So Long, New York, It’s Been Real

After 11 years, my love affair with New York comes to an end. (Originally published on Uptown Bourgeois March 5, 2018.)

There were three men smoking crack on the subway platform. The Broad Street station on the J line. It always smells like warm garbage and indigestion farts, even in the dead of winter. It’s dank, drab, and decrepit. But this day, it smelled like toxic fumes and burnt rubber.

I had to Google, “What does crack smell like?” to figure out that these three men, bundled up in heavy parkas like they’d traipsed in from a blizzard, even though it was nearly fifty degrees outside, were indeed smoking crack. In a space where it’s considered rude to smoke a cigarette.

22-year-old me would have been simultaneously appalled and fascinated. 33-year-old me thought, “Fuck this place”. And then I went through a mental list of all the reasons I despise the MTA. These days, I, like many New Yorkers, rarely think of the subway in a positive light. Come to think of it, I rarely think of the city in a positive light.

I was probably jaded long ago, likely before I turned 30, when I was almost a decade into my retail management career, in which I’d worked for a couple bosses who would have made Miranda Priestly blush. But jaded or not, New York is just as much a part of me as my hair, my tattoos, and my bitchy sarcasm. This city has been woven into my DNA, and when I really think about it, I’m not sure how to exist anywhere else. No other city will ever be as blunt and bewildering and optimistic and soul-crushing and electric as New York. So, why leave?

When I first met my husband, he was at the tail end of his work assignment, and there was a high probability he’d be reassigned to a new role in another state, or country, any day. I knew within those first few weeks that this was it, that I shouldn’t allow borders and distance to come between us and ruin what felt like the real deal. After 8 long years of one-night stands, bad first dates, and countless nights scrolling through shirtless torsos on dating apps, I wasn’t about to let something miniscule like total life disruption stop me from finding love. I knew I didn’t want to be apart from him. So, I told him I’d go wherever he was going. It was actually frightening to think about — at any moment, we could receive word that we needed to rip up our roots and go. And then, I’d dive head first into a new life in a new place with a person that I barely knew. But secretly, I was excited by the possibility of such an extreme change. I thought the only way I’d leave the city was if I was forced out.

He got another assignment, but it was in New York. We fell deeper in love, got engaged, and married over the next three years, all still in NYC.

During the first year of our marriage, I told him repeatedly that our New York phase would end soon, that there was no way he’d receive another New York assignment. This belief was partially motivated by my desire to see him succeed and ascend to the next level of his career. But it was also motivated by my rocky relationship with the city. Crowded trains, crowded buses, crowded elevators, crowded stores, and crowded restaurants were starting to wear me down — I wanted out. By December, there was a very real possibility that we’d relocate before the Spring. We enjoyed the holidays, secretly knowing this New York Christmas would be our last, for now. By February, there was an offer, a signature, and a destination — Bentonville, Arkansas.

To say that relocating to Arkansas is a big change is a gross understatement. When I tell other New Yorkers where we’re headed, the look of disgust appears almost immediately, like they’ve just caught a whiff of day-old fish. Here in this liberal paradise that’s New York City, there’s a very narrow view of Southern living — red states, dirt roads, Trump supporters, chewing tobacco, twangy accents, closed minds. I can forgive them; once you’ve lived in a place this progressive, even upstate New York seems like a major downgrade.

I found myself practically apologizing, attempting to validate Bentonville’s appeal. There’s an international community there, attracted by Wal-Mart’s headquarters. There are recently developed Arts and Market districts. HBO is filming season 3 of True Detective in Fayetteville, just 20 minutes away (I might meet Mahershala Ali or get cast as an extra!). It’s the blue dot in a red state. We’ll save so much money! We won’t have to live in a shoebox anymore! I have a cousin who lives there! We know another interracial, gay couple who lived there and loved it! I don’t think anyone was convinced to book a flight, but these tidbits helped me sell the move as a positive.

Not that I feel I need to impress anyone or justify any of my life decisions. But when I think of New York values, and the way that this city turns you into one of its evangelists, it’s nearly impossible to talk about moving anywhere else in the company of those who see this city as the end all, be all.

Two weeks ago, I had coffee with a young journalist who’d only lived in the city for two months. She was living with a gaggle of roommates out in Bushwick. There was this impenetrable optimism in her eyes. She was hungry for success, taking every meeting, emailing every contact, dreaming of working for a big newspaper or magazine. She saw New York for its unlimited potential, as a place of opportunity. I envied her. She had yet to max out her credit cards, spend every red cent of her savings, or settle for a job that didn’t align with her dreams. I used to be her.

I moved here when I was 22 years old, with an old school dream. I’d snag a coveted job at GQ or some other major publication. I’d rub elbows with editors and find an agent for my book. I’d dine out at fine restaurants, fawn over the country’s most attractive men, and really find myself. New York was the only place where I’d be able to grow into the person I was meant to be. Every day I walked out of my Morningside Heights apartment, there was excitement buzzing all around me. I could be whoever I wanted to be that day. There was always the possibility that I’d be discovered, that I’d catch my big break.

But that’s not what happened. The retail job I took, and only planned to stick with until I found a magazine job, became my calling card. I stopped dreaming of my byline in GQ, and started savoring monthly bonuses for topline sales. I stopped pitching and started contributing to my 401K. Each year, for 11 years, my writing dream died a little more, I made a little more money, and the vision of my ideal life dimmed a little more.

