Once again west of the Atlantic and thousands of miles from Paris, I considered bringing this blog to a close. Then – while stranded for half an hour on a subway platform in Brooklyn, directly across a sign which proclaimed the name of the station to be “Bedford-Nostrand” – I realized that irony is universal and situations demanding cultural adaptation don’t just occur abroad.
Sure, the Paris metro system may be a leaner, cleaner, and relatively more punctual machine. But the grittiness and unpredictability of New York are just pesky side effects of its single greatest attribute–
An abundance of weirdos.
Previously, I’d grumbled about Parisian society being codified and uniform. While it pains me to reproach the City of Lights, I have to call’em like I see’em. In the short weeks I’ve been back in New York, I’ve had to re-acclimate myself to the mindblowing medley of people who rub shoulders here. I had forgotten the endless possibilities of pageantry, the euphoric accessorization of existence.
Exhibits A through Z: A girl with an electric blue bob in a lolita frock; a violinist with purple dreadlocks diffusing heartwrenching music in the subway; a lanky boy rocking tights patterned like dollar bills; a beautiful woman sporting a turban and denim jacket with a giant horse’s head printed on the back.
These, of course, are just sketches of a small but eye-catching sample.
Instead of worrying about sticking out because of my race or for wearing shorts, I’m now concerned that my hair isn’t asymmetrical enough and that I have no visible tattoos. To be fair, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, an area described by my new next door neighbor as “half Polish and half hipster.” While this wouldn’t be problematic in and of itself, it does mean housing has gotten ridiculously competitive. Still, I managed to score a little niche of my own down this rabbit hole — a niche, it turns out, on the same street as the apartment of Hannah Horvath, Girls‘ main character.
But it wasn’t easy nabbing this undersized shoebox my landlord calls prime real estate. When I tried to put down an oversized deposit, the landlord shook his solemn head.
“Before I let you move in, I have to see your bank statements,” he huffed through a heavy Eastern European accent. “You don’t make a lot of money, and – I dunno – maybe you buy a lot of dresses or something.”
“I don’t buy that many dresses!” I yelped. “I’ve got enough dresses!”
“I don’t know you,” he retorted. “So give me three months of bank statements or forget about it.”
I skulked away for a week to collect French paperwork. I also bought a dress in secret to spite him.
When moving day arrived, I considered myself lucky to have jumped through all the hoops. I was happy and eager even as I struggled up three flights of stairs with overstuffed suitcases. While my mom stood by to lend a hand, my landlord bragged relentlessly to both of us about the apartment’s fire safety. This was a fact which completely escaped my attention until I later googled my landlord during a fit of boredom.
Of course he had to have a dark and terrible secret. According to a news report, he had been the owner of another building on our street which had burned down due to arson. The fire, sped by liquid accelerant, had killed two tenants and put another in critical condition. The report implied that my landlord frequently had troubles with his tenants, and there could’ve been disgruntled former tenants who wanted to retaliate.
Upon this discovery, I immediately made a priority list of items in my apartment to rescue in case of fire. I also resolved to find out more about my neighbors.
I started my quest by knocking on the door of a guy with whom I shared a wall. A man in his mid-to-late forties with long white hair opened up. Looking behind him, I saw his space was plastered with Girls Gone Wild posters. Also, an empty black guitar case lay open on his mantelpiece, propping up Twilight books inside like some kind of shrine to teenage vampires.
“Hey … I’m new here,” I sputtered, trying to avert my eyes from the bizarreness of his lair. “Just wanted to say hi.”
After explaining who I was, I asked my neighbor about himself. That’s when I learned:
- He was “YouTube before YouTube existed.” When I asked what that meant, he said he’d had a record label before rock music died.
- He was currently writing his personal memoir full-time. He’d been doing it for ten years. Full-time.
- He was a “real writer,” by which he meant he wrote by hand. He’d produced 300 handwritten pages which were currently sitting in storage because he was afraid our landlord would sneak into his apartment and read them.
- He was convinced that our landlord was a sociopath who electronically bugged our closets.
- He was convinced that everybody else in the building also hated our landlord, and that I would come to hate him too. “You’ll see,” he intoned ominously. “I hope not,” I replied.
I’ve now given up trying to confirm the psychological stability of those around me. If someone wants to burn down the building, well, at least I know where the fire escape is. The truth is: the only way to live in New York is to make peace with weirdness. While I experienced a bit of “reverse culture shock” coming from Paris, I’ve realized that this is exactly where I want to be.
(Though if we’re friends and you haven’t heard from me in a while, please do call to make sure I haven’t perished in a fireball.)