Living in NYC - Institutionalized Deprivation

The concrete jungle, the place where dreams are made. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Living in NYC is like a prison sentence, yet no one admits it. Like inmates, space and sleeping quarters are cramped, congested, the presence of cockroaches and vermin are expected, and access to green space is a luxury. New Yorkers simply say this is the price you pay to live in the Big Apple. They wear it like a badge of honor. How many times have you moved in the last two years? The average New Yorker has moved at least three times in two years. I moved five times in two years trying to find a place where I could see the sun, have a enough room to eat dinner at a real table, and not loathe coming home. I have lived in Chicago and Los Angeles. For me, home is a sanctuary. The rest of the world can be a chaotic mess, but where I rest my head has to be a peaceful respite in the middle of the urban chaos.

I moved to NYC to chase a dream deferred – becoming a published writer and author. NYC offers plenty of opportunity BUT in the words of EB White "New York can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck…No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky." New Yorkers are proud, resourceful, and resilient. That can-do, hustling attitude makes it so desirable for dream chasers and entrepreneurs. However, NYC will require more than a pound of flesh and quart of blood for a decent living and quality of life while chasing your dream here. Nowhere in the United States is the dichotomy between extreme wealth and abject poverty so apparent than in NYC.


For all its greatness, only in NYC are you told to believe that paying more the $2k for an apartment is the norm. Mind you, that $2k does not guarantee space or the absence of bugs or vermin, but you live in NYC. Yay, what a privilege! Oh yeah, you are 40 years old and still have roommates, but not because doing so is money in your savings account or will help you afford a dream vacation. No no no. You have roommates because that is the only way you can afford an apartment in a decent neighborhood. Speaking of, decent is a relative term here just like the word spacious. One apartment listing read "spacious 300 sq ft apartment." Seriously, only an inmate or homeless person would consider 300 square feet spacious. Did I mention that spacious 300 sq ft abode costs at least $1700! New Yorkers are reading this and thinking, "Where is it? That's a deal!" The other oft quoted refrain is "but look at all the dining and cultural options you have in the city." In NYC, there is a plethora of options in arts, entertainment, and food. However, when the average New Yorker spends more than half of their monthly income on rent, how often are you taking advantage of all these opportunities – restaurant week or Broadway's 2 for 1 week? My biggest annoyance is the rats and the natives' acceptance of them as a way of life. I remember complaining about seeing rats running down the street and New Yorkers laughing at me. Garbage is on the sidewalk so night time is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the rats. "They outnumber us three to one. Or maybe it is five to one, get used to it."

I grew up on the far south side of Chicago in the Altgeld Gardens Housing Projects. Yet, I never saw a rat and the sanitation landfill was across the street. There was the occasional mouse or roach (not cockroach) that was quickly eradicated and not a regular occurrence to "get used to." I had a happy childhood. Green grass and trees on every block and no rat bait boxes to avoid. Kids would play "It" hiding behind trees, hop scotch, jump double-dutch, or roller skate outside all without requiring parents to pack up and plan a trip to the nearest playground.

Chicago is my hometown and I am intimately familiar with its flaws as well as its virtues. I make no excuses for them. Unlike most Chicagoans, I was not offended by Rachel Shtier's (a native New Yorker) critique of Chicago. I do not revel in my city being called Chi-raq. My family went from the projects to the pristine north suburbs – John Hughes' territory. We moved from poverty to working class to lower middle class. I was never deprived of food or clothing. I was showered with an abundance of love and discipline. Even neighbors would discipline and look out for children on the block. A working class family could afford a weekend getaway to Wisconsin, Michigan, or St. Louis. Chicago at least allows opportunity for those who work in the city to live in the city. There are still good neighborhoods for working class and lower middle class. I was never shunned because of where I lived. As my dad said, "this is where you live, not who you are." Monthly free days (all day) at the museums and outdoor festivals were readily accessible and my parents exposed us to what the city had to offer. My address was never a determination of my ability.

