The first year I lived in New York was an utter cliche. There I was, young and terribly naive, unaware that my whole self was about to transform in ways that I couldn’t begin to imagine. It was as if I’d suddenly burst out into the light, into a world that was strange and wonderful and occasionally terrifying. I reached out in all directions, feeling, tasting, seeing, smelling, experiencing an incredible variety of things I’d never known existed. I formed the closest relationships I would ever have. I spoke new words and formed new wants. I tried unfamiliar foods, one after another. I learned to stand on my own and take my first steps into the world.
I’m not speaking metaphorically. I was born in New York. Except for school, I lived there for my first 33 years.
There is a perennial cottage industry in essays on three topics: coming to New York, living in New York and leaving New York, of which Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That is the lodestone. No one has ever written so beautifully and completely about the process of being smitten with my hometown. I have several collected volumes of the genre, and I’ve found myself re-reading them on a sort of anti-nostalgic journey.
The inspiration was the Zachary Lipez’s essay in Vice, Hello to All That: Why I’m Staying in New York Until I Die, which by its very topic invited comparisons to the ur-text. I posted it on Facebook, and naturally, because I was born in New York, I had to add a snotty comment. “People like this,” I said, “are why I left New York.” I, like almost everyone I know who grew up in the city, now live far away from it.
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We left because of these aspirational New Yorkers — not to get away from them, exactly, but because we were less willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to stay. The dreamers simply outbid us for our New York, and in the process, they created a city we no longer loved quite so much. This is apt to make such musings hard reading for us.
But we are not the real audience for these essays, we born-and-bred New Yorkers. Didion memorably writes, “I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” To judge by the canon of Newyorkature, many an MFA has ecstatically thrummed to the lilting, wistful cadences of that line.
I’ve never loved New York like a lover. To be born there is to love it as you love your parents, dog-eared books and the body-memory of running pell-mell down a sidewalk without fear or purpose … a sidewalk that, in your case, was strewn with litter, and nonetheless beautiful in the morning sun. For us, reading the impassioned essays of the city’s adult migrants is a bit like reading the love letters from your father’s new 22-year-old bride.
I do not mean to insult you, Non-Native New Yorker. I am sure you are a very fine and authentic person. But to us, most of you will never be New Yorkers. You just don’t have it in you.
Real New Yorker status can be acquired. Both my parents had it, though it probably took them decades. But it cannot be acquired by reading Didion and investing all of your adolescent angst in a few square miles of concrete. It cannot be acquired by going to awesome, funky bars that are totally different from the ones at home and meeting a heroin addict bartender/freelance sex worker who wears cowboy hats and Doc Martens and quotes Allen Ginsburg while the two of you smoke cigarettes underneath the High Line.
There are some signs of a real New Yorker I could point to: for example, you have forgotten how to drive (if indeed you ever knew), or you can instinctively navigate the subway system without resorting to the 42nd Street shuttle. But these are not universal, and anyway, they are merely the outward signs of an inward state, which is: not being able to think like anything but a New Yorker. If you are still one of the legions starring in a multi-year run of “Me, Living in New York City!” or if you are writing essays about how you'll never leave New York — then you are not yet a New Yorker. You are a tourist who has possibly overstayed your visa.
The most remarkable difference between us and the joyous immigrants penning paeans to the city may be this: We don’t seem to find it so hard to stop being a New Yorker. I’ve left the city of my birth and now, slowly, it is leaving me. I can tell because I no longer know where to eat in the city, my favorite pizzerias and bagel shops having shut down one by one. I can tell because I actually like Washington, where my acquaintances are here because they care about ideas. I can tell because — well, I left New York City, and now I am writing about doing so, two things a real New Yorker would never do.
I moved to Washington just for a few months, to recover after a harrowing breakup. Then I got offered a job as I was being evicted from my 435-square-foot one-bedroom on the Upper West Side so the building could be turned into condos. I found myself building a new life. The old one was torn down abruptly to make way for someone else’s plans, a thing that happens a lot in New York.
I now know exactly three natives still in New York. Two live in the houses they grew up in. Housing there has always been expensive. Now, however, the housing market has gone from “wacky” to “just how bad do you need that extra kidney?” Oh, yes, the bankers and the lawyers, you are saying, but I have to tell you, it’s not just them. It’s people so besotted that they will cling to New York’s towering walls with bloody fingernails. Those of us who spent much of our childhood there doing the same boring things you did in your hometown always saw it more as the place we lived than as a mythopoetic wonderland. We are simply unable to glamorize the effort it now takes to stay there — especially since so much of what we loved about “our city” was disappearing even before we did.
The New York of my heart was the Upper West Side of the 1970s and 1980s. If you’ve seen Annie Hall, you know what it looked like. It was not glamorous, nor particularly bohemian; it was Jewish and Puerto Rican and black and Irish and Italian, living together in the faded grandeur of buildings erected before the Depression and barely maintained since.
It was Saturday lunch at a mediocre Chinese restaurant with my father, followed by a matinee at the Metro or Loew’s 84th Street. The book-and-video store that let you trade used books for credits on “new” used books. Shoes at Indian Walk or Harry’s Florsheim, and summer clothes (plus camp trunk!) at Morris Brothers. Going to Macy’s in eighth grade with our parents’ credit cards to do our school shopping all by ourselves. Walking up Broadway with my mother, starting at Bruno’s for pasta and then collecting things one by one at the stops along the way: Fairway. Citarella. H&H bagels. Zabar’s. Murray’s.
It was getting on the train at 242nd Street after track practice to ride back to Manhattan from the cool green precincts of Riverdale, and walking through the train cars as it moved along the elevated tracks. When I think of high school, I always think of one particular day in the fall when I found myself between cars just as the train went around the bend at 238th, as the sun was shining low between the grimy towers to my right. It was one of those glorious moments that calls for a movie sound track, but also doesn’t need one. I don’t think these moments actually come more often in New York, but New York was where I was.
Eventually my city was also tiny poetry readings and very off Off-Broadway, that really cool bar and those really hideous nightclubs and “all that.” But the earlier moments gave me one crucial advantage over the newcomers: when I said I loved New York, I never confused “New York” with “being 22.” So when the time came, I was able to leave the city without romanticism, and almost without regret.
I returned to New York to pack up loose ends. Friends reacted: Washington? Really? “Is there anything there?” asked one amazed classmate from college.
“People and buildings and everything,” I assured him.
The incipient panic I’d felt at leaving “all that” vanished, as my city already had. The bits of New York that weren’t turning into a shopping mall were instead turning into London, where the cost of real estate pushes the merely affluent people far to the periphery.
I have no desire or right to complain about this. I never owned “my New York,” a city too big and too fast and too crowded to ever be fully described, much less possessed or preserved. But the morning after my last party in New York, when I drove across the George Washington Bridge and prepared to turn south, I was glad to be going home.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.
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