dream city

on finding bubble tea and yourself in new york

This summer, I was determined to have an authentic New York experience. Wait, it gets better: I was a 21-year-old transplant from Houston who was determined to have this authentic New York experience while living in SoHo and working in investment banking.

I turned up my nose at the idea of living in an overpriced place in Tribeca (obvious banker territory) or an undersized New York University dorm and convinced two friends to live in a overpriced, undersized apartment on Thompson Street, less than a block away from the bakery that invented cronuts. My street was all custom hat shops and sunshine and parklets, making it easy to ignore the fact that the rest of SoHo was a glorified mall.

Those first mornings, I would saunter to the subway, the daily nod from the guy who guarded the line of sugar-bomb-seekers still novel to me. And the first nights when I left work, I would find myself inexplicably smiling, looking south at Times Square and the mobs of theatergoers converging for showtime, my sense of superiority momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer hum of activity.

I quickly imagined a life for myself: my corporate coworkers would spend their nights at crowded bars while I explored the city in a non-touristy fashion, discovering my own secret parks, searching for the perfect bubble tea, and finding myself. I had grown up with once-a-year trips to the Museum of Modern Art and Central Park, and I knew that there must be something more to Manhattan, some way to lay claim to it if I only tried hard enough.

For most of the summer, this plan worked. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art what felt like most weekends but was really only twice; I found the requisite dim sum places and ice cream shops. I bought mango in a plastic bag on Broadway and ate it, shoppers streaming around me. I read Joan Didion at work and was thrilled by the fact that I, too, had gold curtains. I was living in New York City, damn it.

But small things chipped away at the illusion. Coming back from work increasingly late, too tired to force anyone to Experience the City with me, I would scroll through social media, noting just how many people I knew had also seen the new Whitney this weekend. Quite a few people were also feeling free-spirited on a Sunday and walking the High Line. I had so little time—the length of the summer, but also my limited free time—and I was spending it just like everyone else.

It was hopeless. Every place that I envisioned becoming special to me turned out to be another item on every other summer dweller’s checklist. The spots I hoped would stay secret showed up with alarming frequency on acquaintances’ snap stories. Even the dive bar I found that played Star Wars inexplicably and continuously was crashed by a girl I knew in high school. How was I supposed to find a home here when tourists wouldn’t stop walking through?

It was around the time of this crushing realization that a friend suggested we go to an art show she had heard about. It was called the Dream House. We scoffed at the “Sound and Light Environment” descriptor on the site, but the circa 2002 site design—plain black text on fluorescent gardenia—screamed authenticity.

I was thrilled to find that we had to be buzzed up at the virtually unmarked door. The volunteer at the top of the steps was appropriately blasé about the droning noise bleeding through the door behind him. Inside, it was even louder, a screech at a register calculated to cause maximum physical and psychological damage. Red and blue lights bounced off simple spirals hung against walls. Several people sat on the white carpet, eyes closed, as the blare and the unmediated summer heat washed over them.

The site had recommended we budget one to two hours to fully appreciate the experience. We lasted about twenty minutes.

Mystified by my experience, I Googled the Dream House after we left. It turned out this was no pop-up exhibit we had wandered into—it had first opened in 1993 as a collaboration between La Monte Young, an avant-garde sound artist, and Marian Zazeela, a minimalist sculptor. The song I had been listening to was called “The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered Above” and—well, you get the idea. Sonic Youth and Animal Collective had hung out on those same warm floors. And everyone agreed that it was a super meaningful experience.

Clearly, I had done something wrong. I was determined to return and make the unique New York space mine. I passed the three days it was closed with some impatience. On the sunset of the fourth day, I set out for the exhibit on foot, armed with yoga pants and increasingly grandiose ideas. I could make it my go-to meditation spot, an oasis away from the masses of tourists that flooded my neighborhood. I could interview volunteers and visitors, finally proving obscure enough to be published in the Indy. I could discreetly disclose the spot to friends, safe in the knowledge that none of them would have heard of it before.

I reached the same unmarked door and pressed the buzzer. Nothing. I peered through the window, hoping to catch the eye of the volunteer on duty, but my view was blocked by a piece of paper taped to the door: The Dream House is closed for the summer and will reopen September 20th.

I took this as a personal offense. I wandered the streets of Tribeca and then Chinatown and then Little Italy, the same alone-in-a-crowd feeling that had freed me earlier this summer now suffocating me.

In the more perfect version of this story, there’s a turning point. I buy gelato on the street and sit in Washington Square Park, watching men play chess under lamplight. I realize that making a home somewhere isn’t about finding the right obscure spots, that it’s more of a process of settling in and finding the comfort that only comes with time. I accept that New York is just a city and your relationship with it a series of compromises, that there is no secret authentic place that exists, that you make what you can of it.

But the truth is that I walked around for a bit and went home angry. My choices were to fully face the fact that my quest was futile or to continue it. I chose the latter with some bitterness, the idea of some truer place bumping up against my naïve constellation of places and daily dramas. Over the next few weeks, the realizations of that imaginary turning point would come to me, in slow bursts. Eventually it would surface like a bruise, ambiguous evidence of an impact between expectation and reality. By the time it had faded, I had left the city behind.