“I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”
– Truman Capote
“When I’m in New York, I just want to walk down the street and feel this thing, like I’m in a movie.”
– Ryan Adams
I recently had the chance to live in New York for a few months. We’d been in Melbourne’s “longest Covid lockdown in the world” for the better part of 2 years for all of 2020 and 2021, where for about 14 months of that the rules were so severe you couldn’t travel more than 5kms from your house and there was an 8pm curfew every day. You were basically trapped in your home for the better part of 2 years.
For a lot of that we lived in an apartment in the CBD where it was the closest thing to a 1984 style dystopia that I’ve ever experienced. Hopefully will ever experience. For most of every day the whole CBD was a ghost town and was empty. Every store was closed except for the essential grocery stores and everything was constantly eerily quiet.
At night you would only see police cars from the balcony with sirens blaring out that the curfew was in effect and people should go back to their homes or face penalties. The few people you did see out would eventually get arrested and fined by the police if you watched them long enough. The general sense living through it was communal trauma. Everyone was miserable all the time.
The best visual example of this was the golf courses became overrun as a dogs park since no one was allowed to play golf. Seeing dogs dig up the greens that are so meticulously cared for in regular life was really eye opening as to just how crazy the city had actually become. It was like living in an upside down society for a while. If you had a job you did really well but most people lost their jobs.
So when the border eventually opened 2 years later end of 2021, like a coiled up spring my wife and I sprang in the other direction and moved overseas for almost a year. Making the most of the end of our 20s before we’d think about family planning and life and where we’d settle down and place roots.
So for a few months of that we randomly lived in New York. It is a city that vibrated with the frequency of my soul in a way that only Melbourne has before it. Before this trip I’d never been to America. But it’s kind of a capitalist, artistic utopia. Where it is both nightmarishly expensive but also culturally completely over the top. People walk fast and talk fast and are constantly trying to do something important and live big. I absolutely loved it.
My wife on the other hand completely hated it. She thought it was a loud, dirty, bustling city full of rude narcissists who lived in their own world. That it’s a city that had none of the promised magic but the food was really good. After a while I started to agree with her but there were a few moments where I really felt the New York magic in a way I’ve never felt it anywhere else in the world.
The first thing that arriving in the city did was put our own Covid experiences completely in perspective. We were under a strict lockdown for years but something like 1% of the population of New York actually died. Almost everyone we met or knew there knew someone who had died from Covid or some comorbidity. We didn’t experience anything even remotely that dark. Still to today only a couple thousand people in Australia have died from Covid.
America chose the economy and civil liberty over health. Australia chose health over the economy. Collective vs the Individual. It’s why Americans could still do almost whatever they wanted to do and why parts of their economy actually boomed. But Australia tanked it’s economy and caused a recession to protect the health of its citizens. Two different approaches to the same problem.
There is something really optimistic and magical about watching a city rebound from something so dark. The people were still optimistic even though they’d seen their friends die just months beforehand before vaccines had successfully rolled out. Literally bodies on the streets because ambulances and morgues were overrun were happening months before we arrived. But while we were there was the Macy’s Parade and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree.
There were 5 moments in New York that really hit home the magic of the place but also made me understand something really important.
1. Guns Exist
The first moment was the day we arrived. On the taxi from the airport to the city is a big billboard that says “For Information on a Police Shooting, Reward of $10,000.” I turn to the taxi driver and ask him how often that actually happens. He says about every 2 or 3 days a police officer gets shot in New York. I don’t know how accurate that was but it hit home a really important concept. This society is completely different.
Guns are prevalent, police are more aggressive. But it makes complete sense why. If hundreds of police officers get shot every year, I understand why they’re more aggressive with their policing. Why they have a shoot first attitude, because if they hesitate and wait they get shot instead. Because citizens can be carrying guns. It also means I needed to be more careful, if there’s a crazy person shouting on the street in Australia, it’s unlikely they’re going to be armed. But that’s exactly what they might be here.
2. Breakfast Next to Cathy Wood
On our third day in New York my wife and I went out for breakfast to a fancy cafe she’d been reading about. They sit us at a table and I see the woman next to us eating french toast, which looks really good. So I also order French Toast. It’s then that I realise the woman looks really familiar, it’s Cathy Woods from Ark Investment Funds. Reading her articles and investment strategy is some of how I got into investing in the first place. One of my investing heroes and she was just casually sitting next to us eating French Toast.
