Look Up

“When this old world starts getting me down, and people are just too much for me to face, I climb way up to the top of the stairs, and all my cares just drift right into space…”  — Gerry Goffin and Carole King, “Up on the Roof

I’ve been spending a lot of time on rooftops lately. My rooftop, specifically. It’s my new sunny day routine — wake up, get dressed, pop across the street to the coffee shop, chat with the barista while she makes my usual, grab my book and headphones and keys, and then climb the four flights up to a locked door. There’s a certain amount of juggling that happens at the top, as I attempt to open the door without spilling coffee or sending my bookmark fluttering back to the landing below. And then finally, with a click of the gold latch, suddenly everything is quiet. It’s just me up there (perks to having an unconventional work schedule). I breathe in the wind and the sky, the baking brownstones and far off Manhattan skyline. The air is clearer up there, undisturbed by the near-constant construction that tends to fill my gentrifying neighborhood with dust and noise and a tinge of resentment. And before I settle down with book and coffee for an hour or two, back against the sun-soaked eaves, toes freed from my ballet flats, I take a second to just be. To breathe and soak up the sunshine and the skyline. To feel for a moment like this city, in all its chaos, is laid out waiting at my feet.


Rooftop culture is one of the gems of New York, a secret nobody quite seems to let you in on until you move here. All those apartment buildings with their lack of space or light or air come with one big advantage — flat roofs — and so when the roomies and I were moving last summer, one of the perks we were most excited about was access to one of said roofs. And then we moved, and even though this urban oasis lay just four flights up, I stayed on the first floor, safe inside the confines of our apartment. I don’t know what exactly made me stay down below decks, as it were: a vague but unshakeable anxiety brought on by all this change and the abrupt unmooring from my first New York home. I was recalibrating, getting to know my new space, nesting and decorating and starting to make it feel less anonymous and more like mine, and that didn’t seem to leave me the mental energy to venture upstairs. August passed, and September, and then the temperature dropped and before I knew it rooftop season had gone. I kicked myself, cursing the unexploited afternoons I could have spent surveying my new hood and soaking up some much-needed vitamin D. All winter I stewed, thinking about the rooftop parties that could have been thrown, the lazy bottles of wine I could have nursed with a friend or two while we talked about…whatever.

So when springtime finally hit this year, I was ready. There was a knot in my stomach the first time I climbed. I don’t know what I expected to find — a locked door, a judgmental neighbor, another apartment already having claimed the uppermost territory as their own. But I found peace and quiet, a comfy corner to curl up in the sun. It was exactly what I needed.


I’ve been in New York for two and half years now, so by this point I’ve been asked if/how I like it here more times than I can count. For my first year here, the answer was, depending on my intimacy with the inquirer, either an acrobatic weaseling away from an answer or a blunt acknowledgement that damn, this city was really kicking my ass. I was broke and I was homesick and I was frustrated and I was sad. I felt lost in the noise and crowds, missing Paris and Louisville and another life I could have somewhere else entirely. And yet I stuck with it, feeling that a decision to move on to other shores would be an admission of defeat, a sign that I didn’t have what it took to make it here. And so time passed, I got a new job and made new friends and explored more corners of the city. And one day, somebody asked me, “Do you like it there?” and I was astonished to find myself answering, honestly, “Yes.”

I am happy in New York, and for a long time that’s not a sentence I thought I would ever be able to say. A lot of that has to do with the people who populate my own personal slice of the world here. So many of the friends nearest and dearest to my heart call one of the five boroughs (or, let’s be honest, three — nobody lives in Staten Island or the Bronx) home. But I think New York and I have also come to an understanding. We’ve gotten to know one another, and while I don’t think we’ll ever have the kind of rapturous romance I felt with Paris or share the enduring kinship of soulmates I’ll forever have with Louisville, there is love there, a fond and deep affection that now makes it hard for me to think concretely about tearing myself away.


It’s so easy in New York to get bogged down. We keep our eyes on the sidewalk in front of us, the next hour or the next day or the next subway transfer or the next paycheck, focusing all our energy on how we’re going to make it through. We see the dirt and the cracks and the trash, the uneven pavement striving to make us stumble. We live our lives in survival mode, struggling just to keep our heads above the water. But if we stay, and if we’re lucky, someday we might start to look up. We might start to see the trees and the sky, the patchwork quilt of architecture and history peppered with surprising detail. There’s so much beauty in this city, but so much of it is easy to miss. And it’s only by sticking it out that we may someday stop treading water, and start to actually swim.

I think that’s why my rooftop is, at this moment, my happy place. It literally, physically, pulls me out of the everyday and forces me to change perspective, to look at the big picture. There’s nothing pushing or shoving me up there. No one steps on my toes. I can sip my coffee and look at the life I have made, here, in a city that does not make it easy to carve out your niche. It forces me to admit that, though I often couldn’t see it for all the dust and dirt, the heartache and disappointment, all these years that I thought I was failing, I was actually building a nest. Despite my and New York’s best, and worst, intentions, and seemingly against all odds, I’ve made this city into a home.


Jennifer Harlan is a blogger by day and a journalist by night. In her past lives, she has baked wedding cakes, taught French children to sing "Jingle Bells," and translated Italian poetry. She loves bookstores, Derby pie, and the Oxford comma.


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