New York City is a lot of things. One thing it's not is a place to practice moderation. At least, not in my experience. If anything, it's a study in extremes.
The super-rich share the cramped space with the desperately poor. Nineteenth-century Gothic cathedrals cast shadows on neighboring nail salons. Drop by the Met to view ancient Egyptian artifacts, and then grab a hotdog from a street vendor before heading home. On a good day, the disparity was charming. Most of the time, I found it jarring and unsettling.
I hadn't quite been able to put my finger on the feeling until one winter day when I was twenty-two. At that point, I shared a studio in Murray Hill with an acquaintance from college. It was expensive and unglamorous, but we managed. I was working in one of those little bakeries that gained an instant following during the inexplicable "cupcake boom" of the early 2000s. When not working (which, let's face it, wasn't a luxury that happened often), I dedicated myself to auditioning and the occasional community service. On this December day, I gathered with other volunteers in the basement of a nearby church, waiting to hear directions about how the day was to proceed. The review was familiar: We'd each be partnered with a child who was currently living in transitional housing as the result of domestic violence. We'd spend an hour or two making crafts and sharing a snack with them. The conclusion of today's activities would be special, however. A corporate sponsor had received the children's holiday wish lists and supplied the gift of their choice. These were hidden behind a curtain on the stage.
My buddy that day was a seven-year-old boy. We didn't talk about his living situation. I was prohibited from making any reference to it, but the children never brought it up, anyway. Instead, he energetically chatted away about his favorite foods, his friends from school, and his ability to count really, really high. When the announcement came that the children would be receiving their dream gifts, there was an expected roar of excitement and surge of bodies towards the stage. My young friend smiled, but was notably calm. I made sure to tell him that I noticed how patiently he was waiting in the long line for his turn to receive a gift. His big brown eyes turned to me, and with a wisdom that I will never forget, he said:
"These are just presents you buy in a store. But I have my mom and my sister. Those are my real presents."
Seven years old.
We watched the children ahead of us joyfully accept their gifts. A bicycle. A computer. A gaming system. Big-ticket items. What was the gift that my buddy requested, given the freedom to choose anything in the world? A football. Because he could use it to play with his sister. He hugged it tightly as we said goodbye.
The experience was a lot to digest as I bundled up and started the walk uptown to the bakery for a night of work. 45 minutes into my shift, an irate customer bellowed his dissatisfaction that the $100 cake he'd ordered for his son's second birthday featured a penguin whose facial expression was not acceptably "neutral." I'm not ashamed. I cried in the kitchen.
More than ten years later, balance continues to elude me. Teacher and mother. Wife and individual. Hedonist and Puritan. Once again, I'm thankful to New York for letting me wrestle with the discomfort of seeking balance. And for showing me that the gift of it - once you can sift through the distractions - is its ability to leave behind the things that really matter.