Some people come into college with a vision. They follow it all the way to Paris or Hong Kong. The rest of us grapple for a little while. Over break, I realized that it wasn’t so hard to figure out where I wanted to be in 5 years. The hard part was giving myself permission to chase all of the hopes I’ve had for so long.

I want to live in New York. It’s cliché, but in a way that seems like a euphemism for “that city will eat you alive.”

No, I didn’t invent the genre: pining-for-the-city stories have been told before. Hell, with 95 percent of the world’s population on 10 percent of its land, nearly all of us have a story like that. But at their core, those stories are all about beating the odds. They’re about getting the ‘big break,’ or surviving on a shoestring. It led me to wonder if people from small cities like Ann Arbor have what it takes.

Growing up here, I thought I’d turned out a little green. Ann Arbor is a poor boot camp for big city living. It’s the kind of place where you can get your wallet returned to you. You can treat bookstores and coffee shops like your own living room. No one will wake you if you fall asleep on a couch. Strangers almost always welcome spontaneous conversation. It’s a friendly old college town we live in.

But in other ways, this Michigan town does give you an accurate taste of the big-city. To start with, the rent here is ridiculously expensive. We have good food — you can find great Thai, Indian, Korean, Jamaican and Middle Eastern food on the cheap. There’s a bit of nightlife and too much shopping. The art, films and music on the weekends are just enough. But I wanted to get to the big leagues.
I realized that there was a difference between laying plans and lying to myself. I needed to know how I felt in the thick of it. After New Years, I flew to New York — mostly to see how it fit and how adequately Ann Arbor had prepared me.

It happened in the East Village. Walking out of a dizzying bookshop and into the street, I passed the crowded cafes. Forty-second Street looked to me like a moonscape, like I didn’t belong there. I opened the door to a 24-hour Ukrainian restaurant, and I had to hurry to grab a bar stool. And maybe it was this brief reminder of Ann Arbor, but suddenly, my confidence was re-lit.

Too many people will tell you that New York is dangerous. Okay, sure. Don’t take it from me: I am Midwestern and as street-smart as the bulldog in Homeward Bound. But there were people on the streets and subways late into the night, so you’re always in good company. The place has changed since the 1970s and 80s (and no, it’s not all thanks to Giuliani). I had cause to feel like a sitting duck, schlepping my rolling suitcase all over Queens, Harlem and Manhattan. But most everyone is too busy with their own lives to notice.

Every neighborhood had its own character to explore. After one day, my friend and I began to grasp how many people come to New York only once in their lives and have to carefully schedule themselves into the major museums, shows, and iconic sights. People wait in the cold for hours to try to see what New York has to offer. They shell out for taxis and tickets, while the city itself becomes a blur.

After East Village, I treated it a bit more like home and relaxed there. We enjoyed the little things, the subways and people there, as much as our strolls. In Brooklyn Beach, Little Italy and Chinatown we had no idea where we were going, and got the most out of figuring it out. The best things I’ve seen here weren’t even in my guidebook. It seems to me that the pleasure of living in New York is always stumbling on some gem that shakes up your daily routine.

Six months ago, I was so anxious about my future and my plans. But what I know now is that Ann Arbor prepared me for New York in ways I’d never even realized. It may not be where I want to stay, but thanks to this little town, I know where I want my big-city dreams to carry me.

Meg Young can be reached at megyoung@umich.edu.

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