Surviving New York

Oh what is a girl to do when life in New York gets too much! Where I am bombarded with noise, aggravating behavior and relentless manic energy - when at some point "shit hits the fan". I've got to

get away
from this zoo.
I've got to get
out of
Manhattan

Can you relate to me? An Australian in New York for close to a year, I sometimes wonder how I have survived. Accompanying my husband Guy to the Big Apple for a couple of years, I never envisaged just how huge a transition it would be to live here. How much I would have to depend on my partner and myself to cope. How little things can become big problems. How the city can drag you down and how it can make you soar. Of course, one can never predict when anything will happen. This is New York remember.

For a long while, I was swept up with the "life is work mentality" that infects anyone wanting to be a success on foreign shores. How does one quantify success anyway? Does it mean working all day and night in the office, fighting fatigue trying to make a deadline which can never be made? Does it mean keeping up appearances even when there is a lull? Or spending hours being inefficient? Is success a well paid job and the lifestyle that follows? Why do we obsess so much about work that it eats into any spare time to take stock, enjoy life, learn new skills, do what we really want to do?

It almost swallowed me up before spitting me out, a little worse for wear. Sure, I had compromised on what work I would be engaged in. Sure, I felt a failure because I wanted to be a high flyer in a country where people can supposedly fly as high as determination and ability allow. Of course, no matter where I worked, what I did, it would look wonderful on a CV in Australia for I had lived and worked overseas in one of the most competitive cities in America. Of course I am a "success"- But I have punished myself, feeling worthless because reality didn't match my expectations.

There came a time when something had to give. Time had whizzed by at lightning speed and if I continued on the same course, I would be in trouble. Where to from here?

If work could not satisfy me, I had to find something that did. An outlet. Reluctantly, I joined a gym because there was no alternative to gain access to a swimming pool. The membership cost me more than I could really afford but I rationalised that it was important for my mental and physical well-being. Sure, I don't go as often as I should but the benefits are there; the calmer moods, less erratic behavior.

That marked the beginning of change. I actively attended book readings to surround myself with people and ideas, listening to others' American experiences. What is it like to be a student in a public high school that accepts those who are rejected everywhere else? What do those marginalised in this segregated society, think of life; what do they see as their future?- What is it to be an African-American woman climbing the corporate ladder in a white man's world where she had to strive harder than her collegues for the kudos earned? Whatever you want to know about, the New York publishing world has it covered at a book reading near you.

I furiously sent emails home when there weren't people to talk to, go out with in New York. Because let's face it, New Yorkers aren't available people. You make a friend but friendships have that tenuous feel about them. You phone, organise to cook dinner; you meet up later. You go out of your way but it is labouring. Of course, when one is lonely, there is no-one to speak to who cares. Where is everyone in a city of millions? Everyone can't be having a wonderful time, continually busy. Why else is New York stereotyped as the city of psychotherapists?

What is a girl to do? Give up on every friend she makes because they aren't available often enough? OK, no choice but to try and be more tolerant. If people have not lived in another country, away from family and long-term friends, how can they possibly identify with me? They have their own life, they have a little privacy in a shoe box they call a home; they don't want to be bogged down helping a stray for why should they? After all, it is each man for himself here; if governments won't set the example, can we expect better from the populace?- I try my best but sometimes I can't turn the other cheek.

Every couple of months, I have to escape Manhattan for some space, green and quiet. But lately it hasn't been possible- the usual excuses: time and money. There are creative solutions, nothing exclusive like going skiing in Vermont or sunning it at the Hamptons. Hey, train, ferry, bus, walk off the island. Yes off Manhattan by bridge, tunnel or boat to a borough near you. OK. "It's not co-ool" you may say. " Why should we see Queens; it's like New Jersey. There's nothing to see but suburban wilderness"- What is wrong with suburban wilderness? It makes a change from housing commission buildings dressed as apartments in New York. There are trees that soak up the car exhaust so I can breathe and not choke in the city's pollution. OK there are drivers everywhere; you can't escape drivers anywhere in America especially in the boroughs with their highways leading to everywhere else-. There are still parks to walk through, there are old forts to discover beside the soothing waters of Long Island Sound. There are buses and trains to take to far flung places that you wouldn't think existed. There are independent walking clubs run by active middle-aged people who will take you to any habitat in any borough. OK. It initially seems odd that you are one of a handful of youngsters around. The seniors keep the pace a little more leisurely than you would like but hey, you have some company for the day and there is always something interesting to see even if that it is a garden decked out with kitsch Easter bunnies wishing you a happy Easter. This is a slice of life you never thought you would see but only read about in "The New York Times" at Halloween or Christmas time. It's there; it doesn't cost a fortune and I have kept my sanity.

But don't get me wrong. I don't hate New York. I have the same ambivalent relationship with this city that everyone else has. Love it or hate it, there are things here that I could never do in Melbourne: daily book readings, poetry and writing workshops, travel the subway after midnight, feel secure as a woman walking about on my own at night - I could talk till the cows come home. I could come to love this city but would always pine for the Australian landscape that I love- the wide, open spaces; getting off the beaten track to Woop Woop. Where the only thing separating me from busyness, a world away, are mountain ranges and dirt tracks. That and the people who understand the language that I speak instead of the American hieroglyphics I have had to decipher are what makes me want to return home to Australia. When, I don't know. But while I am here, I might as well take in as much of the city that never sleeps while I still have the energy.

Vicki Burkitt
New York
Friday, 18th April, 1998