There are approximately 8.5 million people in New York City awaiting their turns to take a bite out of the Big Apple. Some wait for years, and some never even come close. Surely there’s not enough to sustain us all, and yet, here we all are just the same.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I head to the Bronx to rehearse with my band. I enthusiastically slip out of my Corporate America attire, walk the concrete streets and descend deep into the city’s core. One thing that feels true about New York is that all 8.5 million of us take the subway.
And all of us down there are busy, busy, busy, running and running to get as close to the Apple as possible. “Fools”, I think to myself, smiling into my scarf.
But nevertheless, down below is New York City, and it is filled with the real people who live here. They are creative, they are lost, they are decisive, they are brave, they are sensible, reserved, inspired, and each have placed themselves in perfect compartmentalized categories. That one is Doctor, that one is Lawyer, the other Professor, and the Writer, and so on, and so on…
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with categorizing myself, which might be why I sometimes wander aimlessly. Everyone needs a category. Right? Truthfully, I don’t know what mine is, but if I had to choose one for myself, I would choose Artist.
I am an Artist. The words sound strange when they escape my lips, but the phrase resounds in my head so clear and loud, like the subway horns bellowing: I AM AN ARTIST. I MAKE MUSIC. I SING. I WRITE. HEAR ME. SEE ME. The chorus in my mind merges with the horn of the subway flying through the station, announcing its arrival.
I look around and it occurs to me that the most colorful people in New York ride the subway. I’m grateful for their brightness and how they clash wonderfully against the gray, brown, and mustard yellow of the train cars. Like the girl sitting across from me, who was lucky enough to snag a corner seat. She is all color, head-to-toe. She’s got dirty sneakers, messy hair, John Lennon/Harry Potter style glasses (depending on how I tilt my head), and an instrument case across her lap. I can’t tell from this angle which instrument it is, but I’m thinking trumpet. She’s cool. She plays the trumpet. She looks perfectly content—tilting her head back and nodding to the music in her ears that I am deaf to, but desperate to hear.
As I sit across from her, contemplating the category I’m building for her, I can’t help but think that she is the human personification of my idea of the New York Artist—and I don’t even know her. I compare myself to her every aspect: her colorful attire to my all black wardrobe, her wind instrument to my vocal instrument, her sense of freedom to my sense of constriction. She looks like an artist, and I feel like a fraud. I’m no Artist. THAT’s an Artist.
New York, in its beauty and brilliance, can have that effect on people.
New York is a dichotomous city, and sometimes it seems as though it seeks to divide its people into just two categories: the Creative and the Confined, the ones brave enough to leap feet-first into the unknown and the ones who fear that it cannot be done unless you sell your soul for a steady paycheck and a cubicle. Apples and Oranges.
This city has always opened its arms and its heart to the struggling Artists of the world. It tempts us with the adventures of the ones who came before; of Janis Joplin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed. It entices us with Studio 54 and the Chelsea Hotel. But the reality of it looks different, less bright somehow. On my worst days, I think I’ve got it all figured out until I realize something: None of them had any of it figured out when they first got here. None of them would have categorized themselves as anything other than people trying to find completion in the pursuit of their passions. The City That Never Sleeps looked and felt to them a lot like it does for me today: insurmountable. But it’s not. It can be done. They did it! So, why can’t I? Why can’t we?
The truth is, Opportunity doesn’t come knocking, not here. Here, in New York, we have to go out to meet Opportunity, grab a drink with her, and discuss our passions, hopes, dreams, and come up with a game plan and enough money to pay the tab. New York City, man. She’s wise and beautiful and makes fools of us all.
The conductor announces over the loudspeaker that we have reached 138th and 3rd Avenue. I get off, and so does my colorful friend. Both of us trek up the stairs to the Southeast Corner, both off to make music to give back to the city that nurtures us. We are headed in the same direction, her blissfully unaware that she has brought me that much closer to my very own shiny, juicy Apple.