It wasn’t until 2016, just after being let go from a retail job for a small company in Chelsea, that I started writing again. And I did so furiously. Essays for my own website. Blog posts and articles and web copy for clients. I did all this for little to nothing. But a part of me was resurrected. The writer that I dreamed of becoming was still buried inside of me, and with every word that made it to the page, he took another breath. It’s only fitting that now, as I prepare to leave for Arkansas, that I feel I’ve finally started the journey toward becoming the writer I dreamed of at 22 years old.

I wanted to tell this journalist so much. You’ll dream big and you’ll try to get your foot in the door and you’ll be extremely talented, but people may not care. Because all the talented people move here to compete with you. And many of them are more connected or more ruthless, and in this city, that’s the edge you need to get ahead. At some point, you’ll realize it isn’t normal to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a room in an apartment, for a space that you don’t own or fully inhabit. Your bank account will get dangerously close to zero, yet for some reason, you’ll keep going out for cocktails in the Meatpacking District and booking dinners during Restaurant Week. You’ll invest a lot of energy into the job you take when you can’t find a writing job, and you’ll push your writing to the side, only to realize 10 years have passed since you were last published. You’ll have moments when optimism seems like a third cousin, when the city seems cold and dark and unfriendly, and you want nothing more than to pack up your shit and go home.

But you’ll also have days when you’re sipping a Manhattan at a bar on the Lower East Side, and you’re slightly intoxicated, and you’ll feel invincible, like New York is the best city in the world. You’ll idolize some of the people you’ll meet, ogle their possessions, be simultaneously inspired by and jealous of their achievements. You’ll brag about your New York life when you go back to your hometown. You’ll proudly wear that badge of honor that proves you were one of the select few who could make it here. You’ll realize that there’s no other place you’d rather live and suffer.

But I didn’t tell her these things, because no one likes a spoiler alert. She deserves to have her own experience, which may or may not mimic my own. Over the Christmas break, I read Goodbye to All That, a collection of essays about leaving New York, all written in the same vein as Joan Didion’s classic essay of the same name. Though all these writers had different experiences, I found a little bit of my New York life in every single one. There’s an ebb and flow, a yin and yang, a hardship and joy, a sadness and happiness that envelops every moment of life in this city. And regardless of how unique you think you are, this defines your time here.

Even before we got an official offer and started figuring out logistics, I was forced to reckon with my New York life. The barely-there friendships I was sure to lose once I left the Tri-State area. The disconnect from the art films, small concerts, and the other writers that I could only find here. The process of defining success and my way of life in a place that wasn’t New York. How to handle upheaval. Other people will come to pack all our things, and make sure not one wine glass, logo tee, or dining room chair is left behind. It will all get loaded into a truck, and arrive a month later (much to my chagrin). But what about the things that no one can see?

I’m definitely leaving behind unfinished business. Conflicts with friends that have gone unresolved, that I’m not running away from, but am now choosing not to address, because it makes no sense to drum up old feelings or explicitly define the end of the friendship, when really, my exit could be the finite end that it needs. The dreams of living in a black and white Woody Allen film, with nights full of intellectual conversation about art and film and music, and discussion of abstract ideas, that I feel I never had enough of and may not get elsewhere. That energy in the city, that’s so specific to this space, that makes me feel like I can do anything, that turns a night in which I’ve only intended to have a drink or a quick bite into something wild and unpredictable and life-changing. Perhaps that’s all a matter of worldview, and that unpredictability can be unearthed anywhere if I want it to be, but there’s something about this force, this whirlwind, this buzz, that swirls around me and intoxicates me and makes me feel impossibly optimistic even when things are bleaker than bleak.

I feel connected to this city; though I’m not from here, and I fit into that category of people who romanticized Manhattan and moved here in search of a dream that may not have been entirely of my own imagination, I feel I’ve lived here long enough to criticize and loathe it, and to be madly in love with it.

I was on my way to a writing session in Brooklyn, on the J train once again, this seemingly forgotten train line, its subway cars still holding on after some 30-odd years in use. They could be drenched in bleach and never seem clean. I had my headphones on, listening intently to a podcast, my face concentrated on my phone for an intense game of Two Dots. At Essex Street, the last stop before we crossed the bridge to Brooklyn, I smelled a snuffed match. Then I saw him, a homeless man in ratty denim with black knee patches, a curly fro. He smoked his cigarette like he was on his front porch. As people got on at the next stop, they just looked at him and either sat across from him or moved to a part of the subway car where their clothes wouldn’t absorb the smoke. When he finished his cig, he stomped it out and then curled into a ball on the seat for a nap.

The whole scene simultaneously represented everything I love and hate about New York. The fact that I could be forced to inhale carcinogens in tight quarters, that I was riding a rickety train, that I lived in a city with so many homeless people — all things I hated. But I loved how New Yorkers just get on with it. No one yelled at him, or alerted an MTA worker, or pulled the emergency brake. They moved or sat down, but either way, they accepted it. Even I, after my initial annoyance, returned to my podcast and my game. I got on with it. We all did.

New York is about getting on with it. There’s rarely time to stop and pick up the things you’ve dropped. We step over people sleeping on the sidewalk, we close the elevator door even when we see people barreling towards it, we speed past tourists who look lost. We just keep going. And now, that’s the only choice I have — to keep going. Even if it means I’ll keep going until I end up somewhere else.

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