Manhattan in December conjures up images of Fifth Avenue windows transformed into winter wonderlands, spectacular holiday lights across the city and, for Rachel Syme, vodka martinis.
In 1957, a journalist named Meyer Berger, who had a regular column in the New York Times called “About New York,” strolled around the city on Christmas Eve and recorded what he saw. He wrote that the lights around Columbia University “gleamed like spangles and sequins against nocturnal velvet” and that “the great Fifth Avenue shops had their windows outlined with Christmas lights, like giant jeweled buckles.” He called New York at the holidays “the City Magnificent” and singled out a lone tree in Madison Square Park as “a happy beacon,” greeting him on his snowy path. This was the image I had of December in Manhattan; I had purchased a copy of Meyer Berger’s New York, which was reissued in 2004, during my junior year of college on the West Coast, and dog-eared it as a kind of bible for what I might expect when I leapt across the country to my new metropolitan life. I knew that, of course, the city would have changed somewhat from the middle of the century, but I also guessed that the holiday season would carry with it that same incandescent magic, a feeling of great communion and felicity in the snow.
What I didn’t expect is that during my first year in the city, I would feel as lonely as that little tree in Madison Square. I was living by myself in a West Village studio the size of a kiddie pool, where the bed was lofted over the sink—an engineering flaw that caused one cockroach to feel emboldened enough to crawl out of the drain and into my sheets to die. That’s when I knew I had to move. I was an intern in the cultural department of a weekly magazine, and my tasks included hunting down odd facts about the city, like the coldest stores to duck into on a scorching day (surprise: cigar humidors and fur shops are always just above freezing) and which flower shops got the best selection of roses each morning. It was a job that sent me ambling all over the city like Meyer Berger, but I had not yet learned in that first year how to fuse with New York as if it were a part of me; instead I found myself aching for the skies of the Southwest, feeling lonesome and unmoored in my infested little box on West 12th Street.
In New Mexico, where I am from, you can smell the holidays before you feel them. The smoke from burning cedar and piñon trees fills the air, along with a cloud of cinnamon and chili and anise that seems to billow out of the chimneys. In New York, the holidays don’t really have a distinct aroma. Sure, there are chestnut carts and muddy snow, but the most sensual aspects of the holidays in the city happen indoors, where the mulled wine flows. I didn’t know this when I was new, and so I tried, like Meyer Berger, to take in the holidays as a purely visual feast, wandering through the streets alone for hours on end in a puffy coat, trying to get the trees to whisper comforting messages to me. I gazed into shop windows like a Dickensian wastrel; I marked time by how many corner wreath vendors I passed and stopped counting after a hundred. What they don’t tell you about New York at the holidays is if you try to take it in purely with your feet, you will find yourself feeling desolate under the twinkling banners that hang over the avenues.
That first Christmas, I almost gave up on New York. But I knew deep down that I loved it, that it was meant for me, that it was singing a carol at a frequency that I could hear. And then, I remembered: martinis. Right before the holiday break, I had to fact-check an article about the best martini in the city (the kind of boozy roundup that appears every year), and I had committed the names of the purveyors to memory: the King Cole Bar, the Odeon, the Campbell Apartment, 21, Bemelmans. I had a week to spare before returning home and barely any money saved, but I decided that my holiday gift to myself would be to visit every martini bar I could afford and order a serving of salty, dirty vodka (I ran out of funds after five cocktails). I sat at oak bars in grand Midtown dining rooms and dark corners in Downtown neon bistros, a now-extinct velvet settee in Grand Central and a high chair on the Upper East Side underneath a fanciful mural of circuses and balloons. I went by myself, but for the first time, I did not feel alone. Inside, where it was warm and the scent of oysters and french fries was thick and decadent, I realized where New York had been hiding all of its holiday good will. The windows were foggy with the body heat rising from people like me, who had come inside not just for warmth but for respite from their solitude. For me, the holiday martini became my happy beacon, a frosty anchor with three olives.
Now, more than a decade later, the entire city feels like my own, especially in winter. The streets make sense to me; drifting through them has become my second language. But I still honor that young woman who felt, that first December, like I was the only person on the island who couldn’t feel at home. I still set aside a cold night to go out, by myself, in search of a martini. For me, that’s when the holidays truly begin.