A Year And A Half In Manhattan


by David Cunningham
Sat Nov 02 2019

1. Arrival

After spending a fun evening in what I knew would be the last time for a while in Nashville with one of my best friends and Katie, I boarded a one-way flight the next morning to LaGuardia Airport. I had been waiting 5 years to live in a big city again, since I left Vanderbilt and Nashville on graduation. Huntsville had treated me well enough, and it's where I met the person who would become my wife and some of my best, lifelong friends, but I never felt the way about the suburbs and rural living as I did about living in a big city. This new place would be my home, and I couldn't have been more ready for the change.

As the plane approached the tall buildings of Manhattan, I couldn't contain my excitement. This wasn't just a tourist destination anymore. This was where I would wake up and fall asleep every night, where I'd go out and meet friends for dinner, where I would see comedy shows, where I would sit in the park and drink cheap beers. This was now my home.

After landing and getting into a taxi with my first round of luggage, the excitement heightened upon entering Manhattan from Queens. I was now in it. In the place I had visited so many times before, inside this adult playground with endless entertainment, food, and other delights. I was here, and here for good.

2. Adjustments

The following several months would entail a litany of adjustments. My new job was just one of these, but a major one. I was working a full-time software engineering job with a large, agile team and modern tech the likes of which essentially didn't exist in Northrop Grumman's Huntsville campus. I was and am a self taught programmer who now found himself working on a large, production codebase amongst elite New York City developers. I worked very hard to earn my place in that team, and still am. Along with this, I spent several months on and off away from the team in intensive job training courses. I was thankful for the company's investment in me, and learned a lot, but the extended time away from the team and from learning the team-specific skills and domain knowledge exacerbated this feeling of needing to catch up and establish my role there.

The stressors didn't stop at the office, though, by a long shot. My first two and a half months in this new place had the simultaneous challenge of being away from Katie (she visited frequently to find new work, but had her commitments at home) at length for the first time since we began dating, and needing to set up our new apartment essentially by myself. For the first time, I needed window A/C units, and I needed to figure out how to install them. For the first time, I had to install curtains and blinds. For the first time, I needed to mount wall items and my television in cinder block, which was far less straightforward than wood studs. All of this needed to be done while adjusting to work, finding where to take my laundry (did I mention we didn't/don't have an in building washer or dryer?), where to eat nearby, how to best navigate public transportation, survive the increasing summer heat (the first A/C unit couldn't show up fast enough), and find temporary paper curtains to staunch the flow of city light until we settled on and installed proper ones.

Life was far from easy the first few months. I also found that the idyllic Manhattan neighborhood of brownstones and brick buildings that I paid dearly (don't ask me what the equivalently priced home would be in Huntsville) to enjoy would only be a small segment of my existence, with most hours of most my days spent in the office across the city in Midtown. Everything here was more expensive, starting with the rent but going on through the wash and fold laundry that became a necessity without in-building washers, the $127 monthly unlimited MTA passes (which didn't include when a taxi was the only or much more convenient option), the increased price for gym passes (the cheapest memberships here were equivalent to the most expensive in Huntsville), the increased price for utilities (window A/C units are not nearly as efficient as central air), and the increased price for drinks (which add up enormously when you're new in town and trying to get out of the house to make new friends), among many other, smaller things.

As the apartment came together, Katie found a dream job and arrived in Manhattan for good, and we began to make friends, things seemed to be on a path to relative stability, despite the continuing challenges. However, my most challenging period was yet to come.

3. Winter

The first winter living in a new place has always been a substantial trial for me, and this was no exception. My first winter in Manhattan was one of the harder things I've had to adjust to, and I struggled for those cold months, due to a variety of factors.

One major factor was that as the end of 2018 neared, I had been at my job for about eight months, and had spent five of them in training. This meant that despite approaching a full year at my team, I had only spent three actual months working and learning with them. This was a source of mounting stress, and the sense of impostor syndrome felt like it would be delayed indefinitely, even though the training was soon coming to an end for good. But I knew, or felt, that despite their approval and decision for me to do the training, at the end of the day, what I contributed to the team is what would establish and secure my position there. The training courses were at best tangentially contributing to that.

Also, as I mentioned previously, the gym prices in Manhattan can be astoundingly high, with some "premium" gyms charging the equivalent of rent costs in a smaller town. I am a person who thrives on physical activity, and often struggles without it, and because I was too stubborn to spend the increased cost of gym memberships, I found myself for the first time ever with no real exercise outlet - most days it was too cold for me to realistically motivate myself to run outside, and neither our apartment building nor my office had a gym. This led to some real problems with anxiety and depression, that were exacerbated by the other stressors - further adjustment to the city, impostor syndrome at work, and navigating a cold city every day without a car.

