Grandeur vs. cockroaches: NYC living

Lots of people think about ditching it all and moving to New York City, but Karen boldly made the move from Ottawa a few years ago. It’s a long way from Thunder Bay (where she grew up), but she isn’t leaving any time soon. I asked her what it’s like to live there, and she answered. Cockroaches and all.


Do you basically spend all of your money on rent?
Yeah, pretty much. I used to live on the Upper East Side and my rent was $2,100 for an apartment of maybe 300 square feet. No sunlight. That included electricity and gas, which is about $80 a month combined.

After society crumbled last year, it became a renter’s market and rents came down, but not a lot. I live in Brooklyn now and pay $1500 for a one-bedroom with an office, probably about 500 square feet, ConEd and NatGrid not included. Lots of sun. I love where I live.

You’d really have to pay me to live in the city again. I really wanted to live in the city when I first moved here, and I’m glad I did, but Brooklyn is the best. I know a lot of people who live in the city and pay $900-$1100/mo for a room, usually in a small apartment they share with 2-3 other people with little or crappy common area.

Before this place I’m in now I lived with a girl I found on Craig’s List and paid $850/mo. We lived over a garage on a busy street. But I had my own bathroom. She was awesome. But we had a lot of cockroaches. It was a block from the subway. You kind of level out the good with the bad.

You work in a fancy restaurant. Are they different there than in Canada?
I’m not sure I could definitively say what’s different about NYC restaurants. The restaurant I worked at in Ottawa before moving here was run by an ex-New Yorker, so I was used to that style when I started working here.

There is a raised professionalism among restaurant staff here, I’d say, even though a lot of front of house staff have something else that they do, usually involving music or art or theater. A backwaiter I work with auditioned to be Lady Gaga’s guitarist. A singer/waitress my boyfriend works with dates Patrick Stewart.

It’s an interesting industry to be a part of, and like the industry in any city, if you’ve been in it, even for the few years I have, you know someone who worked with somebody. Everyone knows everyone, even in NYC.

Could you leave, now that you’ve lived there?
It’s something I ask myself, because honestly, if you want to eventually buy a home and you don’t want it to be a condo in Jersey, and you don’t make hundreds of thousands a year, you’ll have to leave.

But I can’t imagine where I’d go. I never rule out Canada as a place to live, it’s my home after all, but I have no plans to go back. But everywhere else isn’t New York.

When I moved here I purged most of my worldly possessions knowing I wouldn’t have any room to keep them. That included furniture, a car, books, everything. I still live in that minimalist way and I’ve come to love it. I don’t want things. You can live that kind of life here.

What’s it like to actually live there, though?
I’ve lived in New York for four years. While at this point it’s become home, I haven’t completely lost that sense of awe that comes with being in this city.

Two years ago I lived on the UES and worked at the southwestern most corner of Central Park. I walked to work five days a week across town through the park and it never ceased to be the highlight of each day. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the past year and a half and take the N train over the Manhattan bridge to work.

The skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty in the distance, all in view while on the train still generate a certain thrill, even though I do it all week long. Still, it’s funny how the city gets smaller, and sometimes the wonderous becomes common place. If there’s a commotion or sirens or horns honk, you don’t look, you even stop hearing them.

Celebrities are regulars at the restaurant where I work. Seeing the city on TV in commercials or programs is like watching the local news.

What do family and friends think when they visit?
While the grandeur of the city invariably fades within the routine of daily living, I’m reminded of its scope and wonder when friends and family come to visit.

My brother and his girlfriend were recently visiting, my brother’s first trip to NYC. I gave him a map and pointed out some key landmarks I thought he’d like to hit the following day: Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station.

They were only in town for two and a half days, so while there were several stops on the map, I gave them a route and knew visiting each spot was completely doable. Their plan was to start around noon in Soho to shop, then trek through the city during the day and end up at my restaurant in the East Village for dinner around 9pm.

I honestly thought they’d have too much time. When they showed up at the restaurant an hour early for their reservation and I asked about their day, they told me they never got out of Soho. They never got out of Soho!

Flabbergasted, I asked how that could have possibly happened. They seemed at a loss for an explanation, shrugging and plainly exhausted. I was reminded in that moment of how huge and overwhelming the city can be to those unfamiliar with it. It can really kick your ass.

This is a confusing photo.

What should people do when they visit the first time?
I think if it’s your first visit and you really have to check things off your list like the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Broadway shows and the like, then the first days of your first visit is the time to do all that crap.

No offense if that’s your thing.

On subsequent visits, or if you really want to experience a different side of the city, I’d suggest getting a map, picking a neighborhood, maybe one a day, and walking, exploring the streets and the parks and whatever you may come across.

You’ll find yourself wandering into different areas in the city, which you’ll realize aren’t that far apart: Chelsea to the West Village; Chinatown to the Lower East Side. New York is really for walking and exploring.

There’s always something to see, so many surprises around every corner. You can wander into shops or galleries, linger in parks, enjoy street performances. The city never ceases to amaze.

I started out from my apartment just the other day with no destination in mind, just started walking. I live in Brooklyn, and so the journey took me from South Park Slope through numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods: the industrial Red Hook, the serene Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill (stopped at Lucali for pizza, just kind of stumbled upon it; had never been there but always intended to go; it’s rated as one of the best places for pizza in the city), through the old Brooklyn Heights, along the promenade for the last of the evening light, until we were under the Brooklyn Bridge and stopped in Dumbo for cocktails.

It was a perfect New York day.


2 responses to “Grandeur vs. cockroaches: NYC living

  1. Suzanne Sirois

    I’m Karen’s aunt and have to admit that she had a lot of courage to leave everything to live the NYC’s experience.

    You have to go more than one time in NYC to really appreciate and have time to discover this magical city.

  2. And I thought I was the ssebnile one. Thanks for setting me straight.

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