The Times this week has a piece about an anthology of people’s goodbyes to New York. The genre has its roots in Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”, which was first published in 1967. Didion’s essay is turning 50 in a short time, which underlines a point that ought to be obvious. New York is a city that people have been leaving for an awfully long time. (Another obvious point is that for so many more, it has been a place to which they’ve come, fleeing oppression or seeking new opportunities, but it’s not done for my generation to celebrate this fact.) Metropolises change, so it makes complete sense that the people who live here might move to other places sometimes. As I explain here, I disagree with the sentiment that seems to lie behind these many goodbyes.
While I disagree with these authors, I suppose that I can try to understand the motivation for these bittersweet farewells (even if my take isn’t particularly charitable). I think that writers need to earn a living somehow. Perhaps positioning a piece as part of a tradition or a cult of people who’ve outgrown or are dumping a city to move on to other, better places gives one a certain sense of validation. So often, the metaphor these writers use is of New York as unsuitable paramour. So, often, the city is anthropomorphised into someone who doesn’t care about you, despite the fact that you’ve given him or her your whole heart. Ann Friedman accuses the town of being the chap who’s “gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Viewers of a certain TV show which called the city its fifth character might hear echoes of a character that they might call Mr (or Miss) Big. It becomes easier to leave a place you love, but where you feel you might not be able to survive, if you phrase living here in terms of a damaged relationship.
I don’t want to join this cult of saying goodbye, although I might have cause to do so. While my financial problems do not rival Meghan Daum’s, I often think of the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment that was my last home in Dubai. It had a built-in laundry, every modern convenience imaginable, and two swimming pools and a gym downstairs. I paid the same for it as I do for a one-bedroom in a walk-up on the Upper East Side now. The floors here are uneven and the windows, as I’m discovering this late November, aren’t double-glazed.
My building is also on an avenue where construction continues incessantly. A horn pressed in anger by a truck driver at 3 a.m. or a car alarm that startles you two hours later has the potential to leave you unfit for purpose for the rest of the day. Few things elicit as much anger in me as my upstairs neighbour’s child jumping up and down or yelling from the street when I’m trying to sleep late on a Saturday morning. It’s as though those small feet are kicking holes into the fibre of my being and the remnants of my sanity. Large, crowded cities can turn a fellow into an irascible and occasionally irrational insomniac. Who knew?
I understand, first-hand, the way heartbreak and misaligned romantic expectations work in this town, too. (So many of these farewells talk about leaving boyfriends who won’t commit, so this might have something to do with it.) Jezebel asks whether dumping New York is a girl thing. With ratios the way they are here, I see why one might think that. I’m as sympathetic as I can be to the oft-repeated complaint from my single female friends, which is that they can’t find reasonable men here. (Just quietly, ladies, I’d beg that you consider the implications of saying that to a single chap who’s spending time with you one-on-one the next time you’re pondering such an utterance.) From the male perspective, I also know that many of us don’t start out being awful. My pet theory is that every man here starts out as an Aidan until some girl makes him into a Big.
Of course, I could also complain about the fact that I haven’t had a suit tailored in three years or bemoan the lack of gym time bestowed by my work. I know that doing so will make it much harder for me to garner much sympathy. So I will not bang on about these more minor inconveniences too much.
It is not sympathy that I seek, though. I want to try to understand – and communicate – why, along with so many others, I put up with this. Yes, I live a more comfortable life than many of these struggling writers, but I still have other options for places to live which might afford me more time, more money, or both. I think the thing that keeps me here most of all is the people. There are the friends and acquaintances. Some are international, like me; many are internationally-minded Americans. Sometimes we congregate in bars. At others, we throw or attend house parties. I absolutely love these gatherings. Unlike the dreary picture that some of these writers’ eulogies paint of congregations that either have struggling writers complaining or dull bankers talking about getting their kids into school in the front pews, I find that the people that happenstance vomits up at my social gatherings are often fascinating if sometimes deranged. They always have a spark about them. Perhaps the writers’ single-minded focus on their work leads to a certain homogeneity of social interaction, which is bound to get boring eventually. While many of my close friends here are lawyers, as I am, I am fairly sure that I would castrate myself in a fit of pique if the only women I met were other lawyers. (I treat male lawyers like laxatives, meeting them only when inescapably necessary. And when I say inescapable, I mean Alcatraz guarded by a Minotaur.) The real charm of New York is the mix of people doing so many different things.
