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A love letter to the city I never thought I could call home

One TODAY editor discovers a new appreciation for a place he never really loved — until now.
Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Cindy Ord / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

I never really loved New York.

When I moved to New York City in 2016 to pursue my dream of becoming the gay version of Carrie Bradshaw, I had romanticized the idea of the city in my head.

But after weeks which turned into months of trying to settle in, I found it difficult. The scenes of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda weren't my reality. There were no Cosmos. Four people trying to walk down a street side by side is a death sentence. And the only “Manolo” I knew was Manolo Tapas, this cute little Spanish spot in Washington Heights.

The dusty studio apartment I was subletting was full of boxes that belonged to the previous tenant, an 80-year-old man who had relocated to Florida leaving me with all of his things. My roommates were the cockroaches in the closet-sized kitchen. My toilet only flushed when you did this thing to the handle while holding up the chain in the basin.

New York, Manhattan cityscape outside a dark room window
Moving to New York was much less glamorous than I'd anticipated. Getty Images stock

But with the little resources I had, I made it all work.

After one year of financial hardships, I finally had a reliable full-time job and an apartment I could actually call my own (along with two roommates). But still, I would scroll the feeds of people who constantly posted stylized pictures of themselves proclaiming their love for this place, and I found it hard to relate. I really felt like there was an emotional puzzle piece missing inside of me, that void instead being filled with an anxiety that I didn't belong here and that this wasn't my home. I’ll always just be passing through.

Alexander Kacala Love Letter to NY
Eventually I was able to move into an apartment with a little outdoor space. Alexander Kacala

I still identified strongly with Philadelphia. After living there for a decade, I felt it hard to shake the identify of that place and settle in here. But even when I returned home to Philly for holidays or trips, I was underwhelmed by that place. My old home felt hushed, while my new home still felt too loud for me to actually hear. I was lost somewhere in the middle.

And then, the coronavirus came.

U.S. Navy Ship Hospital Arrives In New York
The U.S. Navy Ship Comfort arrived at Pier 90 in Manhattan to alleviate the burden on New York's hospital system.Liao Pan / Getty Images

It's peculiar that it has to take a disaster for us to appreciate what we have. They say that you have to be here for at least a decade to earn the distinction of being a New Yorker, but events like this can speed up that timeline. I know for me the last six weeks have felt like six years.

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
People shop in one of the few remaining markets still open in Chinatown as the coronavirus keeps financial markets and businesses mostly closed. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

It may be too early to find the silver lining in all of this. People are still scared and anxious and sad because of the daunting stats that are released each day. But for the first time ever, I am starting to feel like an actual New Yorker because of the collective experience we are all sharing.

There are painful reminders of the devastation our city is experiencing. Many days, I can hear countless incidences of ambulance sirens driving by. But as chilling as that may be, I'm also hearing things out my window that are hopeful. The birds seem to be louder than ever, maybe because the streets are so empty. I hear my neighbors talking for the first time. Rebecca in 3B shouts down to my neighbors in 1A asking if they're OK or if they need more paper towels because her delivery of a six-pack just came.

And at 7:00 every night, people have been taking to their stoops and windows to clap for our first responders. Since starting more than a month ago, the sound has gotten louder every night, with more and more people joining the collective call to praise those on the front lines.

A symbol of unity can be seen from above in Bryant Park. TIMOTHY A. CLARY / Getty Images

As the applause comes to an end at 7:02, someone points their speakers out into the easement that separates our buildings, blasting Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The first time it played, I cried happy sad tears.

I don’t know too much about who this person is — only that they are straight because if they were gay they would be playing the Liza Minnelli version — but I feel a strong connection to them, that they are finding solace in these moments. (I actually requested Liza one night, and the next night they played it.)

New York naturally attracts people of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, income brackets, and that diversity is always something I have loved. I remember one day when I was still taking the subway, my phone died, forcing me to look up. I clocked that an Asian family was next to a group of Muslim tourists who were sitting across from a Latinx person who was next to a drag queen on her way to work for the night.

New Yorkers cheer for health care workers
New Yorkers take to their windows to cheer on first responders.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

With so much that separates us, maybe the coronavirus is the prism we can all collectively look through together as one. Finding common ground can translate to a common source of pride.

I can finally say for real this time, "I love New York."