“I’m from the city” has become my habitual response. It always comes after someone new asks where I’m from, and I reply “New York,” and I return the question (“North Carolina, Salt Lake City, Leeds, Fukushima, Ulaanbaatar,” they reply), and they keep at it and ask, “where in New York?” and I’m forced to say, “I’m from the city” (the city, as if there’s no other city in New York), and then I have to say “Manhattan” in a muted tone that confers insufferable pretension and unworthy shame, making me seem like a total prick.
And it’s because I am. Somewhere, programmed deep in the back of my mind, I don’t believe there are any other cities in New York. Obfuscating with “New York” right off the bat, as if I might live in Buffalo or Schenectady and could steal some fraudulent humility, is almost worse than admitting “Manhattan” immediately. I’m also the worst kind of Manhattanite: I went to a private school and spent weekends downtown (as if there’s no other “downtown”) and didn’t learn how to drive until a month ago.
Many fellow first-years may see us New Yorkers huddled together in all our insular glory. The same can be said for the bubbles from Los Angeles and London and even boarding schools, but since I am from New York City and there are no other cities in the world, I am talking about New York City. We meet at parties and ask if we know this guy or that girl from Riverdale or Chapin, compare the cross-streets of where we live, remark how nice it is to see “familiar faces.” Taking the Metro-North back from Bulldog Days, I was with a group of fellow incoming first-years, half from the city, half just passing through, one of which said, “you guys just act like New Yorkers. Like there’s just some vibe.” I didn’t understand what he meant until I later realized that we had largely excluded the rest of them from our conversation.
Exclusion wasn’t our intention—but of course we still aren’t excused. We clung together mostly out of a desire to find familiarity amidst three days of stress and chaos. No matter how confident and already-integrated we may appear talking to each other effusively, as if we’ve been to each other’s proms, played each other in JV games, or all joined in some unexplained cult, we’re mired in anxiety and reeling from whiplash. Yes, two people being from New York City is a great conversation starter and breeds a kind of innate trust—inextricably linked to socioeconomic class and urban elitism—that allows us to act more comfortably. But I don’t believe many of us grant meaningful weight to that trust. I do find other New Yorkers generally nice and outgoing people. Maybe I’ll be long-term friends with many of them. But, right now, I mostly find myself clinging to them particularly hard when I’m trying to keep my head above water. It’s a survival instinct.
And we’re all just surviving right now. At least I am. While things have settled down from the first “parties” (massive throngs of first-years on Old Campus flowing in and out of Bingham), everything is still relatively new, and nothing feels perfectly comfortable. Perhaps this is optimistic folly, but I believe many other first-years feel as I do: apprehensive, unmoored, and regressing back to preteen insecurity, all the while convinced that everyone else has it together.
The New York City bubble is nothing but the present manifestation of those neuroses. The bubble doesn’t so much protect us as it shuts us off from the rest of the world, offering a distorted, fragile view of what’s around us. Of course I’m not saying these friendships are fruitless and invalid, but reliance on them only grants us safety from rejection and alienation, things which we reasonably fear but always come to pass.
I’m not claiming innocence, and what I’m offering is no easy task. But, I think we are well-advised to keep in mind that we don’t inherently deserve the head start of prior connections and privileged confidence that we have. If we stay in the bubble, we lose out; it’s that simple. We never have to leave the bubble, and that’s what makes it so enticing, the prospect of having security only at the cost of lost opportunity. So, it is a choice. We’re lucky to have that choice to make. I myself know I no longer want to be that prick on the Metro-North.