Postmortem: On moving

One more ‘farewell to all of that and especially New York’ from a compulsive move maker

I moved to New York City when I was 23. I kept few belongings, so I could move easily, and I moved often. When I did, everything I owned couldn’t fill a van — a mattress, two suitcases of clothes, one box of books, one box of art supplies, and a terrible turquoise lamp that I’m still very attached to.

Until I moved to Portland, Oregon last year, I liked to move. Since 2009, I have lived in eight different apartments. In each new apartment, I lined up a few toiletries along a bare sink and hung hangers in an empty closet. Each time I laid out my little life surrounded by clean white walls, I was a pioneer surveying a new settlement — except with indoor plumbing and no hardships. No close friend or family member died of dysentery on the journey from North to South Brooklyn. We chose not to ford the Gowanus Canal, etc.

Every move came with a safe kind of newness — new windows, new roommates, new neighbors, and new possibilities. It was never scary, but I always felt the quiet thrill of fresh, albeit unremarkable, beginnings. If rent got cheaper, I could plan savings or vacations. If the subway got closer, I could dream about a 20-minute commute. And best of all, I didn’t have to think about why I felt so restless or what I was so desperately, frantically trying to move away from.

When I was a kid, my parents and I moved every one to four years. I’ve kept up the tradition. So far, I’ve lived in three countries, five states, and nine cities for six months or more. At this point I wonder if I contain a timer that goes off every year reminding me to go somewhere new. The alarm is too infrequent to feel truly nomadic, but too regular to lay down roots and acquire moss.

When I was four, my mom walked me through what it meant to move from Houston, Texas to The Netherlands. I was most worried about whether Santa would know we moved and if we’d ever come back. We were only supposed to live abroad for a year, my mom told me. “But how long is a year?” I asked. With every move since, I’ve asked myself some form of the same question. Will I get bored after four years? What if I lived somewhere else for six months? What’s one more year?

A year is 365 days — enough time to quit a job, file a tax return, catch a couple of colds, or meet someone who makes you feel like yourself again. It’s enough time to get dumped, lose or gain 10 pounds, or see Mars at its faintest or 80 times more brilliant at its brightest. In a year you can try on a new hobby and start promises with, “By this time next year…” A year is the length of most leases, if you feel like signing onto one. If you do, you can spend the year not thinking about apartments or for a small fortune you can break your lease and move once more.

In December 2014 I was running late. I paced the Carroll Street subway platform until the train arrived. The doors opened. I stepped onto an empty car and turned around to lean against the closed doors opposite the platform. As I leaned back a man wearing tight, shiny jeans and an Adidas tee made his way off the train. He turned toward me, looked into my eyes, walked backward off the train, and flipped me the bird. As the doors closed between us, I pointed at myself and mouthed, “Me?” He pointed at me and mouthed, “You.”

New York Moments like this are befuddling and precious. When you run into them, you imagine they will make you a braver, more interesting person. They are the stranger giving you the finger for what seems like no reason and the pile of garbage blown impossibly down the street like a tumbleweed. They are also the inexplicable fireworks you catch from the back of a cab, the swathes of sunny days spent in parks, and the cats on leashes. They are a sweet and sickening stink. They are nonsense and magic that cannot be conjured anywhere else. But no moment made New York City worth it for me.

I felt in the middle of everything on good days. On bad days, I was a mess. At 26, my confidence was shot. I was working too much at two jobs. I had barely any savings — and had I been gaining weight? I moved into a room above a butcher’s shop to save money. The stairwell stank of fish and flesh. In summer, the smell clung to me as I left the building like I’d walked through a spider web. When I caught strands of it at work, I wanted to unzip my skin and slip into someone else’s.

At my lowest points, I obsessed over what was next. I thought about new dates and new friends. I had a cocktail and wondered if switching jobs or even more school might help. Maybe I could find a nicer place to live, and sometimes I did. It took two more years and two more moves to find that making plans wasn’t enough anymore. My plans weren’t hopefulness or even pragmatism. They were just business, an effective way to distract myself from a deep and persistent unhappiness.

The source of this unhappiness is still unclear. I am sure it was compounded by a culture that not only accepts but also celebrates both the 12 hour work day and the Pizza Rat. New York City is full of grit and potential, and in it some people (and rats) thrive. I did not. Instead, under oppressive expectations, I made grass-is-greener comparisons between myself and everyone else. I fell short every time.

The impulse to move has been my greatest coping strategy — get busy and forget. But last year, it felt different. I didn’t want a new view. I wanted a different way of living. On a practical level, I wanted to live in the same time zone as I worked. But I also wanted different expectations of myself and others, and maybe most of all, I wanted to see who I was when I was not in New York. As soon as it made sense, I adopted a puppy and headed west.

Even after a year, I question the move. Maybe it actually was just an impulse or a shoddy escape chute from problems or fears. Maybe if I was brave and took big risks, I could measure my character by them. Perhaps I could have “made it there” if only I were more diligent or more confident. If I could portion my feelings out into digestible pieces, maybe I wouldn’t feel so restless or so wrong, and I would not have to move.

Most days, I am happy to be here (even though I am sorry to contribute to the sometimes infuriating influx of big city transplants in Portland). For once I chose time over business and self-sufficiency over comparisons. So far, this move feels like a better sort of new beginning, even though it began as it always has. On the first morning I woke up here, I drew the blinds and set a few plants along the windowsill. I opened the door to sweep out the dust, and after I closed it, I started again.