An Open Letter
From San Francisco, CA, December 16, 2016 —
Dear New York City,
Can I call you that today?
You go by so many names it’s hard to keep track sometimes.
The Big Apple.
Capital of the World.
Center of the Universe.
The City So Nice They Named It Twice. The City That Never Sleeps. The Five Boroughs.
I used to live as one of your residents, before I moved away recently — across the country, to the West coast. To San Francisco, if you really want to know about it.
You probably haven’t noticed, nor will you. For you, I imagine that you’ll just move on to the next crop of twenty-somethings who flood into your boroughs, bright-eyed, energetic, and eager for your attention. Maybe they’re college students, maybe they’re actors. Maybe they’re aspiring models, chefs, or writers. Maybe they’re eighteen, grew up in Los Angeles, have long skinny legs and want an escape from the “bullshit.”
It’s been said that you, New York City, are either for the very rich or the very poor. I don’t think you suit the poor so much any more. I can say this with confidence because I’ve been broke. I know how demoralizing it can be to cancel my weekend plans so that I can ration half my savings to pay my Monday morning subway fare.
Instead, I think you’re better suited for the young – at least if we go by the numbers. Your bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks are chock full of young people actively debating what, exactly, it is that brings them to you.
They reminisce on love at first sight, about how they always knew they would live in an East Village walk-up or a Williamsburg co-op. About how you summon them from a thousand miles away, beckoning like some invisible force of attraction so powerful that, once taking root, is irrevocable and all-encompassing.
Some talk of fate, like their divine summer picnic in Central Park is somehow preordained.
I’m not sure when it happened for me exactly, but I, too, fell into your orbit, doing so when I was a teenager.
To a boy from a humble Midwest suburb, you were less a city and more an idea, a place that people don’t live in or get hungry or thirsty in, a place that seemed more like Neverland than a real city. A place where no one ages but time seems to tear by with breakneck speed.
I remember like it was yesterday.
A family vacation brought me to see you for the first time. We watched a ballgame at Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx on 161st Street & River Avenue, before the Bronx Bombers moved away from “The House That Ruth Built,” to their new digs.
The lights were so damn bright.
The next time we met was years later, September 11, 2009. I had recently graduated from college and lived in Chicago. My parents’ marriage had unraveled and I found myself weathering the storm of a turbulent first year of law school. So I went to visit a college friend who worked at a bank in Midtown and lived in Chelsea. I bought my ticket two days before I left.
We caroused freely, openly. Downtown, the people were stunning (it was Fashion Week, incidentally). Everything came paid for, even the Westchester clambake.
I’m not kidding, you were so out’a my league.
We crossed paths again just months later, on New Year’s Eve, 2009. I was again on a family vacation. My parents, brother, and I were staying near Times Square, some fancy hotel Dad booked. That was the last vacation we took as a family.
These days, I don’t even remember the trip so much as I remember that you were there, with a front row seat to the unremarkable end of my parents’ marriage. It was then I knew, you and me, New York City, we were meant to be more than friends.
A year later we met again, this time on the razor’s edge, dancing between 2010 and 2011. The mood was festive when I arrived at Penn Station. It was New Year’s Eve and I decided to visit another college friend whose sister lived in a third-floor, two-bedroom walk-up apartment near the intersection of Broome & Orchard, on your Lower East Side.
It seems trivial now, but I still remember how tight a’quarters my friend and I faced at his sister’s apartment. In true New York fashion, a space that had once housed a family relegated to the lower rungs of the food chain is today an enviable and expensive place to live.
I was floored by how seamlessly Chinatown and Little Italy blended together in this corner of the city. One minute, I’m accosted by the pungent, savory aromas of dumplings and raw fish. The storefront signs read in the turbid strokes of written Mandarin. The next block, I’m overtaken by the scent of hand-rolled pasta, pastries, gelato.
Shortly after arriving, and lasting well into the morning hours of 2011, what ensued was an 18-hour bender of unapologetic indulgence that left my face so swollen from the weekend’s fandango that I slept with ice-packs under my pillowcase when I got home to Chicago.
Even so, you blew me away on that trip. If not soon enough, I’d be back for you. That felt inevitable.
By 2013, when we crossed paths again, I was already spoken for. My girlfriend and I packed what remained of our lives in Chicago and we set out towards the rising sun. We made two stops on our way from the back entrance at 40 Oak Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast — Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — before making our way to Manhattan on the last Sunday in August, 2013. Navigating a U-Haul truck through your narrow streets couldn’t have been more tedious or nerve-wracking. I couldn’t avoid grazing a parked car (or two) along the way.
But we made it. And when we settled in — my girlfriend in Soho and me on your Lower East Side — I felt so lucky, so excited, so thrilled to finally be a resident of New York City. Still has a nice ring to it.
The adjustment was a struggle at first, mostly a physical one. It wasn’t until I acclimated both physically and intellectually that I understood your nature as a barrage of all human sin and senses.
Then I made you jealous and you showed me how big a’mistake that could be.
