new york, but less new
Posted on May 15, 2017
14 May 2017
Start time: 9:45am
Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York. – Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”
It’s better this way. It’s better to skip the harrowing walks down Tenth Avenue or Fourteenth Street in the undead, gusty chill of February. It’s better to go to bed at a reasonable hour and to wear sensible shoes to work and to never eat a slice of pizza that costs less than it takes to ride the subway ever again. I set this entry up for failure by quoting Didion, because she said all there is to say about falling in love with New York at a very young age and deciding later not to marry it. Her standpoint was staunch by the end; mine is more ambivalent. Maybe because she stayed eight years compared to my five.
I’m here on what was meant to be a stealth mission to surprise my mom on Mother’s Day. Turns out my father couldn’t keep a secret, but Mom was happy to see me anyway. They moved to New York just as I left, giving the city and me a lingering goodbye. It’s the kind of break-up where you text sometimes, unsure of where you stand besides definitely not as friends. How could it be any other way? I loved New York naively and completely.
It’s still been less than two years since I left, so I’m not sure the time is ripe for reflection. I have noticed that this visit marks a change. I’m suddenly viewing New York through a curious and nostalgic lens of memory. It makes it infinitely more tolerable; the city in all its wild motions is implausibly still. It’s a nucleus, but not mine. And the perspective of space and time untwines the city from my definition of self, begging me to believe things are better now.
The best way to take in all of New York’s information is by walking in it. Nostalgia can’t change the fact that walking in winter still has little to recommend it, but New York on a Sunday in late spring is euphoric. Executive parents in leisurewear let their children dawdle on a brownstone stoop. Shopkeepers open their doors to let the breeze in, fluttering the plastic-wrapped gerberas on display. People line up at the fruit stands and halal carts, and sandaled teen girls shake the remaining ice in their watered-down coffee drinks. Doormen hang out of doorways as far as can be considered respectable, their keen gaze and discreet cigarettes burning in the sunlight.
And where do the miles go in Central Park? Despite covering considerably less ground than I do in San Francisco, I see so much more. There are cops on horses, stylish Swedish couples, people carrying green teas as favors from a Japan-themed race, and that same triathloner in a onesie that keeps passing me in the opposite direction. Blossoms rain down from trees, a celebration of spring felt distinctly in the tear ducts.
I don’t belong here anymore, and that is the choice I made. I came here at age nineteen, knowing less about the world than most nineteen-year-olds do. I was starving for art and literature and music and had a vision of college where people wearing all black spent most of their time in the library with paper coffee cups and old books. The vision was real, at least for the three years I studied. One of my earliest memories of New York was eating lunch by myself for the first time ever, and feeling delighted. I spent the rest of college in a state of elected loneliness, eating alone, writing stories, walking in the rain, and sitting in a hardwood chair nailed to the ground among several other hardwood chairs, listening.
And when I came in contact with the real New York, the hustle of working in New York, the vision collapsed and still that was good. Because that New York taught me how to suffer, and how to rely on myself, and how to be my own best friend. It taught me that strangers make great roommates and that sunlight is more important than square feet. It taught me to speak and write like an adult if I expected to be treated like one. It taught me how to run well, like a serious runner, because nobody does anything in New York half-seriously.
One evening, in the March before I left, I was riding the 2 train uptown after work, on my way to the track for a club practice. I began to feel hot. My coat was unfit for the new season. I turned to the woman standing next to me, and told her I felt faint. The next thing I new, I was lying on a bench in Penn Station, clutching a Ziploc bag of M&Ms, looking up at a man who showed me his Samaritan badge and told me he had called for help. I wandered through the station, vision coming back into focus, flanked by strange men, until I found a taxi. At my apartment, I called my mother to tell her that perhaps, it was all a bit too much.
In retrospect, it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The sensory overload, the difficulty, the newness of every day, were not my best reasons to leave. With some more time, I may live here again. It’s impossible to predict. Life has a way of returning to itself. The thing is, I grew up here, and you can’t do that twice.