When my friends and family back home in St. Louis visit me in Brooklyn for the first time, there are two places I like to take them as a social experiment — to freak out and overwhelm them and, in general, make them squirm.
One is across the river, in Manhattan: Times Square, which is unlike anything in the Middle. Imagine adults costumed as Disney characters aggressively trying to take a picture with you for a dollar, grunting "Fuck you!" when you refuse; a skateboarding man with five dyed-pink pet rats on his head and shoulders swerving around you; approximately a billion other people who are slowly shuffling in a line seven wide, blocking foot traffic and oftentimes car traffic, not caring that you're trying to push past them because you're late for work, or bleeding, or dead on the sidewalk in front of them.
The second place is my local Brooklyn Target.
For me, this Target is the only other locale in the city that inspires the same feeling of offense and claustrophobia as Times Square, and because the store is so different from the friendly, ultra-convenient Midwestern ones my friends and family are used to, it's almost more shocking than the carnival in the middle of the City That Never Sleeps. "You know what?" I'll ask my visitors. "I think we're out of toilet paper at home. Do you mind if we stop by Target?" Unaware, they agree, and we're off.
My personal relationship with the Brooklyn Target started a year after I moved to the city from the St. Louis area. I had just relocated to the borough from the Upper East Side and needed some curtain rods for my new place. Having no luck at my neighborhood hardware store, and not knowing any better, I set out for Target.
The shopping center the big-box store occupies, just outside of downtown Brooklyn proper, looks like a little slice of Midwestern suburbia: There's a Chuck E. Cheese's and a Bath & Body Works and a Victoria's Secret. If you closed your eyes, you would think you were at Chesterfield Mall.
Yet the first thing I noticed about the Brooklyn Target is that it was approaching Black Friday levels of madness, even though this was a Sunday in September: The lines were long, there were no carts, clothes and other pieces of merchandise were strewn everywhere, and people moved at a pace that was either a bumbling crawl or mad dash.
The second thing I noticed is that there were no curtain rods at this store, because there was basically nothing on the shelves in the housewares section, and the stuff that was left was scratched or broken.
As I was scouring the area one last time, a small child — not yet tall enough to see over the handle of a cart he was pushing — started goofing off and ran full speed at a grown man. The little guy plowed into him with such force that it knocked the adult to the ground. I, like everyone else nearby, stared in horror as the kid's mom ran up and dragged her child and cart away, offering no apology. (Even the Times Square skateboarder with the pink rats had the decency to yell "Sorry!" over his shoulder when he hit me while gliding by one time.)
The man, unbothered, continued to look at Target's selection of busted-up discount picture frames. I had the sudden, almost painful realization of how far I was from home.
In fact, right there on my first visit to the Brooklyn Target, standing in a chain store created more than 50 years ago for the sole purpose of convenience, I realized that the very idea is a myth in the city. Shopping at a big-box store in a large metropolitan area is the ultimate metaphor for the difference between city and suburban life.
Nothing, even purchasing curtain rods, is ever easy here, because it is far too crowded, busy and unruly. If buying face cleanser or dropping off dry-cleaning or returning a library book in this city is hard, applying for a new job, finding a nicer neighborhood to live in, researching investment opportunities, having a child — insert whatever important life to-do is on your list — is next to impossible, both because living with so many other people increases competition for already-picked-over resources and because day-to-day minutiae eats away at your free time when everything is jam-packed and the logistics are a nightmare. Buy a home? In this city? Sorry, I can't even manage to find an open UPS store.
And cram too many of us into one tiny space, be it a series of boroughs or discount store, and it not only brings out the worst in everyone, but there's also nowhere to hide. City living has made me appreciate the simple things about home: quiet, convenience, manners, smiling and saying hi to a neighbor as you pass her on the street. It has also turned me into a miserable crone with a temper, which tends to come out when I'm stuck in a crowded store, trying to find curtain rods, and no one will get out of my damn way.
If I learned early on that nothing in the city is easy, I've only recently come to understand a harder truth: To me, happiness is a balance of convenience and adventure, and because I traded so wholly one for the other, this won't be my home forever. In 1967, Joan Didion wrote "Goodbye to All That," an essay about realizing that she needed to leave New York. Didion was 28 and so depressed with her life in the city that she couldn't work anymore. She had to get out for the sake of her mental health. At 28, I am considering moving for a lot less: a clean Target.