How to move across the country and begin a new life, in 10 steps.
The first time you visit New York, it’s the summer of ’96. Your head is shorn. Your face is dark from working in an arboretum for weeks on end, solitary hours communing with rhododendrons and pulling up saplings under an uncompromising New England sun. You look like a boy and the conductor calls you “young man.” Delighted, you don’t correct him.
You step into Penn Station and immediately feel a rush, the kind of feeling you get when you see the one you love from across the room; a whoosh that dips and buoys up inside the rib cage. The day is bright and heavy with moisture.
In the subway station, a prescient young woman taps you on the shoulder. “Are you sure you want the express?” You regard her blankly. She directs you to a local train that drops you off at your destination, two stops over.
On East 8th Street, when you’re lost again, a homeless man gives you a map. And before the day ends, as a light rain begins to fall, a woman with a silver updo hands you her umbrella before ducking into a building with her Greyhound.
You have never been the beneficiary of so many kindnesses in one day, and from the most unusual of suspects.
You tell yourself: I am going to live here, some day.
2. Rent an apartment.
In the fall of 2017, you spend two weeks at a friend’s Upper West Side home. On a whim, you meet with a broker. You’re just looking, you say. Sure, she says.
You look at twelve units, all in one afternoon. You see some charmers, but there’s something wrong with each: too many flights up, too little light, weird layout, no storage. By evening, you’re exhausted.
You walk into the last place on the tour and perk up: it’s expansive, clean, light-filled. Tall south-facing windows look out onto a quiet street lined with other brownstones. There is a washer and dryer, an updated kitchen, a modern bath. It is twice as large as your San Francisco apartment, and cheaper! Windows on the North side overlook regal trees. The ceilings are ten feet high and there are two decorative fireplaces with prewar tiling.
You are reminded of how you felt when you first stepped foot into Manhattan years ago.
Afterward, you grab a drink around the corner with the broker. A fellow patron gives you the DL on the neighborhood, along with his number.
The next day, you scramble to get paperwork in order. You exchange emails with your new neighbor, who answers all of your questions. (He also invites you to his engagement party.) You write a love letter to the owner. You obtain recommendations.
A few days after that, you hand over four cashier’s checks, meet the soft-spoken landlady, and sign documents. The lease begins in one month. You sit back.
Holy shit, you think.
You have about a month to pack. You hole yourself up and do little other than this.
It’s difficult to reconcile yourself with how much shit you own. Living spaces are sneaky: they absorb things, snooker you into thinking that you could be a minimalist.
To keep yourself company, you run movies in the background. They are ones you’ve already watched many times. The best are science-fiction or fantasy sagas, like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings.
After two weeks of this you have lost all sense of sentimentality. You get rid of things with the brutal mindlessness of someone fleeing a house on fire. You think you’ve jettisoned much, but you’re still swimming in a surfeit of papers and kitchen equipment. Your books, in particular, are shockingly expensive to transport. You have more than five hundred! You love them and can’t bear to part with many.
After twenty-six mind-numbing days of sifting and boxing and purging, everything is finally whittled down and consolidated into storage. Your life fits into three 5x7x7 storage vaults. All will be trucked across the country in just one month.
It feels good but also sad, and a little strange.
4. Say a long goodbye.
You stay with a boy for the month of December. It’s rather new and you’ve trepidation about sharing 380 square feet with this person, three of your suitcases taking up a good chunk of his space.
Still, the days pass by quickly. You cook, go out, Netflix on rainy afternoons. You watch a silent film at the Castro Theatre, Ivor Novello starring in The Rat.There’s a live orchestra. You both enjoy it immensely.
Some mornings you wake to see his dark eyes looking back at you. Half-asleep, you put out a hand from under the covers and gently touch his face.
The two of you are seduced by the smell of pines and firs when Delancey starts selling Christmas trees. He carries home a handsome mid-size while you navigate. You are both smiling like fools.
On a weekday when no one else is on the winding roads, you drive down to Woodside together. The shade of lush trees flicker on the road ahead and then underfoot, the interplay of shadow and sun like piano keys. You play an eclectic mix: Blur, Zoe Kravitz, Lorde, When in Rome. There’s a song by Shin Joong Hyun, “Korea’s godfather of rock,” from the sixties. He croons, “…my person…my love.” The word person and love sound very similar in Korean.
