It is snowing in New York as I write this. At least, this is what my loved ones tell me. It doesn’t snow here. Here, at the tail end of the West Indies, in the place where the Caribbean sea sidles up to a pounding Atlantic, my winters can barely be called winters at all.
Instead of bitter chill, I awake most mornings to zephyr-like breezes, the trade winds at play off the coast. Palms dance beneath the fat yellow sun, less relentless than in summer, but still bringing sweat to brow. And in the distance, just over the arcing road that leads to town, the sea stretches to the horizon, its salt mist aroma coaxing the body towards perennially warm waters.
Most people would be mad to call this place anything less than paradise, let alone entertain the thought of trading eighty-degree temps for sub-zero wind chills. And yet, as my inbox piles up with photos of streets blanketed white, I can’t help but long for the cold. And along with that comes a longing for the alleyways and boulevards of my youth.
Hard to Love
It’s easy to love the city in summer. Street side restaurants and cafes spill onto the sidewalks, the parks become havens for free music and dancing bodies, and it seems like everyone fills their cups from some never ending fountain of cocktails. It is this allure which F.Scott Fitzgerald managed to capture so perfectly in the following passage from The Great Gatsby:
…with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
The city in summer is a promise, a fever dream of rose-colored evenings and gentle, navy-inked nights. But in winter, these colors fade. White snow is quickly replaced by black sleet, if it snows at all. January and February can hit like dry ice, turning the city into a desert of concrete towers and cold air that splinters the lungs. It is a painful experience. But that’s what makes it unique. It is easy to love the city in the summertime. It’s much harder to endure it, let alone love it in the winter.
Gone are the fair-weather flirtations. In there place are deserted streets and bubble jacket filled train cars, the endless shuffling between too hot and too cold, the constant rearranging of layers. I remember this all too well. If summer in New York is an affair, winter is a relationship stripped down to its ugly indifference. It is cursing and questioning why even live in New York in the first place. Lord knows I did my fair share of both. Yet for all my malcontentedness, for all my grievances and begrudging realizations that life could be better somewhere else, it was during these moments that I loved the city the most.
I remember how, just making it home after a long day at work felt like an accomplishment, the way walking into a warm apartment made my skin tingle. I remember how every night out took on a sense of urgency— my partner and I huddled at bus stops, waiting for one to arrive; me, craning my neck down already darkened streets trying to find the sanctuary of a bar. I remember the glow that those most sacred of spaces took on, not just the neon beckoning but something else, the promise of warmth inside and out. And when I’d walk inside, how the smile of the person waiting there meant all the more having braved the cold and shitty transportation system.
The cold is the great equalizer. It is the chill from which blossoms a visceral empathy. Sure, later we’d commiserate over the ridiculous rents we couldn’t afford or the ramshackle state of the MTA, but “cold out there, huh?” was the first step in acknowledging our mutual misery.
For the past year and a half I’ve lived in Puerto Rico. I left the city, not because I was tired of it, but because I needed to know if life could really be better somewhere else. And for the most part it has been.
There is simply more time here. More time to write, more time to surf, more time to find oneself in spaces that seem to exist outside of time. And now, with the world still in the throws of pandemic, there is more time to sit and reminisce about the friends and family that reside on the other side of the ocean.
Shortly after arriving on the island, I turned thirty. It’s a strange feeling turning thirty in such a beloved, yet unfamiliar place, a place that is part of you yet, estranged. Thirty-one came and went in the same surreal way, cementing that the numbers themselves aren’t important. I do not feel any more thirty-one than I did thirty. What is different is who sees me.
There is a theory in quantum physics that matter only exists in a particular state when it is observed. If this is the case, then, out here on the island, under the eye of strangers and acquaintances, I exist in a wholly different state than than that of the person who trudged through black sleet on Myrtle Ave. That, in those moments where the beach crowds fade and the pelican’s amber gaze makes small all beneath it, maybe I don’t exist at all.
On the other hand, the city is a state of constant existence, such constant existence that it can be overwhelming. Indeed it was. But as I watch the snow falling softly in my mind’s eye, I can’t help but miss it: the sad notes of jazz trumpet bending around corners, searching for the ears that will bring it to life, the sadness that collects in the gutters as 3 am approaches and good times fade. It never feels more cold than that moment, the blast of frigid wind that hits as you reach the street from the subway, the long walk home that awaits.
I guess, in the end, I loved the city most in these moments because these were the moments in which it meant most to love. And even though I’ve traded in crowded streets for lonely beaches, that love is something I keep with me, unpacking late at night when my mind drifts back towards the avenue, to the dimly lit speakeasies and the loving gazes that birthed me anew with every encounter.
New York, I still love you. I think I always will.