Tonight, I met a ghost.
I had plans to go to dinner and see a show with some friends so as the sun began its descent, I walked from the train station to the restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. I was minding my own business, enjoying the weather and the golden hour sunlight, but as I approached Ninth Avenue, I encountered an old friend: the ghost of myself from not that long ago.
I love New York in a thorough and almost irrational way and though I’ll take advantage of any opportunity to walk around and take her in, there are two times of day I love New York the most. The first is at sunset and the second is 3 in the morning. There’s magic in both moments. One is the splash of natural colors against the city’s architected horizon of buildings and bridges, the other is the splash of artificial colors illuminating the night in the form of street lights, billboards and disco balls. It’s fantasy in real life and when I find myself wrapped up in their glow, I’m reminded just how lucky I am to live in the place I dreamt of for so many years.
Hell’s Kitchen, for all its rapid changes and increasingly tourist-filled sidewalks, served as the first real cradle for growing into myself in this city. It’s where conversations and cocktails, food and friends, debates and dancing became the pillars on which I could lean into being authentically me. However, it’s been a long time since it’s served in that capacity. Life moved on, my friends and I began choosing brunch over boozy weekend nights and as our old haunts changed and evolved, so did we. I even work in the neighborhood now but it just hasn’t felt like that cradle of possibility for quite a while. Yet tonight, as the sun butterflied itself into broad wings of pink and orange across the sky, I felt like I’d rediscovered the ghost of myself from that pivotal time and walked with him to our used-to-be regular restaurant spot. It felt comfortable, like picking up right where I left off with an old friend, and I walked with an involuntary smile.
It was happenstance I was there at all. The restaurant we intended to go to was closed—a regular occurrence in the turnover-happy Manhattan—and we went to my old favorite place as a backup. Over dinner, I brought up how I came face-to-face with this ghostly feeling but the conversation meandered to topics including the upcoming Broadway shows we were looking forward to and how our jobs were treating us. One of my friends expressed her need for a new job because her current job was choking the creative life out of her. I understood what she was talking about and told her as much. When I first moved to New York and worked at a nonprofit helping homeless folks get access to healthcare, I felt that same choke. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy working with the people the organization reached but the day-to-day grind of that particular job wasn’t a great fit for me. I wasn’t using my skill set in a way that felt contributive and though I was running my online magazine when I wasn’t working 9-5, the hamster wheel made me feel disoriented and sad. I’d wake up each morning dreading the day ahead and while it’s a fact of life we all have bad days and sometimes have to do jobs we don’t super-love in order to pay our bills, the nonstop feeling of dread wore on me to the point I began living for 5 o’clock.
Sitting at the restaurant with my friends rehashing that story, I realized why my Friday and Saturday nights out-and-about in the city, specifically in Hell’s Kitchen, had become not only so important but so necessary. My spirit needed levity, an escape from what was a less-than-ideal day-to-day, and that escape took place up and down Ninth Avenue. The time of night, the restaurant, the Avenue, it all conspired to summon the ghost of that past-tense-self. And it was nice to see him again.
When I was a teenager, I was warned of the roach nests of sin otherwise known as bars or clubs. In church it was impressed and underscored that we shouldn’t, for any reason, be in those places and how those who frequented them were lost and searching for debaucherously sinful ways to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives. This was a sweeping and rigid generalization meant to scare the hell out of us and I believed it hook, line and sinner.
As a teenager, they were right. I didn’t need to be in those places, mostly because it was illegal for me to do so, but as a college student, I actually found myself—Super-Christian parental warning for the following statement—having a great time in a bar. Not only that, but Thursday night karaoke at Austin’s with my group of guys became a rather important part of our week; unscrewing the pressurized cap on our over-committed, over-studied and under-slept lives. I understood the grave warnings from the pulpit about bar culture when I was a teenager but now, as a young adult, I also understood I could not only make my own decisions but I could do so with my integrity intact.
