Notes on How To Live in New York

by David Prete

When your family questions your sanity, you’ll say moving here is about needing to live and work beside other artists, which even to you may sound like bullshit. Move anyway and allow a reason to come. Don’t starve yourself. Don’t buy pizza in places that also sell falafel. Let people off the subway before getting on, and listen to the guy who sits outside the bodega because sometimes he sings. Work. Live in many different apartments. Have many roommates. Be open to their wardrobe even if we’re talking about umbrellas as dresses. Build a tribe of friends; eat brunch with them. Work. When visitors from out of town say they could never live here, an appropriate response is: No one is asking you to.

After about eight years you’ll find your own apartment with a bathroom down the hall. Every morning you'll hear the guy you share it with cough up his entire mid-section. He’ll have twelve children. Ten in the Dominican Republic; four will leave crumbles of toilet paper on your bathroom floor. In your hallway you’ll have an oval cut out in the wall unfilled with a saint since 1929—thirty years after the building was built. One of your neighbors will be learning how to play the flute. This will piss you off and keep you awake. The best course of action is to love this building. And no matter how much it sets you back, buy the air conditioner. Some say living without an air conditioner during New York City summers builds character—nobody needs that much character.

This city will feel like yours, like you can be and have what you want here. You and she will triangulate this place. Your work will thrive. It’ll feel as real and sweet as something can. Work more. Your fear will settle and you’ll experience this island of misfits, this perfect home, embracing you even as it remains indifferent to your comings and goings.


One particular morning at 9am—many years after the city’s impossibility digs into you—you’ll climb the stairs of the Brooklyn Bridge station and see City Hall. You’ll not be able to account for the preceding five hours. But you’ll remember the scrappy woman who belted out God Bless the Child on the subway platform. (You gave her a quarter and paid with envy: How can she live in the subway and still sing when you can barely make lunch?) You’ll have been riding trains and walking streets unable to locate the genesis of your cynicism and failure. Sometime after the money ran out and the tribe of friends broke up and you learned what it really meant to be a misfit and the goddamned work stopped coming, you lost your gait. You’ll think of her—loneliness opening wider than you imagined—wearing your shirt, making that face when you point the camera at her. You’ll find many reasons for the relationship’s end, but won’t know which one to accept. So you’ll pick one. You have to.

Outside City Hall you’ll see a woman wearing a winter coat over her white dress, a flower halo around her head, a bouquet in hand. She’ll be slightly over twenty. A little girl—her daughter—will have a lot of trouble walking in her heels, taking four small steps to her mom’s one. She’ll fall. Soon a man in a suit will come out of the courthouse carrying a document. He’ll show it to the woman, they will smile at what it says and kiss. Your cynicism will turn to sadness; the man will take the girl’s hand, lead her into the crosswalk; the woman will follow wobbling in her shoes. The light will change and cabs will accelerate right at the newlyweds. Because you’ll be able to touch the you you were and the you you are, your heart will crack open as you pull for them to cross the street unharmed; you’ll want to just get your hands on them, shake off them what you imagine is bad luck. They’ll get into a cab and head over the Brooklyn Bridge.

You’ll be exhausted and want to go home and sleep. Don’t. Proceed to the bridge. Look right to the Statue of Liberty. Picture old New York around 1912… men wearing Stetson hats and sharp, pin-stripe suits, your grandmother in white gloves. Picture fourteen year-old immigrant girls denied entry due to illness, sent back to the country where they no longer have homes. Conceptualize the enormity of their fear. See your grandmother in a Hell’s Kitchen hat factory, her boss telling her to put more space between her stitches, save thread, this is the depression after all. Then imagine her doing that for forty years. You’ll feel enthusiasm, an urgency to honor her pain. You’ll want to work harder to find dignity in your self while you still live here. The reason for moving here has finally arrived. Cynicism gone. You’ll always want to feel this alive. You won’t.


One particular night—years later—you’ll go home as you neighbor coughs in the bathroom and the flute plays. That niche in your hallway will still be a saint short. And you’ll admit that what you’re looking for in New York never existed.

Shut out the light, pull the covers to your neck, hear the customary white noise out your window. It’ll get stronger and closer, sounding like an approaching uptown parade—an inaudible message in the sounds. Breathe in those who have died and left their names and dust in this place—dust swirled up by the wheels of busses, blown down tunnels by express trains, inhaled and exhaled by every resident. Two thoughts will come to you: One about failure. Another about how you live with providence, and in spite of all probabilities, you, the coughers, the homeless subway singers, the girls on wobbly shoes are all being taken care of…so work. Both thoughts will vie for position in you. Pick one.

David Prete is a writer, actor, director, teacher and native New Yorker. He has worked in Los Angeles among other regional theatres in America, and has appeared in independent films screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Long Island Film Festival, and the International Film Festival of NYC. His critically-acclaimed book of short stories Say That to My Face was published in 2003. He currently lives in Chicago.

AUGUST AND THEN SOME the latest book by David Prete is published by Fourth Estate and is out now price £12.99

 Photo credit top: Maurice