I left everything I knew back on the West Coast, following my high school sweetheart to college in New York City. Our relationship was over by the end of freshman year, but with NYC—I was in it for the long haul. As my five-year reunion approaches, I can’t help but think about all the ways going to school in New York City was completely different than attending college anywhere else. Here are the unifying factors.
1. You had no interest in school sports.
I went to homecoming my senior year mainly to find out where our football stadium fit within the tight grid of New York City. It was a 20-minute bus ride up into Harlem proper, and the stands were largely empty. Ashley, my most sports-inclined friend, took me to the parking lot to tailgate, where there were a few parked cars and a tent with a barbecue. We got drunk on foamy kegs of Bud Light, and I think someone put a temporary tattoo on my cheek. To this day, I still have no idea who won.
2. You went to that sketchy little head shop on the Lower East Side for a fake ID.
Underage clubbing in New York is like your parents smoking pot — no one really talks about it, but we all know it’s happening. Like some unspoken ritual, you took the subway downtown to the infamous head shop, anxiously strolling past rows of bongs to a closet-sized room. $85 cash for the standard. $150 if you wanted it to scan.
A few months and $150 later, you realized that every promoter, rapper, DJ, competitive bartender, or shaggy-haired drummer you might meet in Washington Square will offer to get you on “the list” — no ID required.
3. You accidentally went broke the first month, giving money to every homeless person and street performer on the subway.
After two weeks, you limited yourself to just that really awesome merengue band at Union Square or the tap-dancer kid at the Columbus Circle stop. Even then, you still ended up alternating between spending like the world was going to end — taxis everywhere, $20 rooftop manhattans, new restaurants every night — to living like the world had already ended — ramen noodles on the dorm-room floor, going to various campus events for free booze, hawking old textbooks at the Strand bookshop, and jumping through subway turnstiles.
4. You were freakishly attached to your corner bodega.
I met Amir that night when he delivered condoms and a pint of ice cream to my door. I didn’t need the condoms, just the ice cream, but wanted to know for certain I could get them.
My corner bodega, one of thousands of the ubiquitous 24/7 convenience stores you’ll find on each New York City block, was undoubtedly the best. The bagel, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich that eased my hangovers each Sunday morning, the cashier who knew he’d see me for chips and a Snapple every Thursday at 2am, the dusty canned goods, all-hours delivery, and a limited fresh fruit selection — I’ll defend my bodega until the day I die. Amir, I got your back.
5. You pretended Times Square didn’t exist.
Exception to said rule: heading to TKTS on a free Monday afternoon to get half-priced, same-day tickets to a show. Or those periodic visits with friends or family who insisted they hadn’t seen the city until they’d been to Times Square. During those times, you’d text a friend, “Remind me to never come back here. I can’t move or breathe, the giant Bubba Gump Shrimp mascot won’t get out of my way, and I just pushed someone’s grandma into the street.”
6. You hooked up with someone from the cast of Gossip Girl, James Franco, Macaulay Culkin, or that girl who played Matilda.
Overheard on the train platform at the Lincoln Center/Juilliard stop:
- “Dude, remember that movie Matilda?”
“I totally hooked up with that chick at a bar on St. Marks last night.”
“I kind of wanted to ask her if she’s still friends with Danny DeVito.”
Whether it’s Matilda at a dive bar, Dan Humphrey (née Penn Badgley) eating grilled cheese around 4am at my neighborhood diner, James Franco reading poetry for his graduate seminar on the campus lawn, or Macaulay Culkin throwing a “Macaulay Culkin’s iPod” party at Le Poisson Rouge, actors are everywhere. They’re drinking your milkshakes, taking your classes, lurking at nightclubs, and making out with your ex.
7. You separated the city into school districts.
The Upper West Side was our territory: Columbia, Barnard, and Manhattan College of Music, though I’m not sure they moved about in daylight hours. Washington Square Park was a veritable congregation of Ginsberg-reading, hula-hooping NYU and New School kids. Uptown, a common weekend conversation included, “So, my NYU friend is having a party down by Wash Park. It’s actually right off the 1 train, I swear.” Lincoln Center was Julliard’s campus, but they never really stayed in one place. The area around FIT was a mecca for all your guy friends, due to a largely female, abnormally attractive population of undergrads.
Ultimately, it didn’t really matter. Post-graduation, we all moved to Brooklyn anyway.
8. Your dorms were the best deal on real estate you could (and will) ever have in NYC.
Yes, they varied. One year, you lived in a brownstone off Broadway, with central heating and air conditioning. The next year, you were in a square room off a linoleum-tiled hallway somewhere down Amsterdam Avenue (or deep into Chinatown — I’m looking at you, NYU kids). Despite this, you’d never think of trying to strike out on your own. That building next door, full of disgruntled families and 30-something lawyers? Paying double.
9. You were a smoker, a clubber, a hipster, a member of a street band, and a part-time lesbian by the time you were 19.
Going to college in New York City means certain “exposure” — to new places, peoples, cultures, lifestyles, and, yes, even the junk of that flasher guy Larry on the L train. You’ll likely start smoking, stop smoking, go to Meatpacking District nightclubs, decide nightclubs are the seventh circle of hell, go to dorm parties where you have to sign in to the building, become the harmonica-playing frontwoman of a riot grrrl folk band, experiment with your sexuality, hang out at drag shows, start a campus Bubble Tea and Victorian Literature club, go bowling, and order in bagels at midnight…and, oh yes, attend classes.