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Olubunmi Ode | Klo3

I’ve heard it said, that cities reflect us. They give us back what we’re carrying within. They respond to the questions we don’t realize we were asking. When one is happy, a city appears joyous; when melancholy, all we see is suffering; when lonely, we see stretches of unoccupied space, or worse, crowds of people to whom we do not belong. There is truth to this thought, and certainly there was, in my response to Los Angeles, a city that reflected my angst back to me. In my subsequent journeys I have tried to remember and to judge the stirrings a city inspires against my feelings about life in general.

When I was a child, I dreamed. I imagined cities and peoples and places. I longed for the world I read about – and wanted to see all there was to it. But in my dreams, I always shied away from New York City. In my view of myself, I was not the sort of person to conquer NYC, to get it or love it. I heard about the crowds, the dirt, the noise; I heard how much attitude the city required and inspired; I heard it was tough out there. And nothing I’d heard about it fit in with my perception of myself. Well, my earliest encounters of New York were immediately different from anything I ever expected, they blew me right away.

At 23, when I finished medical school, I became overwhelmed by a feeling of having not done anything with my life; an idea that I had spent my life locked away in a book and had been nowhere, had no experiences worth noting, and had met no one worth remembering. In retrospect, I realize how foolish and untrue that was, but it was so immense at the time that it engulfed me. I panicked. It was my cue to pack a bag, travel and move to the other end of the world in search of adventure and a story. My arrival at the other end of the world turned out to be more than I imagined or bargained for. I was alone and lonely; I was poor, and without a clear source of income; I had uprooted myself from home and everything that was familiar to me – I no longer belonged. My misery was profound.

But New York City welcomed me.

I clearly remember my very first time in New York City. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly dirty it was. The second thing was the cacophony of languages and the diversity of its people. As I stood there, with variety and difference washing all over me, I felt months of feeling out of place, different, weird, judged, inadequate… all start to drain out of me. Suddenly, I belonged in this crowd where the only rule was none at all. There, on that filthy subway platform, with my uncomfortable shoes and half-empty suitcase, I became a New Yorker.

You’ve all heard about the immenseness of the city, how full, how representative of the whole world it is. I couldn’t explain to you, though: this city where the majority of households speak English as a second language, and the group standing behind me in line at the grocery store look and sound exotic enough to literally have just stepped off a boat from anywhere. I sat at the Rockefeller Center, on one of those first few mornings, and literally watched the world go by – a childhood dream fulfilled.

New York City entertained me. I was quickly taken with its bright lights and tall buildings, and its grandeur made, makes, me feel enveloped. I realized quickly that whatever pursuit I fancied, there was enough of it here to almost overwhelm me. I was delighted. I wanted to get lost in the museums and galleries, talk to myriad strangers, stand and watch its street performers , gorge myself on the delicacies of several cultures, experience its humanity, laugh at its absurdities and never, ever feel alone. The sense that this grand city expected nothing less from me than the next person; not one of my features was a good enough excuse for failure – only my parents held me to such standards. The awe! I wanted to travel on cheap tickets from JFK/La Guardia or on the Chinatown buses; to go dancing in the different clubs or just listen to Jazz or spoken word poetry; to roam its never-ending streets at dawn or dusk or whatever time I could fit it in, read a book in the park or on the street corner, catch a free concert or a roadside performance, or just sit still and take in the wonders of the city.

New York City fed me. Food. I will have to tell you about the food in that city with more words than I can fit in here. Every time I contemplate it, my stomach muscles contract and I get a longing somewhere deep in my core. The $2 hot dog on the street corner, the Halal food from the food cart, the Indian food, wonderful, and cheap, Thai entrées, Chocolate factory restaurants, Michelin-starred restaurants… The audacious, inspired, exquisite food that New Yorkers take for granted. I couldn’t tell you enough about it; it spoiled food for me – made it hard for me to ever be impressed by mediocre food anywhere in the world.

New York accepts you. It rolls over and makes space for as much of you as you bring. It doesn’t judge you or ask questions, it is never surprised by you or disappointed. It’s been there, done that and not at all impressed by your baggage. I suspect that if you had 3 heads and a tail and went to NYC, you would find an entire community of 3-headed and tailed people as well as the 2-headed and the non-tailed. You would have random conversations with people who wouldn’t notice your 3 heads or whose room-mate or cousin had a tail. Sure New York would sometimes snarl at you, but never because of your tail and surely never for your 3 heads. It would do it, same for everyone – because it was in a snarly mood. Slowly over time, you’d forget these extra features and start to feel normal; that is, until you go somewhere else, where people stare, get scared, avoid you, or are mean to you… for being different from them. That, or the place where every next person talks about how “interesting” your 3 heads are and “where did you get your tail from? It’s so exotic”. But I digress.

The culture of our world is that being different is viewed with suspicion, sometimes ridiculed, other times hated. By itself, being different is often a reason to be expected to fail or be bad, or at a disadvantage; but my favourite thing about NYC is that because of its melting-pot nature, there’s an extreme bandwidth of acceptable difference where you’re not considered different at all- just simply part of the crew of “different” people.

It wasn’t difficult, then, when one time a guest of mine from out of town leaned in on me to make fun of an old, poor, man sitting across from us – to look her squarely in the eye and say, “Stop that. This is New York, we don’t do that here”. No, we don’t.

Olubunmi is a nomad, restlessly following her feet through adventures in life and living; a pediatric intensivist; a laughing, reading, cooking, lover of people in general and children in particular. She is often torn between trying to save the world and just enjoying it – medical missions or the Cordon Bleu…

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