Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Leigh Vogel/Corbis

On Saturday night, I found myself in a karaoke bar at 3:45 a.m., participating in a raucous group rendition of "New York, New York.” This, you may be surprised to learn, represented a certain amount of personal growth. Even though some of my best friends in the world live here and it's the epicenter of my professional universe, "not really liking New York" has long been part of who I am. I've always had fun when I visit, but I’ve found the most professional success and personal happiness outside of New York. My take, since about age 25, has been, "Why would I want to make it there when I can make it everywhere else?"

A new book called Goodbye to All That, out next month, chronicles 28 writers’ experiences with loving and, eventually, breaking up with the city. I spent the worst year of my life in New York. Right after college graduation, I moved from Missouri to join my college boyfriend, who had landed my dream job. I ended up here not because I had something to prove, but because I couldn’t think of where else to go. No job, dreamy or otherwise. No inclination toward any particular city other than “not my hometown.” When I decamped for the West Coast fifteen months later, I didn’t feel failure or regret but relief. For me, New York is that guy I went out with only briefly and then successfully transitioned into friendship. We were always meant to be platonic. But in the years since I’ve moved away, I’ve learned that “I’m kind of meh on New York” is not a generally accepted point of view. It rivals “I’ve never seen The Goonies” for most controversial fact about me. 

It’s always struck me as hilarious that friends who tout their taste in undiscovered music and underground supper clubs were so loyal to the most popular city in America. New York is the prom king. He knows he's great, and he's gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him. New York is increasingly a city for people who are already on top, not for those looking to establish themselves. I've always been partial to the friendly guy who doesn’t know how hot he really is (Chicago) or the surprisingly intelligent, sexy stoner (Los Angeles) as opposed to the dude who thinks he’s top of the list, king of the hill, A-number-one.

In an excerpt from Goodbye to All That adapted for BuzzFeed, Ruth Curry describes the heady infatuation with New York that I never managed to feel: “The city lent itself especially well to a mental configuration in which you were an extra in an artsy, high-budget movie and saw everything as if through a camera on a set.” Part of that infatuation is a willingness to consider New York from a cinematic distance, overlooking the city’s many irritants except insofar as they add grit and drama to your story. This seems like the general approach of many New York evangelists, who complain vigorously about little things like subway hardships and bedbug plagues, and then post Instagram photos of the skyline at sunset. A not-insignificant number of the vehement New York lovers I know — especially the young twentysomethings — are actually pretty unhappy day to day. I picture the prom king’s girlfriend sitting near him at the party, ignored but still kind of proud to be in the room and on his arm — and incredibly defensive should you suggest she break up with him for someone who dotes on her more. When I describe my West Coast existence (sunshine! avocados! etc.) to some New Yorkers, they acknowledge that they really like California, too, but could never move there because they’d get too “soft.” At first this confused me, but after hearing it a few times, I’ve come to believe that a lot of people equate comfort with complacency, calmness with laziness. If you’re happy, you’re not working hard enough. You’ve stopped striving.

Many young journalists write to me with the same postgraduation conundrum: They know they need in-person connections and experience to jump-start their careers, but the entire media industry is located in a city that is prohibitively expensive and socially challenging, to put it mildly. I never know what to tell them. "Your early twenties are going to suck no matter what," I usually say. “Sorry.” It’s impossible for me to know if my post–New York adult life is so much better because I’ve simply grown up and worked my way into a better phase of my career, or whether leaving the city was what allowed me to find happiness and success. These things are inextricable. Leaving New York at age 24 wasn’t just a breakup with the city. I broke up with a college boyfriend and a mindless entry-level job, too. I’m very much aware of this when I explain to New York’s true believers that, for me, getting out of New York felt like learning to breathe again.

The Joan Didion essay from which Goodbye to All That takes its title is a parting note to a city she loved recklessly at age 23. “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way,” she wrote. “I mean that 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.” This is the anthropomorphized way I love California, and this is the feeling I now tap into when I want to relate to the people who never fell out of young, difficult love with New York. It’s how I managed to get through “New York, New York” in the wee hours of Sunday morning — and not quite mean it, but still keep singing.