It really started around my fifth year in New York — both friends and strangers telling me that I needed to accept the harsh reality of becoming a “New Yorker.” This conversation was always awkward, less because of the premise and more the tone: It was consistently less congratulatory and more gotcha. But that made sense: New York City is the great collector of souls, eternally capable in the art of lengthening stays and erasing plans of ever leaving.
Proudly from Atlanta, I’d always counter this opinion of my statehood with my stats: my 404 area code, my Georgia driver’s license, my tattoo of the phoenix (General Sherman rudely burned down Atlanta, and the image later became the city’s seal) and the fact that I say “y’all.” But as my tenure in New York nears a decade, coupled with the expansion of Chick-fil-A into Manhattan, my insecurity about my “home” has quietly grown. Was I actually a New Yorker now?
I considered this while sitting at the bar of one of North Williamsburg’s many new hotels alongside photographer Andre Wagner. We talked about our respective New York lives while looking through his black-and-white photos of kids after school. After a few minutes, I asked him where he was from.
Thinking about the images, his background and current existence supported his art. Wagner is someone who has also been in New York longer than expected, someone who understands New York, but someone who is not a New Yorker. Traveling through the city by way of his photos, you experience two sides of his identity: a photographer who can identify with the kid in the photo and a photographer who is still bewildered by the life of a kid who grows up in New York City.
It hit me, finally, in seeing these photos why we’d never be New Yorkers: We missed out on being young students here, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, in the fall, winter and spring. It’s not just that I didn’t experience an after-school life like those of New York City kids — it’s that I can’t even fathom it. During the school year, if I wasn’t in school, I was playing some type of sport, and if I wasn’t in school or playing some type of sport, I was with my mother, everywhere. There was not a fourth option.
For these two hours, kids run New York City. It’s a brash sense of deserved ownership, from the streets to the bodegas, the subways to the Subways. If I’m roaming the city during this time of the day, I routinely feel like a visitor — a subordinate, even — at age 30, to a group of 16-year-olds. I don’t have to like it, but I respect it. This is their time to be free.
I can hear Wagner’s photos, because New York has a specific sound for these 120 minutes. It’s loud as hell. It’s high-pitched, often more from the pubescent, overcompensating boys than the exceedingly cooler girls. All of the curse words that are muffled at school and banned at home are screamed, for everyone to hear. And there’s an unique intensity to it all, from friendship to romance to conflict, that’s both gorgeous and volatile.
But amid all the energy and passion, there are the most interesting characters — those who are reserved, those who are doing more observing than shouting, those who might want to be filling the street with noise, but either don’t, or simply can’t.
The freedom of New York is a double-edged sword, the access to everything either representing limitless opportunities or limitless restrictions. You see both of those after-school — two kids walking down the street with the confidence of socialites, steps away from a kid with headphones on, backpack heavy, the pressure of life even heavier. And you see that disparity when a kid has no parent in sight, next to a kid begrudgingly with a parent holding that invisible leash, next to a kid who quietly wishes that there were a parent outside, smiling and waiting and protecting.
It’s all a reminder that New York City, on one city block, at one specific moment of time, can simultaneously show you something that cannot exist elsewhere and something else so familiar and relatable that if you squint hard enough, and let your memories take ahold of your mind, it’s not a stranger you’re looking at. It’s you.