Friday night I went into the city to hang out. I went to a book reading in Soho, then had dosas for dinner with a new friend after that in a tiny hole-in-the-wall Indian place I absolutely love and go to every chance I get. As I drove home, past Sixth Avenue and to the West Side Highway, I realized like so many have before me that New York is hard to love but even harder to leave.
New York and I have been having a rocky time of it these last few years. I think it was working there every day that estranged us. I always like to joke that I like New York as a boyfriend but not as a husband. I hated going there every day. I hated being stuck with it. I hated the frenetic commute and the swarms of purposeful people. I hated the all-business attitude and the ugly, relentless gray. When I got my chance to bail on New York, I took it in a heartbeat.
It didn’t start that way. I loved New York fast and hard. Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my parents on Fifth Avenue, back in the days when they were young twentysomethings and I was their doll. They’d save up my dad’s waiter money and take me to Macy’s to buy me a fancy coat. Later, my dad drove a cab in New York City. On snowy days or late at night he’d take us for drives around town, proud at how progressive he was for driving us on Tenth Avenue so we could see the hookers in satin shorts and short furs with nothing on underneath, standing right there on the street. He drove us past the Grace Building and Rockefeller Center. He taught me the difference between the Holland and the Lincoln Tunnels. In the Lincoln, I waited with held breath for the line that said, New York/New Jersey, letting me know exactly when I crossed into the city. It was gritty 1970s New York, tough and brash, of the triple X theaters and the dilapidated buildings. I wanted in so bad. When I saw New York in a movie, my heart jumped a little. That’s mine, I thought.
I first started sneaking into New York on my own in 1984, when my friends and I discovered the PATH train our freshman year in high school. It left us off in the heart of the Village, right on 8th Street, near a Ray’s Pizza. We walked the street, popping in to buy Marilyn Monroe postcards and snarky pins, fancying ourselves just like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, buying clothes in thrift stores. We walked past NYU and flirted with boys who were much too old for us. We sat in Washington Square Park, met a street performer who called himself the Ghost of Shakespeare and recited sonnets for our spare change.
Later, during a James Dean phase, I took the bus into New York every weekend to watch a retrospective of his forgotten TV movies at the Museum for TV and Radio. I accidentally went to the Gay Pride Parade with my high school boyfriend. I bought a fake I.D. on Eighth Avenue and started going to clubs in old train stations and churches, in the special desecration that New York pulls off with such panache. I felt more alive in New York City than anywhere else. It was everything I wanted to be, creative and bold and hard. I let it sink into my pores that if I could make it there, I’d make it anywhere.
Yet, still, I never tried to live in the actual city. Part of me was afraid I couldn’t hack the rents. Another part of me didn’t want to be a river away from my little brother, for whom I felt a great sense of obligation. So I stayed on the Jersey side, 3 miles away from midtown as the crow flies, firmly a part of the bridge and tunnel crowd. I felt a bit unhip for it, since New York reviles you unless you are completely in its maw.
I worked way uptown in Washington Heights in a forgotten part of Manhattan populated by recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic and residents left from the older times, Jews and the Irish. I fought off the squeegee guys. I watched DEA raids of the apartment buildings across the street from the small second-floor law firm where I made enough money by day to go to college at night. I learned to love Dominican rice and dance salsa, went to Coogans for drinks after work. Late at night, I went to Alphabet City bars and clubs on the West Side. I wore tiny tops and writhed with all the other twentysomethings, alive and gorgeously unhappy as you can only be in New York, where there is everything.
I settled down, had babies. I watched Giuliani tear down the triple X theaters and put the Gap and Madame Tussaud’s in their place. New York became theater nights and good restaurants picked more for Michelin stars than decor and bar. I left my business and started to work for corporations in my thirties, but somehow always managed to keep out of the New York City rat race. I didn’t enter it until my late thirties.
As discussed, I disliked it greatly.
It was the first time that I began to imagine living somewhere away from the churning mass, the greedy ambition, the bored trendiness. I had thought New York was fused into my DNA somehow, but maybe it was just a passing phase of my youth. I divorced and rethought everything. Maybe New York was up for discussion too.
I worked in midtown Manhattan for several years, my discontent growing. But, then, last year, I found a way to get out. I found my dream job telecommuting with a company in San Francisco, a city that charmed me with its laid back style and its lovely bay. I visited and imagined myself there. You could say I cheated on New York, at least in the heart and mind, which my Catholic school upbringing taught me is just as bad as doing it all the way. If you think the sin you’ve already committed it.
So Friday night was important, like a date night with a long-term lover you’ve seriously thought about leaving. I saw the charm again. Felt the old love. As I drove from one neighborhood to the next, I remembered the layers and layers of my history, my exploratory teen years, my wild twenties, my staid thirties, each etched on different blocks. There the bar where I once had a failed date while a cover band played. There the store where I bought that amazing second-hand military jacket. There the bakery my dear high school friend told me I just had to try. I remembered what I loved about New York City. And it occurred to me, it’s the thing I’ve loved longest and most steadily my whole life. I’ve never lived more than a few miles away from it and there’s always been a rubbery band attaching me to it, sometimes pulled taut, sometimes yanking me in.
Perhaps one day I will leave New York, or perhaps I won’t. I don’t know. But I know for certain it will never leave me.