However, NYC does not afford the same upward mobility and living in society without a constant reminder of how broke you are. Every morning I walk out of my apartment and I am instantly greeted with the smell of horse, dog, and human urine intermingled with feces that makes a delicious aroma of putrid in the cold and vomitous in the summer. But that is the privilege of living in NYC. New Yorkers have perfected fake it till you make. FOMO, the fear of missing out, is so prevalent that people do not honor RSVPs because if something "better" comes along, they will no show on you. Nothing personal but they had the chance to maybe meet a celebrity or drink with someone higher up the social ladder than you. For as much as New Yorkers talk about the fakeness of Los Angeles, I have witnessed more superficial behavior in NYC than when I lived in Los Angeles. At least in Los Angeles the people are honest about being superficial. Here in NYC people are just as superficial but because they do "good" things or donate to a good cause that negates their superficial nature. In NYC, a woman wears full make-up and four inch stilettos on a treadmill. And New Yorkers call LA pretentious and fake!


Jennifer Senior wrote an article in New York Magazine titled, Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness. This quote epitomizes the New York mentality. "New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to realize dreams…And of course we should feel indebted to the world's dreamers, but there's a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of yearning…the Big Apple is a perfect moniker for the city: 'The apple is the cause of the fall of human happiness…It's the symbol of that desire for something more. Even though paradise was paradise, they were still restless'…Happiness is 'less a function of absolute income than of comparative income…New York is the most varied, most heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can't avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can't help but feel trumped. As it were.' Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we'd be happy."

I moved to the Big Apple to pursue a dream. I was told that in NYC even if you did not have money, moxie and chutzpah go a long way. Never short on ambition and drive, I packed up and moved to NYC to knock down the door of opportunity and scratch my initials in its DNA. I knew the concrete jungle would not welcome me with open arms. There is no yellow brick road to success, for even that was frought with peril and disappointment. Only in NYC do people introduce themselves by giving the name of their place of employment (Goldman, JPChase), where they live (UES, UWS, Tribeca, Williamsburg) and where they attended college (Harvard, Columbia, Cornell). Your neighborhood and alma mater tells me nothing of your character and integrity. In the words of Aesop's Fables, "wealth and respectability are often at variance."


I attended an event for those interested in mentoring first generation college students. Everyone at the event introduced themselves in the aforementioned manner. When it was my turn, I simply said, "Ronda Lee attorney from Chicago with a passion to help first generation college students survive and thrive." There was a disinterested silence. After the discussion began and I started to contribute, one person looked at me and said, "Oh, you are smart."

I was shocked when a New Yorker asked me how my blog seemed so authentic and how they could create that same feel. I do not know how to be anything else but me. That is why my blog is called Ronda-isms: Good Bad Ugly. My successes, failures, disappointments, moments of joy, inspiration, and heart break are laid bare for my readers. I value my readers and am humbled and honored for their readership. It is a disservice to them for me to undermine their intelligence by trying to be something I am not. When I feel like the concrete jungle is beating me, I say it. When I feel like I have given the jungle a bit of its own medicine, I post that moment of encouragement. I understand that success and failure are bedfellows. I will fail more than I succeed, but my failures teach me more about how to succeed. Therefore, my writings are not always happy go lucky. I cannot meditate or yoga away feelings of defeat or being overwhelmed. I accept that in that moment, I am having a moment. I just do not let the moment overtake me. My stock phrase, "Failure is an option and it's okay, just keep on trying."


This highlights the difference between living in Los Angeles and NYC. In LA, many people were as plastic as their implants, but I met good people too. I did not make much money while living in Los Angeles and it was more expensive than Chicago. Yet, I had a nice apartment in a good neighborhood with basic necessities like green space, a dishwasher, no roommate, and never was the presence of bugs or vermin considered a fact of living in the city. I could take a weekend in Big Bear, Vegas, Tijuana, or explore the beauty of driving PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).

I love and hate NYC. I have seen moments of human kindness, but on a regular basis it is more customary for people to act as if common courtesy is a commodity on the stock exchange too expensive to be showered on fellow straphangers. That is why riding the NYC subway, though the best in the nation, is utterly stressful. This city makes people hard, desensitized, and jaded. Living in a windowless room like an inmate in solitary will do that to a person. That is the institutional deprivation I am referring to. Inmates with long sentences begin to accept life in prison such that living on the outside is hard. Likewise, New Yorkers have been so accustomed to crap, urine, garbage on the sidewalks, rats and overpriced housing, they cannot fathom life without it. A New Yorker asked me how could I stand Chicago winters. I replied, "Chicagoans are used to the cold like New Yorkers are used to the rats."


