I had brunch with a friend from California today, insofar as I could brunch. But that’s a different story. My friend had lived in New York for a year before returning to the place from whence he came. From whence we came, since he’s from the town where my parents live. And we talked about what we each liked and loved about New York City, and why people leave.
The conversation had come up in the context of my friend applying to graduate schools all over the country, in a seemingly scattershot fashion: coming back to New York, going to Washington, staying in California, maybe giving the midwest a chance, trying the South for a while. He mentioned a book he had read recently – Who’s Your City? by Richard Florida. The author had studied location and personal happiness and had plumbed the question of why people don’t see their life in a city as requiring the same thought and effort as having a relationship with that location.
I get sick of those girls who come to New York because they fell in love with Joan Didion in Freshman Lit, I snorted, But they never read all the way through the anthology! They don’t understand their own temporariness.
By 30, I had settled for Manhattan. A few years earlier, I had come to New York affianced, on the cusp of a marriage that wasn’t destined to last. I divorced; I bought or inherited reasonable furniture. Thirtysomething and alone, I gave in and painted my bathroom a shade of grey called Nightingale. Putting paint on walls was a display of permanence I’d not undertaken since I was trying to force myself into committed submission in a Virginia townhouse a decade earlier.
People come, expecting to leave. I came, expecting to stay. Except the reason I came became irrelevant, and since then I’ve been reminding myself that I have a reason to hang on.
Didion, of course, came back. And lives relatively close to where I live, as far as I understand. Like many female writers, I have been influenced by her work. But there were and are other, much greater influences too. However, I am always struck by the lines in Goodbye to All That, where Didion says that she’d left behind in an apartment a poster of Sacramento, one that “reminded me who I am.”
Who am I? I have nothing on my walls to remind me of California, save for a photo or two of having visited; some coasters and wine glasses from a California hotel I once had to close down. To the board above my desk, I have pinned a map of the Sierras, where I have climbed; a map of the New York City Marathon, which I have thrice conquered; a map of Hyde Park, where I sometimes run; a quote from Elisabeth Badinter, snipped from The New Yorker.
On the shelf above: travel books; Edith Wharton; Virginia Woolf; Anne Lamott. Baudrillard; Foucault. Two finance books pilfered from my dad; books he’d used in getting his MBA in the Seventies. CS Lewis; Seamus Heaney; Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And a dusty book on French vocabulary.
I suppose that is a fair representation of who I think I am. A woman without a country; a girl who reads.
Back on Planet New York, my friend and I finished our brunch in Union Square. He was headed off to meet another friend, and I was headed to Strand Books — a quintessentially New York institution. And as I am wont to do, I lost myself for an hour or two in the stacks; came away with a few old books. It reminded me of the New York I knew when I was married — churches and bookstores downtown; long afternoons spent fighting the vicious throngs of tourists on Broadway.
But unlike those days, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Buy books or not. Stay or go home. Being unleashed still feels delicious, even three years after having moved out. That part of New York is still new for me.
I headed home, and realised that one’s own New York depended upon one’s expectations — not necessarily the New York experience. If one always expects new faces, one cracks when the well of people runs dry. If one always expects the extraordinary, then one will never see the magic in the mundane. To pin all hopes for excitement and adventure on a place alone is to reduce that magical relationship to a co-dependent catastrophe. New York simply cannot stand up under the weight of all those young girls’ dreams.
Thankfully, the girls become not so young and they leave.
And there is dirt, grime, and rotten produce; high rents and apartments without views left for the rest of us. And there are ordinary, extraordinary dreams to dream and live — dreams that could likely have been dreamt and lived most any place, but are best lived for some under the bright lights of this big City.