I was having a conversation the other day with a colleague who lives in a trendier neighborhood than me and thus pays a lot more in rent. I thought about what sacrifices I’d have to make if I wanted to live in a similar situation on what I make now, and realized it would be very hard, if approaching the impossible. The solution for many people is to find roommates, but I enjoy living alone, and don’t want to give that up – it’s something to which I’ve become accustomed for five years now. So instead, I live farther away from the various centers of action, and wake up to a more peaceful setting (except for the occasional car alarm and drag race) but also a longer subway ride.
For me, the key to enjoying this city on a small budget is traveling a lot within the city limits, habituating different neighborhoods on a weekly basis: living one place and working in another, shopping for food in one section and worshipping in another, going to see movies and shows along one set of subway lines and visiting friends along another. This lets me indulge my curiosity and my aspirations to be around nice things all the while getting by on less than the average salary here. It’s possible to do this especially here because so many grand things and well-known people are brought into close proximity with one another, on the street, on transit, in restaurants and stores and auditoriums. And what I do not spend on rent, I can spend on memberships to this museum or tickets to that show or the occasional dinner out somewhere nice. Also, cultivating a frugality about certain things and noting shortcuts and semi-secrets and discounts here and there pay off, too.
Of course, if it weren’t for the subways and the buses (but mostly the subways), this lifestyle wouldn’t be as possible, and I’d probably have to spend more time in one part of the city. I take cabs when I need to or feel like they would be worth it, but if I had to own and maintain a car here, I wouldn’t have enough to go out nearly as often. Public transit is something I’ve been nurtured to love over the years, by my perpetually commuting parents, by a year spent abroad in which my family was car-less, and by an adolescence in which I began frequenting buses before I learned how to drive.
At the end of the day, I can accomplish this lifestyle while working in a field that I love and going to a job that I don’t mind. I could be making buckets more money toiling for some Wall Street firm, but then I’d likely be carrying a BlackBerry (i.e., tether to work) and having to go into work on Sundays (and/or Saturdays) and the richer worlds of the city would be more within my reach, but then I wouldn’t have as much time to walk this fine line between feeling poor and experiencing things I want to experience.
Don’t get me wrong: There are times when this city gets me down and I feel lonely and anonymous and unconnected. But those have been outweighed so far by moments when I utter in my head that cliché of an ad slogan: “I heart N.Y.”