There are also the chance (and not-so-chance) encounters with celebrity. Since coming here, I’ve bumped into Woody Allen at the Carlyle, met Stephen Fry, dined with TV show producers, and randomly found out that someone with whom I was having lunch for professional reasons is the child of one of my favourite filmmakers. On the less exalted plane is the rendezvous that is locally significant, like spotting Bill Cunningham, or realising that the person next to you at a restaurant or ordering a drink at a bar was the subject of a Vows section write-up over which you obsessed a couple of months ago. These run-ins are, to me, a little like my relationship with the martini (which is, of course, the quintessential New York drink). The most thrilling thing about A martini, as a construct, is that drinking the almost pure gin makes me feel like a grown-up. At 30, I don’t yet feel especially grown up. It is still rather nice to sniff the olives every now and then.
The real sauce that makes life here delicious, though, is the conversation or chat that reminds you that while you might be in a big city, small things still matter and, that at heart, this is an agglomeration of people. This is the case despite the fact that New Yorkers can seem grumpy and selfish at times, snatching your cab or insisting on cash only to avoid paying the same taxes that you do. To support this point, many cite Mikhail Baryshnikov’s character in the final season of Sex and the City, when he says that he likes New York because it “doesn’t have a big smile on its face.” (He then tries, unforgivably, to whisk Carrie to Paris).
If the city were a face, I agree that it probably wouldn’t be grinning like an idiot. I’m fairly sure, though, that it compensates with the ironic half-smirk that lurks somewhere around the spot where Broadway meets Fifth Avenue instead. This dry wit might reveal itself in the woman who catches you pondering your new beard through your iPhone camera on a crowded train, and knowingly says “don’t worry, you look handsome,” when you clearly don’t. It might also be the kind person who compliments your embarrassing multi-coloured sweater as you put it on after Soul Cycle. I told her that my friends had given it to me, probably as a joke. “Well, the joke’s on them,” she told me.
As a general species, my favourite New Yorkers are the bums and the cab-drivers. The fellow who stands closest to my corner had a sales pitch that needed improving a few weeks ago. He had this bad habit of insulting people before asking them for money. To one woman, it was “honey, your dress is tight; you don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb.” Or “you must be rich, otherwise you wouldn’t have such a young girl on your arm,” as he told an elderly man who was accompanying his niece to the synagogue. I am, at least, fairly sure that she was his niece. They had the same eyebrows.
I decided that this gentleman needed a word of friendly advice one Saturday night, so I told him that he needed to stop being an asshole. If he wanted to make more money, I suggested, he ought either to start being observational in a funny, ironic way, or just purely complimentary. “Nice sweater, nice scarf, sir,” he told me last week, before asking for a dollar. I tried to walk on. I was on the phone. “Hey come on, I’m being nice, like you told me.” (I had to give him a dollar for that.) The cab-drivers are a fund of stories, too, be they former smugglers of German luxury cars into Turkey, or just the nasal guy who won’t let you fall asleep at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, so starts a long monologue about pastrami.
These conversations don’t feature as attractions on the glamorous roundabout that takes you from sipping drinks at the Waldorf to attending galas at the Met, and which might attract today’s equivalents of Holly Golightly to the place. They’re more just evidence of the carotid, coursing, rich life blood of a city, and of the people who make it tick and can’t leave because they don’t have an option to spend half the day in traffic in Los Angeles. My local bum and I probably share the same opinion of this place, loving it because of, rather than despite its flaws, although we live in rather different worlds. This is, I think, the attitude that you must have if you want to call it home.
This “hullo, New York, I still love you” note doesn’t even touch on the architecture, the museums, the plays, the simple beauty of Sheep Meadow in late Spring, or the sense of confused elation that overwhelms you when a drunk 22 year old lesbian starts making out with you in a bar on a Thursday night. As I’ve written to my friends so often, just when you think that you’ve seen all that this place has to offer, it shows you something more. Rather than the unrequiting lover, to me it’s the girlfriend who, five years in, reveals that she has mastered a new yoga pose with surprisingly wonderful applications, or let’s you in on an interest in 19th century French philosophy that winds up captivating your imagination for weeks.
Perhaps my adoration is different because so many of these writers seem to come from small towns and leave here again for smaller places, having taken as much of New York’s nectar as they need before going elsewhere. I’ve always been a creature and a creation of cities. It’s clearly this city that’s mastered the art form of how to be one, urban metropolis in excelsis that it is. I’m not saying that I’ll live here forever. If I do go, though, I like the idea that it will be because I am going to something, rather than from here. And, as long as I’m here, I want to be fully open to the possibility of having the wind knocked out of me. Perhaps this constant and omnipresent possibility is why Rachel chose Ross over Paris, and why Carrie came back from there for Big.
Hell, even Joan Didion lives here again.
Yes, New York can be cold, mean, scary, and unforgiving. There is so much that’s wrong with it, from gross inequality to the bad luck in love that seems to be every single New Yorker’s fate. For all of its flaws and failings, though, I’m firmly in Carrie’s camp. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, captivating place. Unlike these many now-absent writers, I find it hard to think of it as anything but utterly fabulous.