You remember that night in early 2014? Seems like an act of fate now, but in those days, you were something like serendipity gone awry. Your jealousy blossomed into mischief, and in the end, you got your way. You tested my relationship like nothing I’ve experienced since and ultimately it broke. Perhaps rightfully so.
Since then, I’ve learned by trial and error that you’re a place where it’s not unheard of to have more life-changing experiences, more formative moments, in a single year than I’d wish on anyone in a lifetime.
This year alone, 2016, I’ve lamented the loss of a friend.
I wrote my first book and saw it published. Started a second book.
I learned that, sometimes, you have to break your own heart to move on from a relationship that’s just not meant to be.
I learned about the importance of currency, and I don’t mean money. I learned that beauty, originality, and fearlessness are among the currencies of New York City, things that elude plenty of the rich.
I learned how not to take everything personally, nor everything seriously. I learned how to have fun again.
I learned how to say, “No.”
I made eccentric, gay friends and promptly went bar-hopping with them in the West Village. I also got closer to some old friends.
You reminded me daily that if I set out to do something and it didn’t work out exactly as I envisioned it, it’s not a failure, it’s just not right.
Time to hit the reset button, look inward, and start anew. That’s the luxury of being in a place where you can re-invent yourself — your profession, your appearance, your preference of cocktail — every so often and that’s totally fine, even encouraged.
You educated me, tested me, took me in, didn’t hold me back.
Even your smallest detail can be iconic.
There won’t ever be another like you, babe.
As I move on from your labyrinth of streets and avenues, I have something of a last confession — I had nothing in the way of literary aspirations when I first moved to Manhattan.
All I wanted to do when I first landed on your Eastern shores was to be a decent lawyer. But after three years of toiling to find steady work as an attorney, I instead bear all the hallmarks of a starving artist.
The upside is, on the eve of moving away, it dawned on me that I’d unintentionally become a writer in New York. Somehow I’d fallen backwards into it, compressed and forged, like coffee grinds plunged through a French press.
Sure, I’m prolific, but that’s because unsteady employment brings with it an irreverent surplus of free time. I may have published a book, but I’m still obscure and unknown save for a few close friends and family. My book sits on the shelves of several independent bookstores below 14th Street, where I begged the owners to offer my work for sale on consignment, a dismal business plan. I’m broke, but that goes without saying. Good thing I’m not in it for the money.
Maybe I’m too late. Maybe I’m not even cut out for it. Maybe I’m distracted or too pre-occupied to make a living as a full-time writer in New York. After all, I’m chasing a new job out to the West Coast.
Amid these doubts, however, I recall William Zinsser, who wrote: “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
I can only hope to one day match your originality, New York City. While a resident, reading and writing about you had this way of bringing even the most mundane corner of the city to life. And I’m afraid, now that I’ve moved away, this will no longer happen for me. Like I’ll no longer be able to tap into it. Like that effect is somehow location-dependent. Like the words will just sit there, idle and lifeless.
In a way, I feel like I’m being robbed of something, leaving now, like my pockets have been filched by that relentlessly forward-marching force that permeates every corner of our lives: time, this world’s only truly scarce resource. It’s cruel, in a way, that time forges on as it does, head down, never pausing to consider whether forward is even the right direction.
People, by contrast, have the presence of mind and prescience of soul to contemplate their past, present, and future. And you, New York City, gave me a glimpse, showed me that there’s another future out there for me.
I hope you’re a part of my future because I already miss you. I miss that daily confrontation. The bumping, thumping, chest-to-chest, in your face existence that is, has been, and always will be the Gotham grind.
I miss how my heart pumps, loudest and strongest, when I’m standing on your precarious edge. A place that transmutes flesh to steel, like raw iron forged into a new, indestructible state of matter. That thin bustling sliver of a city that juts out so audaciously where the Hudson & East River meet the Atlantic.
I have no doubt I’ll return to you one day, your beckoning call is too fucking loud to ignore.
To you, I’ll always be like a boomerang.
Once unleashed, I ascend to a treacherous crest, only to return from where I came, hurling and twirling, possessed of untold faith that you’ll make a courageous catch, adeptly avoiding my careening into the grass or worse, your adamantine concrete.
A brief repose. Then once more, you hurl me on to another crest, this time higher. And the cityscape below. At certain heights, my resolve is seized by vertigo, but I also see what I otherwise might not.
Each time you send me off, the direction seems chosen by madness, the purpose (if any at all) seems indiscernible save for the rare occasion of clear hindsight. And it’s those moments, in the heat of chaos, when your fondness for your inhabitants shines through brightest. You challenge each of us to reach higher and higher, for more absurd crests.
There won’t ever be another like you, babe.
You broke me, built me up again. Thanks to you, I’m tougher, funnier, better-read, healthier, smarter, better-hydrated, and more hungry.
You taught me to work in small spaces, to conserve space. You showed me how it’s only by conserving space that we carve out room for what really matters.
You taught me that just because I leave a place or a person behind doesn’t mean that I’m absolved of their impact.
It sticks with me, woven into my fabric, just like I hope you will be.
There won’t ever be another like you, babe.
Till next time,