The crazy thing is that people will be utterly inhumane to humans, but will stage a protest for an animal. I do not advocate violence towards people or animals, but if I have to choose between saving a fellow human or an animal, I will save the fellow human (unless it's the zombie apocalypse). Here people avoid eye contact and should your eyes meet, a good morning, good evening, or good night will not be heard. Maybe they think good morning is an invitation for sex, instead of that thing called human kindness and courtesy.


I have a special neighbor who finds fault in the tenants, but has taken to throwing cooked pasta out of her window down the internal air shaft to feed the pigeons. Excuse me. This is NYC and rats have gangs that run these streets and you are throwing food out the window! She thinks she is doing a good deed. I am about to go postal with this woman because the food lands on a ledge a few feet beneath my kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom windows. Flies and bugs have begun to feast on leftover pasta and wet bread she wraps in bath towels. Maybe she thinks the pigeons need a blanket. But this is normal crazy for NYC. I relayed this story to a colleague. She replied, "At least she's not feeding the squirrels and letting them in." She had an upstairs neighbor that left the window open to feed the squirrels. Unfortunately, the squirrels got in the building and other apartments too. When confronted, this neighbor said, "The squirrels are our friends. There's nothing sweeter than the sound of squirrels mating." Again, just normal NYC crazy. Nothing to be alarmed over unless your apartment has a squirrel or a raccoon in the walls, hurling its body against it, hissing trying to get out and in your unit.


Yet they tell you this is that NYC charm. The original NYC that native New Yorkers are nostalgic for died with the "Disney-fication" of Times Square. At least back then there was some cultural diversity to the neighborhoods. New Yorkers who work in the city and make it run (service workers, city workers) cannot afford to live in it. Gentrification of all boroughs is such that even the middle class cannot afford to live in the city. Say hello to at least a 45 minute commute with fellow subway patrons who are tired and pissed off they had to rise at 5am to get to work by 8am. Dude did not lie. Rent too high and you do not get what you pay for! $2500/month in rent maybe gets you 600 square feet and a window. That view can be "ghetto adjacent" or overlooking a yard you cannot enjoy because only first floor or garden units have access to the backyard. Let us not forget the ever possibility of vermin. You are so deprived of necessities like sunlight, grass, and clean streets that you think it is an honor to live here and just have mice as a nuisance instead of rats. On two occasions, I was having dinner with friends who mentioned a mouse problem in their apartments. Both of these people owned their apartments in very nice neighborhoods and were very cavalier about the mouse problem. Their bigger concern was how to humanely trap the mouse. Are you kidding me?! It is a rodent! And why are we talking about a rodent problem over dinner – cause it's NYC!

The other day I was talking to a native New Yorker and it went something like this, "People work hard saving money thinking they can have a vacation. That does not work. You have to make a vacation out of every day little things like a brunch with friends. That's life." No, that is not life, that is living in NYC. I know New Yorkers will find this concept hard to grasp, but there are cities other than NYC where it is possible to for a working class and middle class family to live in a decent community, save a couple hundred dollars and take a vacation. It may not be to St. Barts or Montauk, but it s a getaway where you can enjoy family and make memories.


NYC is the land of opportunity, but make no mistake this is the Game of Thrones' King's Landing. The city requires more than your pound of flesh and quart of blood. You convince yourself that you like the game even though you are broke and like Tyrion you do not trust most of your "friends." No one will be your champion in a trial by combat because they are too busy making allegiance with whoever has quickly replaced you. I am chasing a dream, but I refuse to drink the "milk of the poppy" that the deprivation is worth it. Success that I cannot enjoy is not success. It is the death of my soul. I will be a published writer, but I refuse to sell my soul to game. Once I achieve my goal, like Arya, valar morghulis to NYC.

I love NYC, but I loathe the Game of Thrones mentality it breeds. I will never be a true New Yorker and I am cool with that. I am a Midwestern girl raised with southern undertones. I wear that with pride. NYC, I will take what you give me, but be careful that I forget my upbringing and give it back to you! Then again, isn't that the prison mentality it breeds.

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