“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.”
Goodbye to all That by Joan Didion
New York began when I was in middle school. Flipping the pages of the New York magazine that showed up once weekly at my house in small-town New Jersey. Reading lists of bands playing at The Wetlands and The Fez helped me imagine what New York was like. I tried to get my best-friend to tell our parents we were going to the next town over for a movie and we’d secretly get on the NJ Transit bus to Manhattan. A terrible idea that she was, thankfully, too responsible to carry out. (Truth be told, I can imagine us showing up and me coming up with a reason to avoid getting on the bus.)
New York materialized as a reality when I called the company for which I wanted to work and told them that I’d “be in New York this week.” I had no plans to be in New York that week. Or any week. But, I figured that if they agreed to see me I’d find someone to get in the car and go with me. Four days later, sitting on the 18th Floor of a midtown corporate office building, I had my first job. A job doing exactly what I’d majored in. A job at a company that I had learned about sitting in a classroom in Syracuse. A company I was certain would change their mind once I left the building. They didn’t and I spent the next 12 years working in advertising. Twice for that same company.
Throughout this time New York sparkled and glittered and today plays like a movie in my memory in the form of blurry cab rides after long nights out and picnics at Bryant Park dancing to the HBO song before the weekly summer feature. I used to walk home to the Upper West Side from Midtown just to look at the city. I went out of my way to walk through the park, wearing heels because it made me feel important. Friends were always available and there was always something to do.
As I write this, it’s true. I cannot pinpoint the moment that New York lost its luster. It might have started slowly and secretly the first time I dropped my groceries on the sidewalk after trying to carry too much home. Maybe it was the first time I stood on a subway platform long after bars had closed waiting for a train that would take an hour to show up.
Slowly, but surely I stopped marveling at the buildings, instead using them to measure how much time I had before the sun went down when I could stop rushing to leave the office for that last bit of daytime. When the buildings became shadows the day was over, I’d missed the sun.
Maybe it happened that summer. Like a wife who packs up her things, writes a letter and leaves forever all while her husband is out for a few hours. When I wasn’t paying attention, New York packed up its shine and left. I didn’t even get a letter.
But I also didn’t miss it. It left and I accepted it and moved on. I told people it wasn’t a “livable city” and cited the fact that you couldn’t go grocery shopping easily as an example. I interviewed for jobs in Seattle and North Carolina, telling myself that THIS was the perfect time to leave. When offered both jobs, I had reasons why it wasn’t QUITE the right time.
As I sit now surrounded by boxes as I finally do leave, I’m still having a hard time feeling that it’s the right time.
This is what I think: Leaving New York might always feel like defeat. No matter the circumstances or the adventure that sprawls out in front of me right now. Leaving New York feels like something didn’t work. That together, we didn’t work. We tried really hard and we had some really great years. But in the end, maybe we weren’t right for each other. That’s a hard reality to accept after putting in 12 years. But, it’s one that I’m gradually okay with.
Right now, I’m grateful that humans often see the grass as always greener. I’m leaving and knowing that my days here are numbered has allowed me to see the sparkle again. I clapped along to a subway performer on the L train to Williamsburg the other day. I went to MoMa’s PS1 in Long Island City after skipping it for years. I’ve stood on the bank of the East River looking at midtown and thinking how fantastic the hustle and bustle of after-work commuters can feel. Maybe I’ll leave the same way I arrived – excited by what New York City holds, seeing the glitter and wanting to be a part of it. And maybe some day I’ll come back.
For now, I need to free up some space for someone else who will appreciate New York the way I once did. Maybe she will also grow jaded and less thrilled by the opportunities. Maybe she’ll leave the same way that I’m leaving – hesitant and a little bit sad. But, for as long as she can she’ll work to love it. I hope she does. And when working to love it doesn’t seem worth it anymore, she’ll leave. Someone else will take her place.
Maybe my daughter. Eventually maybe her daughter.
And we’ll all tell each other what it was like when it was perfect.