Living without a car was one of the challenges of adjustment to living in Manhattan, but one that didn't truly rear its head (Manhattan, for everyones' complaints, has a very robust public transport system) until the winter chill set in. Suddenly, I found myself traversing the chilly ice scape of Central Park on foot, where in Huntsville I would dive into my car, turn up the heat, and not leave until I was parked within twenty yards of a warm building. This compounded the other stress, as it was a daily inconvenience and discomfort.

To say the least, New York was not an easy place last winter. I'm feeling better about the coming one, with a gym membership lined up and much greater confidence in my job and place in the city, but thinking about last winter still stems anxieties about mastering the challenges ahead.

4. Adaptation

Moving to New York involved a million adjustments, large and small. To discuss all of them would encompass at least another entire article. But needless to say, there was a significant learning curve, and as I began to master it, the city rewarded me in turn.

I learned about the three primary types of pizza places (slice, elaborate Sicilian, and Neapolitan) and the pros and cons of each. I learned when it was best to take an Uber/taxi versus the express train. I learned to drink before going out, which would typically save Katie and me fifty or more dollars in a given night. I developed running routes for different distances in both Central Park and Riverside. I learned about numerous restaurants for all kinds of foods, both near the apartment, and across the city. I got in good "walking shape" - I can essentially walk any distance now (or that's how it feels), at near-jogging pace. I found cool places to take out-of-town visitors that weren't the standard crowded, expensive tourist destinations. I got a subscription to my local comedy club so Katie and I could go anytime for the combined price of one drink, and to my local movie theatre so I could watch the IMAX for free. I made friends with some great people, while leaving some not-so-great people behind.

I began to develop a network of people that I could call on for countless reasons. I met people in tech, but also people in sales, actors, user designers, doctors, entrepreneurs, musicians, teachers, and more. I made friends. I started getting invited to parties and simple hangouts. I found people to help me build my tech blog platform DabblingIn, and more to write for it. I saw and sometimes chatted with famous people in comedy clubs, book readings, restaurants, walking to work, at the grocery store, and in line at the DMV.

5. Growth

As the winter months progressed into spring and summer, I got out of the house, started running again, and this combined with my increasing comfort and facility with life in the city saw substantial growth, coming into my own in a place that is as daunting as they get.

My friends and I finished the MVP of DabblingIn, ready for authors to contribute. I started a weekly meetup, New York Tech & Beer, which sees 25-40 people each week, including a healthy batch of regulars. Through this meetup, I made more friends in three months than I did in the year prior, and social and career opportunities extended from this. I found authors who were excited to contribute to DabblingIn, and continued developing its front and backend while writing articles myself.

I also found the serendipitous opportunity to write regularly for one of my favorite local publications, I Love The Upper West Side, whose owner also helped provide a model for how I would run DabblingIn. Through this opportunity, I get to write and keep abreast of local news and history, and to stretch my brain learning and writing about a variety of topics, from Columbia's 3D printer and laser-generated pizza, to the history of the Charles Schwab mansion, to the last remaining old-style phone booths in NYC. On top of all that, I get the pleasure of having my writing seen and read and enjoyed by my neighbors in the Upper West Side, through one of its most-read publications, and occasionally receive emails about my articles.

6. Present

New York, though a challenging city to master (if that's even possible), feels and more and more truly like home lately. One of the most bizarre sensations I experienced recently was the realization that the idea of a suburb and houses as far as the eye can see was becoming a foreign and alien concept, while massive skyscrapers and subways and comedy shows were becoming the accepted norm. It was a strange feeling, but also almost as exciting as the feeling I had when I first arrived in Manhattan, excited to learn the ropes and call this place home. Me now is becoming what me two springs ago aspired to.

I love this city. I love the off smells, and the loud traffic, and the sidewalk garbage bags. I love Central and Riverside Parks. I love the plethora of world-class comedy clubs, and the abundance of incredible food, from the cheap to the insanely expensive. I love the expensive cocktails and the bodega light beers. I love carrying myself everywhere on my own two feet, and squishing into the packed subway cars with other weary travelers, knowing that when I emerge at ground level, I'll be in the familiar hood I call home.

Manhattan isn't for everyone, but it's the place for me.