3. Batman likes Cheeseburgers
A few months into the trip I found this really amazing burger place called CJ Clarke’s. They’re located right across the road from the Lincoln Centre and have been serving this one burger since the late 1800s. I was having a burger there one night and there was a section of the restaurant that had a big life sized Batman poster on it. Across the road too at the Lincoln Centre was all these big The Batman posters. I thought there was like a museum or an exhibit or something. I finish my burger and head back to the hotel that we’re staying at when my phone gets an alert.
The Batman movie premiere was just starting and it was located at the Lincoln Centre. That’s when it hit home exactly what it all was. It was literally The Batman premiere, just about the biggest event in the world that Wednesday night. And the place I was just eating a cheeseburger had the party for it where literally Robert Pattinson and Matt Reeves were there, presumably eating the same cheeseburger I was, before going across to their movie premiere. That was a pretty magical moment when I realised.
4. Come From Away near 9/11
My favourite musical of all time is Come From Away. It’s about 9/11 but more specifically how all the airline traffic was diverted to a small island called New Foundland to prevent them from landing in the USA in case there were any more attacks. It’s a really beautiful but simple show that I highly recommend. It doesn’t use any fancy stage theatricality, just a few changes in clothing and some chairs to tell a really powerful story.
The same day we saw the musical, we’d visited ground zero of the 9/11 site and the museum which is one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It gives a detailed second by second account of the whole day of the event. Something about watching Come From Away on Broadway right down the road from the still gaping hole epicentre of 9/11 where the World Trade Centres used to be – where we’d just spent the day – really hit home the magnitude of what they were singing about. How much it really hurt the Americans and how much the world changed after that happened.
4. Al Antico Vinaio in NYC
My favourite store in the world is Al Antico Vinaio. It’s a small sandwhich shop in Florence in Italy that sells these massive authentic Italian sandwhiches. The La Favolosa is my favourite food in the world. I was once on an exchange in Europe and I went to that store every day. It was honestly amazing and it is still one of my fondest memories. But the problem is it’s kind of out of the way in Florence and we don’t often go to Italy. The store also is a family business and it famously never expands. To have it, you have to go to Florence.
At least that’s what I thought. But one of the days on the trip a friend, Ben and I were randomly walking around and we stumbled on this street in New York that had the same exact store. When I saw it I actually almost cried because I couldn’t believe just how incredible and unexpected it was to find it there. I didn’t know it would be and also it was so lucky to have stumbled on it without searching for it. The city brought exactly what we needed to us.
It would be like your favourite obscure shop that famously never expands just showed up randomly on the other side of the world. I looked it up and my favourite little Florence sandwich shop only has 2 locations, Florence and New York. Unbelievable. It really felt like New York had transported my favourite thing to me. It also felt very much like only this city could pull off a move like that. To be so desirable to make the thing that never expands make a one time exception. Once I realised it was in NY, I went there every day for a fortnight.
5. Monograna Felicetti
Monograna Felicetti is supposed to be the best pasta in the world and is something I’ve been wanting to try for a decade. But in Australia it is physically not possible to buy, nobody imports it into the country. Because there is no market for such premium high end pasta. It’s about 10 times the price of regular pasta. But randomly in a little Italian restaurant I found it on the menu. Then after researching, you can just buy it from Amazon. I filled 1 entire suitcase with 15kgs of Monograno Felicetti to take it back to Australia when it was time to leave back home.
6. Religious Tacos
On one of the adventures Ben and I stumbled on a taco truck called Los Chilenos which were the best birria tacos and chicken quessadilias I’ve ever had in my life. We affectionately called it “Chinese Tacos” because I misread the name the first time but it was one of those moving food trucks that don’t post where they’re located anywhere. You just have to kind of stumble on it. But after the first time, we became obsessed with trying to find it again. Not really knowing how to we just decided to walk down all the major streets of the Upper West Side and Midtown until we found it again.
We did this for about a week on an adventure searching for this one taco truck without any luck until one day we decided to visit St Patrick’s Cathedral, an important landmark. We happened to go on a Sunday too and they were holding a mass. We joked and started praying for us to find our amazing taco truck. Then as we were exiting, parked right outside the cathedral, in a spot which 30 minutes before was empty, was our taco truck.
Seeing it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever seen. It really felt like God and New York had delivered what we had been searching for that whole week and all we had to do was pray for it. Now logically, it makes a lot of sense for a taco truck to show up at the end of a mass where people are leaving a place at the same time. But it still felt like divine intervention and it was magical. An experience that I’ve come to define as authentically New York.