When I moved to New York after grad school, my first six months in the city were some of the loneliest of my life. Loneliness is one of the monsters you have to slay in order to make it in New York. Moving here has so much appeal to so many people, lots of whom hope to take over the world and live like Carrie Bradshaw while doing so. But the reality is that while this absolutely is the greatest city in the world, it’s also probably the toughest. Sinatra wasn’t pulling any punches when he lamented if he could make it here, he could make it anywhere; New York is a training ground for people to toughen up their resolve and supercharge their drive. Many don’t stay long, often complaining about the subway commute, the lack of a Walmart, or the unmet expectation of living like Carrie Bradshaw when they actually lived like the poorest character on Girls. But mostly, the biggest reason the people I know who’ve bowed out of New York have done so is because it’s so difficult to meet people.
This was true for me as well. It took a long time to meet people but eventually, around the six month mark, I found myself grafted into a small group of established friends. We were, for the most part, single and thousands of miles away from friends and family so we palled around together on the weekends. Dinner would lead to drinks which would lead to bars and clubs with names like Urge or Saloon which would lead to dancing until our legs ached and the sun peek-a-booed over the horizon; nights when the colored lights of the dance floor wrapped around me like bolts of fabric and I felt simultaneously swaddled and free. We clinked glasses with celebrities, made new friends who became permanent additions to our group, and one strange night, danced with a winner of America’s Next Top Model until the wee hours of the morning. Why not? Those long, innocent, fun-filled nights chased away any loneliness inside of me and though it’s a wonder my heart didn’t explode from the amount of Red Bull we drank to stay upright so late into the night, I was deeply grateful to have people with whom I could spend my time. In the end, it wasn’t the drinking or the dancing that connected us, it was the discourse. The long talks, the heart-to-hearts as we walked here or there, the real stuff.
A year or so after we’d become friends, those guys invited me to go to Boston with them and though it rained the entire weekend, it was my first time in that city and I loved it. We wandered around and took in the historic sites but on Saturday night, we decided to go dancing and see how the Boston nightlife differed from our regular Manhattan haunts. A Google search later, we were at a club.
We danced like we’d never danced before. The dancefloor was packed, the music was pulsing, and we found ourselves mixed in with a group of feisty Brazilians who, like us, had randomly found this club online and decided to give it a shot. As the number of bodies on the dancefloor rose, so did the temperature. I don’t know if it was because we were in a different city or if I’d just had enough Red Bull to hop a hurdle I’d been too afraid to hop before, but that night, I left my camping backpack full of body issues at the door and danced in a tank top.
A tank top? That’s your wild moment?
As silly as it may sound, it was an enormous personal feat in overcoming my own perception of what I’d look like to the skinny people on the dancefloor. Of course, none of them were thinking about me at all and even if they were, what they thought about me didn’t matter in the slightest, but when we’d be out and about, I’d remain self-conscious about my appearance. There would be nights when my friends would actually tell me, “Just let go and allow yourself to be free,” and I’d try my best to do so, all the while wishing we were sitting in the dark corner talking about the Real Housewives instead.
But that night in Boston, I let myself go. The simple act of taking off my buttoned-up armor and dancing to Britney songs in my charcoal gray tank top cracked and loosened the grip of my body image issues and unlocked the power of simply letting go. Turns out Elsa was right all along and by the time we left that night, I felt like a new man. My friend even said, “Look at you, free and happy.” I was.
I brought that energy back with me to Manhattan and though I was a long way from where I wanted to be in terms of looking in a mirror and liking what I saw, I felt more confident than I had in years and as such, weekends with my friends became all the more meaningful and real. Eventually, as we changed jobs, got promoted, found ourselves in relationships, and grew up in general, our nights of nonstop dancing became more infrequent. It wasn’t some radical decision, it just happened.
Tonight, as we left the restaurant to walk to our show, bar fronts stood like portals to a not so distant past, each harboring memories of new friends, old friends, late nights and long conversations. They aren’t my go-to spots anymore, but they contain the ghost of someone undergoing metamorphosis; a man growing into himself.
One of the amazing things about New York City is the sense of ownership we come to feel for it. The word “my” creeps subconsciously into conversation. My bodega, my bar, my coffee shop. On the flip side, restaurants that once served as a go-to with friends and out-of-towners shudder and completely throw off our equilibrium. Changes feel personal, whether it’s train schedules or the deli that delivered perfect burgers closing down to become a CVS, and we uniformly lament how “New York isn’t the same anymore.” Walking down the avenue, it wasn’t the same either. It was familiar but it was different. I’m different. And I’m thankful for that.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.