On New Year’s Eve, he takes you out to dinner. You put on something slinky and backless.
Later at his place, you usher in 2018 with a glass of champagne. The bubbles are very fine. The last thing you remember before you fall asleep is his equine face, calm planes, broad valleys; the features of a king.
5. Move in.
Surprise! New England is besieged by a bomb cyclone! A slew of flights have been cancelled. More than twenty-four inches of snow fall in New York, buffeted by winds of over 45 miles per hour. The temperature falls to 1ºF. Miraculously, you are still slated to fly out on time.
He insists on accompanying you to the airport, even though it is very early. You cry a little. But you are not unhappy.
You get on the plane. You have uncharacteristically decided to sit by the window. You peer out like a child.
You shrug into a down jacket and a pair of snow boots when you land, don a pair of gloves. You feel smug playing the seasoned New Yorker, unruffled by mere inclement weather.
When you arrive at your apartment, the place is toasty. Your bed, duvet, and linens have been delivered in advance. They look like presents, the wood of the bed frame gleaming in the obscure bedroom. You start the laundry and marvel at the luxury of your own washer and dryer.
It is almost ten o’clock. You haven’t eaten yet so you walk over to a nearby ramen joint. It’s crowded and the waitress says there’s over an hour’s wait. You get a seat at the bar in twenty minutes. You slurp up a bowl of noodles in hot, fatty broth, wash it down with beer. Your cheeks thaw.
When you return you’re too tired to make the bed. You fall asleep without linens.
You remember nothing.
The movers come at 10 in the morning the next day. It takes six hours for them to get everything into the apartment. You look at the heaps of boxes and feel overwhelmed. This is everything. This is your life.
You’ve been in limbo — packing, living out of suitcases, not knowing where something is half the time — for months. You. Cannot. Wait. For. It. To. Be. Over.
Unpacking is a slog. In the background, entire seasons of The Good Wife, The Closer, and Hannibal blur by, like trains skipping stops. You play Gosford Park each time it rains, which is only twice.
You misplace things as you unpack. One time it takes you half an hour to find the box cutter and you swear to yourself that you’ll be more mindful. An hour later, it’s missing again.
The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy in a closed system will only increase over time. You have never before borne witness to this up close and in situ. You tidy up a square of space and range items within it. Behind your back, disorder creeps in from the periphery. Within the hour, any semblance of organization has been decimated by minutes, the closed system, SCIENCE. You hover at the threshold between kitchen and living room, trying to catch chaos in the act.
To break the monotony, you run errands. You procure kimchi, shiso, umeboshi, petit fours. When you crave a little noncommittal human contact you walk over to The Grange for a plate of spaghetti bolognese and a glass of cab. The neighbor sitting next to you is a regular. He is a fan of Bernie Sanders. “I wish he would just go away,” you say, as you take another sip of wine. He gives you his number, in case you want to tell him that again.
One afternoon, it begins to snow while you are out. The trains are delayed and you stand on the platform peering at a schedule on your phone. A red-faced woman holding the hand of her little boy is speaking loudly near by. “THAT IS NOT REALITY.” You realize she’s talking to you and look up, surprised. The boy chimes in: “It’s because of the track fire.” She frowns down at him. “THAT WAS HOURS AGO.” She is extremely irate. “EVERYTHING IS BROKEN,” she says.
You say: “Oh…well…it’s the New York City subway system.” This is not the expected response and she doesn’t say anything more.
You walk away.
You wonder if that will be you in twelve months.
It is day fourteen. By day eight, you were out of your boxes. By now things are roughly organized but require revision. You have dressed your naked windows with sheer white curtains, done more laundry, become Amazon and Instacart’s best customer. You have obtained, and potted, plants. You’ve ordered a vacuum, painted furniture, put in a deadbolt.
One night, you take the uptown B train. It turns out to be running express for some reason. You seem to be the only person who did not get the memo. You look around at placid faces, impressed. You cannot wait to become one of them, people In-the-Know, sure-footed atop the constantly shifting idiosyncrasies of the NYC transit system.
All your life you’ve heard New Yorkers grouse and wax homeric about the city in one breath. “It chews you up and spits you out.” You’d ask what that meant, exactly, but they would simply shake their heads and say, “It’s just hard.” Wonderful, but also, “BRUTAL.”
