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My NYC Dichotomy

Lily Brouwer

Where in the world can you pay $2,000 a month to share a studio apartment with cockroaches, reach for the same bag of chips as a bodega cat, and pay $2.75 for a slice of pizza or to ride the subway?

New York City. It is simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, peaceful and terrifying, simple and complicated, modern and antiquated. The city, overpopulated with ambient stressors, predisposes its residents to the DSM-5 menu.  

My fascination with New York began when my seven-year-old self put on her brand new earmuffs and took the Metro-North train in with her mom, aunt, and cousins to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. 

My first memory of the city: sensory overload. As soon as we got onto the bustling street, my personal space bubble popped. Eyes blinded by bright billboards, nostrils filled by the sweet smell of Nuts4Nuts stands, ears eavesdropping on multilingual conversations, all while being swept into the current of pedestrian traffic hurrying from Grand Central Terminal to 49th Street. 

I felt grateful for the embrace of my mother’s gloved hand in mine, because without it I would have become engulfed by Manhattan. 

Once that 80-foot spruce was in view, I stared in awe at its gigantism. I wondered how the tree got to its place in Midtown Manhattan.

Did they use a helicopter and go above the buildings? 

Did they bind it up so it could fit between buildings on the street? 

As a seven-year-old, my depth perception may have been off, but understanding the logistics of placing this piece of nature inside this metropolis was of great importance.

We were still far away from the Christmas tree, and there was no good place to stop, because the crowd was all encompassing. As we got closer to the tree, I soaked in how bright it was.

If a plane were to fly over the city with no other lights on, how much of New York would be illuminated by the 50,000 lights on the tr--- 

My thoughts were halted as I felt ice cold air slam against my ears.

I froze. Someone’s arm had knocked off my earmuffs. 

I instinctually let go of my grasp on my mom’s hand to cover my ears. I spotted the fuzzy earmuffs beside me, picked them up, put them on, and sighed in relief as my ears were once again protected from the elements. But I realized my family was no longer guiding my way through the throng. I could hear my heartbeat surge in my ears. Here I was, alone, in the biggest city in the United States. I gasped for air as my throat closed in. I frantically jumped to see above the crowd, looking for the familiar faces of my relatives. I then stayed put, with my feet planted, as the sense of impending doom set in:

What if I never found my family? 

Would I become an orphan? 

Would I die out here, with this beautiful view as my last memory? 

Just as the panic started to shut down every organ system one at a time, my eyes spotted my mom’s cotton candy hair racing toward me, and she squeezed my petrified body within her arms. My heart rate subsided. My breathing slowed down. I was safe. 

This is my first memory of New York, and my first memory of anxiety, but not my last. These two entities, whether I like it or not, are intertwined themes. I moved to New York City to start college at 18, and my anxiety grew throughout the eight years I lived there. It hurts to admit that this city, which I fell in love with as a child, and still love, is a place which continued to foster the panic young Lily felt for the first time. 


Lillian Brouwer

Class of 2026