When I first moved to New York City five years ago, I lived in a tiny apartment in Morningside Heights, in a bedroom with a single window that looked out onto a brick wall. Because I craved sunlight (a luxury I’d always taken for granted), and because my work-from-home schedule allowed me a certain degree of freedom, I spent most of my days and nights with my then-boyfriend, Ben, at his Columbia University apartment three blocks away. Ben was an exemplary tour guide. We went to jazz clubs in Harlem, used bookstores in the East Village, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Queens. We spent long afternoons at MoMa, at ICP, in Central Park. A newcomer to the city, I was happy to let him lead the way.
At six-foot-five, Ben was an imposing figure. More than that, he was excellent company. And he seemed to know the city inside and out. All I had to do was follow.
Months later, we went our separate ways. Ben moved to Austin. I moved to Brooklyn. My life changed in many ways, but there was one change in particular that stood out.
I got lost, constantly.
I took the wrong trains. The wrong turns. Ended up in strange neighborhoods, thankfully not at the wrong times. Alone, I felt like a tourist in my own city.
Slowly, though—very slowly—I learned. I learned my way around the subway; I learned the closest bus route to my house. I learned where to get the best doughnuts, the best coffee, the best sushi, the best milkshakes. I learned where to get my typewriter repaired; where to escape to find a quiet place to sit. I got to know my neighborhood bodega cats. I got to know my neighbors.
A guided tour, it turns out, is not the same thing as a true discovery.
“To really know a place, you have to get lost in it,” my dad told me. “You can’t be truly comfortable until you’ve been lost.
I can’t claim to know this city inside and out. But what I do know, I know deeply. Now that I’ve been lost in it—very lost, hopelessly so—I feel I’ve earned it as a home.
Five years later, I know where I am.
Snow arrived early in 2012. Just a week after Halloween and very shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, an autumn storm blanketed the city in white.
Against my better judgment, I went out that evening anyway, celebrating the release of a local magazine’s newest issue in a cavernous, low-lit bar, feasting on Venezuelan sandwiches and guacamole into the early hours of the morning.
When it was all over, I walked home. More accurately, I stomped. (Stomping, I’ve found, is one way—however inelegant—to avoid slipping on winter-slick sidewalks.)
The night had taken me a half hour from where I’d started, but the snow had stopped, leaving in its wake an immaculate ivory carpet. Though I was alone and it was late, I was happy to stomp my way through it; to have a reason to move; to take in the streets, the buildings, the rooftops—familiar shapes, cloaked in frost.
As I walked, I remembered, suddenly, stepping off a bus on a high school trip to New York. The noise and the activity left me breathless, in a way that frightened me.
There was a time not so long ago, I thought, when all this would have been a mystery to me.
That night, though, on my snowy trek, I felt as comfortable in my surroundings as I’d ever felt anywhere. I felt confident. Even up to my ankles in snow, even in boots a size too large, even lost in a whiskey fog, I felt safe. Sturdy.
And I found my way home, a trail of footprints behind me.