Now that you’re a resident, you feel encouraged to try and articulate this, yourself.
First, everything in Manhattan takes longer to do. It’s a very skinny, long borough. You live at the north end of it, so it takes about an hour to traverse the island to go to, say, the Lower East Side. The trains can be inconsistent, mythical.
Second, there are a lot of people here. About twice as many as in San Francisco, in about half the space. This means that there is no break: you can’t run errands midday and expect thinness of the crowd; there are Day People and Night People, and they cycle in and out of shared spaces in an interminable flow. This contributes to a feeling of water-up-to-the-neck, of trying to get to things first, wanting to get home before rush hour, of living on top of people. Stores are often out of chives, ripe bananas, avocados.
Third, because commutes midtown or beyond can be so involved, once you leave Harlem, it’s practical to not have to return until the end of the day. You develop a strategy around totes and backpacks, fashionable but sturdy footwear. You carry around a little bag of fruit, carrots, nuts. Oh, and a bottle of water. Also, an umbrella. All this requires planning. If you forget something at home, that is very easily an hour or two, maybe even three, lost to the ether. Do not make these mistakes.
For all that, you smile every time you see a beautifully dressed man. Not a single person has mentioned “raising a round” in overheard conversations. When you hear someone say “full stack,” you realize that they are talking about magazines and smile even more. People everywhere talk casually about longform fiction and you learn that there is a sci-fi trilogy called The Three Body Problem. You make a mental note to check it out.
Midweek you have a glass of wine at the little restaurant around the corner. There is live music and the only seat left is at the front of the bar. A woman flashes you a smile before making room. The music is smooth, low, jazzy. When you leave, the singer waves goodbye mid-ballad.
You are three weeks in. You start consulting part-time. You send out your first batch of dry cleaning, get your nails done.
You are happy to discover decent bagels within a 15 block radius. Morton Williams is a full-inventory grocery store that is open 24/7; a revelation. The Hudson River Greenway, a joy for jogging. Fairway Market, which reminds you a little of Berkeley Bowl, but better, is only about a mile away.
Because time feels at a premium now more than ever, you do everything you can to shave minutes off this, seconds off that. You cut out the daily commute to a gym and put a regimen together at home. Your linens make the bed look fashionably disheveled rather than simply unmade. Once in a while when it cannot be helped, you drink Soylent.
In the mornings, you begin by walking around the apartment and greeting the plants. Today you see that the umbrella tree has unfolded a tiny new leaf.
You inspect it up close and touch the baby frond with the tip of a finger. You murmur: “You are looking. So. Great.”
Congratulations, it is the beginning of week four! The apartment is now pretty much settled. It is time to turn your attention to, and nurture, creative and social routines.
You craft a schedule: two to four hours of personal work in the morning. Then four hours of consulting. Exercise for one. Write or draw for another two. On alternating Thursday nights from six-thirty to nine-thirty, you take the train down to the Society of Illustrators to sketch.
Next week, you will attend a small dinner party in FIDI where you know no one. A few days after that, you will play wingwoman for a stranger at some event in the Bowery. You have also been inducted into an organizing committee for a spring fundraiser. This is all a bit random but somehow feels totally natural.
Tonight you go to a Manhattan movie theatre for the first time. You invite a friend to watch The Post with you. Afterward, you pop into an Italian place on Columbus to eat, discuss the movie, and consider the clarifying effects of psychedelics taken in an Amazonian jungle. Normal.
You make your way back around midnight, hands in pockets, face tucked away from the chill as you exit the train station. A few paces out, it hits you: I live here now. I am a New York resident.
You stop and look up at the sky. The air is biting and your breath comes out like white fire. You laugh.
It’s too cold to stay still though, so you adjust your hood and hurry the rest of the way home.
10. Get a humidifier.
Cold air doesn’t hold water very well. Winter dries out your skin and hair; this compact humidifier, along with a beautiful analog cigar-box hygrometer, which has a magnetic back so that it can be put up on the fridge, will assuage these woes. Plug in the humidifier and ta-da! Your small to mid-sized apartment will be at 30 to 40% humidity in about a week (consult the hygrometer).
Enjoy your new life!