At 19 years old I moved from London to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I had applied without any back up plan or safety net, so I knew I had to make the most of it. Quite simply, I would be the best drama student AADA had ever seen. Before I left home ground, I made sure to research everything about the school and its history, my teachers and their backgrounds, I pre-read plays and theatre history books, I even practised monologues in the mirror. I would be there for at least 3 years, and this was going to be my city. Nothing could stop me. Nothing would dare.
On my very first day in New York, my long Uniqlo coat, gifted to me by my boss from the restaurant where I waitressed at until the day before I left, got stuck in an escalator at Penn Station. The escalator then ground to a halt and I had to wait there, in front of a lot of people, for an annoyed employee to come and cut me free. It turns out, my embarrassing first day mishap was the perfect indicator of how my first year in this new city would go, because I realised, quite quickly, I didn’t know how to do anything in New York.
Here’s the tricky thing about being in a city like New York. Having grown up with Friends, Will and Grace, Sex and the City, When Harry Met Sally etc, I felt like I understood it, that I even knew most of the colloquialisms. Every street looked like somewhere I’d seen before on a screen. It’s all familiar, but familiar isn’t the same as fluent.
“Every time I took the subway on my own, I would somehow end up in deep Queens or the Bronx, wandering around a station hoping to find someone to take pity on me and direct me home.”
The subway is an inscrutable maze with indecipherable announcements and a system of express and local trains that seem to change at random. Every time I took the subway on my own, I would somehow end up in deep Queens or the Bronx, wandering around a station hoping to find someone to take pity on me and direct me home. Because that’s the other thing about New York, people in general aren’t so forthcoming with assistance.
It’s a tough city to live in and tough people live in it. They don’t have much time for lost British girls asking too politely how to get back to midtown. But this taught me to learn the train schedule by intuition only and to pick out the important words from the garbled announcements. It taught me which of the 57th street stations to go to, and when it was actually better to go to 59th and walk. I learned that you’re as likely to see an amazing musical interlude as you are a man shitting in a takeaway container, and to enjoy the community created by the former and to never make eye contact with the latter.
The buses weren’t much easier. They are the best way to cross town if you know how to use them, which I did not. The first time I tried, my reasoning was, it’s a bus, how hard could it possibly be? A sentiment I deeply regretted when I was standing in the door of a crosstown bus, with incorrect change, being yelled at by the driver and the passengers for taking too long. New York also taught me to always carry change and to have it ready before I set foot on the bus. It also taught me that rather than kick you off, one of the passengers is more likely to get up and impatiently pay for you, because New Yorkers, though tough, have a soft centre.
“I absorbed the yelling and realised it wasn’t personal, it was just New York. It also taught me to yell back, and no matter what anyone tells you, that is a valuable tool to have, especially as a woman.”
Getting yelled at in New York is tradition and a rite of passage. I learned that pedestrians will yell at you, drivers will yell at you, cyclists, the man at the deli, the lady at the dry cleaners… all yelling, at some point or another, at you. But it thickened my skin. I absorbed the yelling and realised it wasn’t personal, it was just New York. It also taught me to yell back, and no matter what anyone tells you, that is a valuable tool to have, especially as a woman. I left New York unafraid to slap car bonnets when they edged too close, or to scream at businessmen when they shoved too hard, and those are transferable skills.
One thing I thought I wouldn’t struggle with in New York City was food, and I was mostly right. Food is literally everywhere, whether you want it cheap and quick (which as a student, I often did) or decedent and flashy, it was always available. What I didn’t know was where to shop for groceries. After my first week, I could tell you where to get a burger after midnight, but not where to buy a loaf of bread. I didn’t know in place of Tesco and Sainsbury’s was D’agostino and Gristedes. Luckily, there is a Duane Reade on almost every corner, and although it’s primarily a pharmacy, they sell a surprising amount of food. I learned that I could survive quite a long time on Lays crisps (salted), Ramen Noodles (chicken) and Oreos (double stuffed).
“I learned where I could get a free pizza with every pint of beer I bought and where to visit on Halloween to get a free burrito. I learned to always use an American accent when getting a cab so they didn’t take me for a tourist.”
Through my many New York faux pas, I learned a lot. In drama school I learned how to do my job (Be the wind Isaura. BE the wind!), but outside of school, I learned other valuable lessons. I learned what stall in Times Square to get a fake id. I learned where I could get a free pizza with every pint of beer I bought and where to visit on Halloween to get a free burrito. I learned to always use an American accent when getting a cab so they didn’t take me for a tourist.
As useful as the buses and subways are, I learned that walking through New York could be magical, watching the buildings change from past to present and back again as I walked, history and innovation living side by side, turning a corner and being in a completely new and defined area of Manhattan, finding new places to eat, drink and discover because I just happened to turn down a different street that day, never knowing who I would run into or meet for the first time… adventure felt inevitable.
I learned that I was much tougher than I originally thought and I learned confidence and resilience. Through my baptism of fire, the city is burned into my veins and runs in my bloodstream and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because it’s how I learned to love, love, love New York and how I came to know it as my second home.
Isaura Barbé-Brown is an actress based in Clapton, London. Her previous writing work includes essays, reviews and a monthly column for The Final Girls. Her other work includes poetry, plays and film and TV scripts. @isaura_bb
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