Wee-woo-wee-woo. The familiar sound of an ambulance hurtling down the street below my dorm room window at two o’ clock in the morning. It’s loud, and you can hear it, clearly, as I continue writing the essay I’ve been working on all night. When I first moved here, I’d jump every time I heard a siren and startle every time a car alarm went off. They were loud, unapologetic, and unfamiliar, and the fact that they each happened twice a night–more on weekends–didn’t seem to subdue my surprise at every occurrence. More than once, I went to bed early, only to be jolted awake once, no, twice in one night by the sound of ambulances hurtling up and down the New York streets.
Every morning when I wake up and every night as I fall asleep, I look out the windows. From the south-facing one, I have a clear view of Midtown Manhattan, the tip of the Empire State building lit up a different color each night. It is easy to spot the slanted roof of the Citigroup Center, the spire of an unnamed building rising up steeply above it. My west-facing window, the one which quickly became my favorite in the first few months as I missed home on the West Coast, features beautiful sunsets and a sliver of the Hudson. On good days, the sunlight glints off the towers of Jersey City and reflects back, forming white spots in my near-daily photographs. The buildings are bold, brick, brilliant reminders of a once-industrial city. As I look at them I think that the colors have never looked so real as they do peeking out from under the dirt that coats everything which sits outside long enough. The lines are hard and unapologetic, but somehow that just draws you in even more.
The subway, which I’ve slowly but surely fallen in love with both as a mode of transportation and a work of art, is a few blocks away. Once you’re there, under the city, the world becomes louder than ever before. In the summer, it’s humid, and when I first moved, I thought it smelled weird. It’s always dirty, and the barcode of my MetroCard is reliably faulty from constantly rubbing against my credit card, so it takes a few swipes to get through the turnstile. When I used to visit New York, I’d cringe at the dirty metal. Now, it doesn’t particularly bother me. I find my subway platform–almost always the one going downtown–and get on what hopefully ends up being a local train. Sometimes, I cling to the pole, bumping into other people as the train jerks. Other times, I snag one of the unkempt yellow-and-orange seats, or perch myself between two to avoid sitting closer to another human being than non-packed-subway etiquette demands. Less often, I plant my legs firmly apart and stand in the middle of the car, holding on to nothing, using the people around me as my buffer. I know the stops on my local train almost by heart now, and I’ve stopped having to check Google Maps to find my travel time to everywhere. I know where to transfer to other lines, what end of the platform to stand on to get the best seat. Sometimes, the subway is noisy, voices indistinguishable. Sometimes, I listen in on a conversation, or pick a person and look at them, trying to figure out my fellow passenger’s life story. More than once, I’ve been on trains that are completely silent, except for the constant rattling of wheels on track.
I no longer startle at the noises the sirens make, and occasionally, at night, I’ll listen for the sound of ambulances, letting them lull me to sleep faster than the pitter-patter of the weekly rain. I no longer gravitate toward the western window, thinking of my sunny California paradise of a hometown only occasionally. I no longer think the subway smells weird, but I still love trying to figure out the stories of the New Yorkers staring at nothing, clinging to the poles, sleeping with their heads resting on dirty windows or a friend’s shoulder.
I am probably not a real New Yorker yet, but I have noticed that the beauty of this city lies in its boldness. It is everywhere, from the sounds of the streets to the dubious odor of the subway to the views from high-enough windows. This city can be exhaled, breathed in, seen, tasted, felt, taken in via the constant noise. The colors seem bolder here. The weather is more temperamental. With each passing day, I understand this city more and more. It’s cliché, but it’s true: to know New York is to pay attention to it with all of one’s senses.