It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. – Joan Didion, Goodbye To All That
The first time I came to New York, it was with a friend who was getting her book published. She came out to the city to meet with “the book people”, as she collectively called them, in person. Her agent took us out to a fancy lunch (my going on the lunch was something my friend finagled for me) and while she went and had an official meeting even she couldn’t get me into, I took myself to see the Chelsea Hotel. Awed and humbled by the history, the symbolism, the raw and dark artistic hope, I daydreamed about a time when I would have my own “book people” and my own romantic return to New York as a published author.
When I moved to New York 4 years later, it was not as a writer or an author, but as a student embarking on a career that seemed like it would take me far away from that daydream. Still, I couldn’t escape the feeling of awe and wonder that I would have the privilege of living in one of the greatest cities in the world.
I was living in Los Angeles, a city I was born in and in which I had spent many formative years. LA has its own romantic reputation as a city where dreams come true and stars are born. In fact, the two cities are often compared and contrasted for just that reason — these are cities full of those in the hungry professions, the artists and actors and musicians and writers starving (in more ways than one) to make it. Coming from one city full of wonders and moving to another, you might think I would be immune to the thrill of walking down Broadway, or staring up at the Empire State Building. Didn’t I have Hollywood Boulevard and the Griffith Observatory? Hadn’t I regularly gazed up at the Hollywood sign, enjoyed the sights and sounds of Olvera Street, toured Hollyhock House? But it was the city I knew, and I had grown immune to its charms, while New York’s were still waiting to be discovered. And I wanted to discover them all.
Then this winter, two of my dearest New York friends made a plan to move to Los Angeles. Suddenly all I heard around me were stories of people leaving the Big Apple, people fed up with the high rents, the never-ending winters, the MTA fare hikes, and the general grittiness. Joan Didion’s essay came up again and again, naturally, as she wrote so honestly about her own love affair with New York, and her eventual realization it was time to leave. Transplants to the city, she wrote, never truly felt they belonged: everyone who came to New York from the West and the South always feel like they are living on borrowed time, waiting for the right moment to go home.
Every year since moving here I have asked myself if this is perhaps my last year. My last winter, my last Christmas, my last Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, my last exhibit at the Guggenheim, my last debate about whether or not it would be worth it to line up for free Shakespeare in the Park (which I still have never quite been able to make myself do). Once I have gotten past the feeling that I just can’t take one more snowfall or deal with one more fellow train passenger who believes they are the only person who deserves space, I find that little voice inside myself that says “not yet.”
Here is where I no longer connect to Didion’s essay: I didn’t spend my 20s in New York. I didn’t come to be an artist or spend time with them. I bought furniture, put up shelves, settled in. Work shapes my days and weeks and leaves little room for parties you stay too long at, or afternoons spent drinking until you feel better. At some point during the last five years, I stopped thinking of myself as a tourist, and when I go visit other spaces, I feel this longing for the conversational comfort of my tree-lined Brooklyn street.
And somehow, in the corners of my routines, I found space for writing again: before-work writing, lunch-break writing, afternoons in a pub writing, staying up too late writing, writing grounded in effort and escape, persistence and pleasure, brilliance and balance. I traded daydream for action, naive optimism for optimism subsumed in a work ethic that fills the trains and buses I take every day and moves throngs in that mad rush that amazes tourists and baffles anyone longing for a quieter life. I like my life noisy. I like it just slightly rushed — it makes me appreciate those moments of quiet stillness in a way I never could before.
For now, I am staying in New York (not that the city cares much, one way or another), and listening to the voice that says “not yet.” I’m investing in a new pair of snow boots, and learning to accept high rent for small spaces. I still feel privileged to live here. I know next year I will again talk to myself about how long, really, I have left in the city. But I also wonder if there might be a point when the conversation will change from “is it time to leave New York and go back home?” to “is it time to admit you are home?”
Is the narrative of New York that people always leave it? Or is there a counter narrative, an anti-Didion essay that declares not that New York fails to deliver on the promises of “an infinitely romantic notion”, but that it refuses to be an object of “the shining and perishable dream itself” and instead must always assert its own imperfections blatantly and honestly and dare you to love it anyway. Or not. I’m not sure the city requires love; it is a city known best for its indifference and read as cold, but who I always think of as a very old and wise teacher sitting in the back of the room and looking on as you learn your lessons. Maybe people leave New York when they have learned everything the city is able to teach them. Maybe people leave New York because they are ready for new lessons, lessons taught in LA’s sunshine, Austin’s creativity, or Seattle’s pragmatism.
Me — I still have a lot to learn about New York, and from it. But I will miss my friends when they move to the Coast.