it.
Either way, walking alongside Jackie Robinson park with Syba was enjoyable overall, and it was nice to have a place for her to greet other dogs. This brings us to collection #2:
2. Senior dogs in NYC
There is nothing like your first winter in NYC after you had been bathed for years in the warm rays of North Carolina’s tangerine sun. Certainly it snows and chills there, but just *not* *like* *this*. It got me thinking — quite a bit — about my little “dream” of being old and gray in this cold and gray garbageverse. Sure, it’s natural to consider aging due to my number of years being a middle number creeping toward the end numbers on the spectrum of birth/death, but also watching my boo Syba get old. Questions I had were …
- How do we get Syba out from the 5th floor three times a day when the elevator goes out? (Which it does about 2-3 times a month). First method = towel & harness, lots of treats. Second = Investment in Senior dog assist harness, still lots of treats.
- What if Syba can’t walk or not far and needs a vet? Option 1: Stroller! Option 2: home vet. We did both.
- How can we bring Syba on a hike, since she can’t be transported via Subway? Option 1: Metro North (allow dogs). Option 2: Stroller in the subway; incur wrath of subway goers. Option 3: Bring Weston back from Connecticut, witness highest insurance payment ever! We did 1 & 3.
- What is the most appropriate bed for a Senior dog? OK, not NY related. But The search continued until, success.
Part 1: The right bed
Part 2: The right cart, or Syba’s Ambulance (–Rob)
(She is freakishly long!) and (measure twice, cut once?)
Returned the cart. Found the appropriate size, which is harder to remove from our apartment than it is to stroll her around.
Part 2: The necessary outings
Part 3: In sickness and health
Part 4: Mirrors — advanced communication
This year, Syba began communicating to me through mirrors. Which sounds very supernatural. But it’s mostly just cute. She looks at me through the mirror instead of right at me, and scratches the mirror. It indeed gets my attention.
To get us through the year, therapy was in the form of frequent trips to try out vegan restaurants …
3. Food therapy. Mostly cake.
We also tried Candle 79, Red Bamboo, Butcher’s Daughter, Champs, Dun-Well Donuts, Lil’ Choc Apothocary, Bunna Cafe, the Rock Shop, Zen, May Caidee, Peacefood Cafe, and so many more.
How could we afford to buy these food items and Senior Dog comforts, while paying NYC rent? This brings us to our fourth collection.
4. Background acting and Columbia
Rob was inspired to pursue extra work — now called background acting — by our uncle-cousin Steve Davis, who mastered the art over in Albuquerque (coincidentally he also built two of our guitars and is quite the Luthier).
Rob signed up with a casting agency and I took a headshot to get him started:
Following, a few (but not all) Rob Roles from this past year … notice any patterns?
Part of the fun was hearing about the roles he would be playing. My favorite was “upscale crack smoker” (nailed it!). Of course, there was always a lot of waiting, whether for a bus, on set, or to leave and sign out.
But, the scenery on location was often worth it, and Rob saw way more of New York than I did.
I was also fortunate to land a part-time job coordinating a grant and managing the marketing at the Social Intervention Group within Columbia University’s School of Social Work. No headshots, but I’m very happy to be continuing work there with awesome co-workers, an taking the train once a week from Philly to NYC.
Once we both began working, our mood improved. It’s a very demanding and competitive city, so it can feel a bit isolating and lonely. It did contribute to an album’s worth of sad songs! Bringing us to collection #5, Art & Dance Stuffs.
5) Art & Dance Stuffs
One fun thing about New York was the opportunity to do things I’d always wanted to — learn some Greek dances, take tap lessons, and just try a bunch of stuff out (like a few Capoeira classes and one ballet class). It was also in NYC that I had the epiphany about building a game with outreach in mind but fun at the core — in fact, the name will be Kore: The mysteries, based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
It wasn’t all fun and games! Beyond our own personal dramas and #firstworldproblems a new problem was elected.
Bringing us to our sixth collection.
6) Towers & Powers
Our first month in NYC was spent Brooklyn, where we attended the presidential debates at this vegan bar called the Pine Box Rock Shop. I vividly remember the 2nd debate, where Syba kept releasing … it can only be called farts … until the packed house nearby (who initially laughed it off) after number twelve leaked out, said in so many words that this joke wasn’t funny any more.
Beyond being in a new city, without our close friends, it was very tough to be here at a time when one of its very disliked residents became #45. Below some moments of protesting the powers that be, whether they be against people or non-human individuals who are at our mercy.
I was so inspired that I made a meme:
The formula for change seems to be: acknowledgement and discussion + (as activist) action + humor + allowance for steps. We intend to stay engaged in exposing and countering all manners of oppression.
But we need our buds to do this. We hosted about 15 people in our year in Harlem, and this made it more bearable, as well as being sort of tourists ourselves for the year.
7) Our peeps and places
I had a sort of “bucket list” of things to see and do in NYC, much revolving around music, museums, parks, theater, and sites. We hit the two-hour “free” walking tours (Soho/Chinatown, Harlem, and Greenwich Village) but also tried to find more “local” spots (Showman’s Jazz, the Shrine, Bill’s). If you ever find yourself visiting NYC for two days, I have the perfect itinerary for you, from Ellis Island to the Bronx (depending on the number of days).
Somehow I didn’t capture all the visits here with photos, or the activities, but I do believe we hit almost everything in our 15 months here.
We also went to Toronto to celebrate my uncle’s 80th (for which I finally made a family history with years of interviews/tapes in a 2.5 hour video — including tape cassettes I made as a kid in Greece, recording interviews and a lot of nothing too). We made a couple of trips to Connecticut, one sadly to attend Rob’s grandma-ma’s funeral. She was about 90, and I’ll never forget how welcoming she was to me when we I met her in 2002.
Though it was difficult to be here, we were happy to finally accomplish our task of living in NYC for a year. Now, I can say, it is officially out of our system. (Well, it might have been out of our systems after a few months, actually). We miss community, which is difficult in such a populated place.
Which invokes our last collection:
8) Philly: New New York?
Okay, well, Philly isn’t in New York (though the former mayor of Philly called New York “Northern Philly” and New York has dubbed Philly its 6th borough for years). But, because of its proximity, we were able to make several visits, staying in turn for our 15th year wedding anniversary at Rittenhouse Square, to scout out houses in West Philly from a terrible Yurt, and to find houses, perform an inspection, and buy a house in South Philly.
Soon, we’ll be staying in houseboat while we wait to move into our home in Dickinson Square West. A few highlights:
And now, we prepare to leave NYC on one of the coldest New Years Eve since the 1960s.