Visiting New York Showed Me Why I Left

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Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

My family and I live just down the road from a giant grocery store. Not a Key Food, not a corner store, not a produce stall, but one of those sprawling shopping plazas with a suburban parking lot and rows of carts outside the automatic doors. Sometimes at night, after our son goes to bed, I walk in the dark along the two-lane highway to go buy a few bags of groceries. I’ll laugh as I step into the fluorescent light, thinking that if you squint, it’s basically like we have a bodega at the end of the block. To live in a condo along a highway and walk through a construction site and a giant parking lot at dusk to go grocery shopping: This is as close as I’ll get to life in New York again.

Of course living in this land of car ownership and no sidewalks, where as parents the only time we need a stroller is when we go to the mall, has made me long for New York in a way I thought would never happen.

It’s been 19 months since I lived in New York City. I lived there for eight years. It would have been a decade this month, which means that if I’d never left I would be, officially, a real New Yorker soon. Instead, I became the person people roll their eyes at. I moved to Portland, Oregon, with my baby and my boyfriend. Now Brooklyn becomes this weird blip, the place I spent my 20s. Leaving felt like getting out of a bad marriage, like I was “choosing happiness.” Like many New Yorkers, I spent years fantasizing about other lives, and months on different Zip Codes in real-estate apps. We had the Vermont phase, the upstate New York phase, the looking into visas in Berlin phase. What would it be like, to be an adult in not–New York?

As it turns out, living elsewhere is exceedingly comfortable. Years spent in New York made it seem like a bad thing to choose ease. A weakness, a personality flaw. After all, if an easy life were something I was after, why had I spent so much goddamned time in a railroad apartment near the BQE? Had I internalized the values of the people around me, assimilated so much I’d forgotten what I actually cared about? Living in New York was never a dream of mine like it is for some people. New York made realizing so many of my dreams possible: writing, money, love, children. Maybe once I got everything I wanted out of the city I was ready to leave. Maybe I made my contacts, got my contracts, memorized the subway lines, and then I was done.

For more than a year I didn’t miss it at all. When images of the city flashed in my mind, it was like a montage of car exhaust, putrefying garbage, and hauling my ass up subway steps at the end of a long day. The word that came to mind was misery. And then it shifted. It was almost like my brain missed using all my particular to New York knowledge. I fantasized about walking certain pathways across town. I got butterflies thinking about that section of Rivington that doesn’t quite connect when you cross Bowery, or sliding into a table at a crowded coffee shop, right as it empties.

So I went to New York by myself, for four days. I found myself genuinely nervous on the plane, truly not knowing how I would feel setting foot in the city. I imagined being so undeniably happy — happier — there that I’d have to go home and start the process of rearranging our lives to get back there. I would have to build my case to my family; make a speech about the center of the world or something. I got tired just thinking about unaffordable child care, an unavoidably hellish apartment search. We’d go back to never washing our dish towels, buying just a few things at the grocery store, spiraling into panic at book parties as we heard of everyone else’s accomplishments. Everyone else’s apartments. Everyone else’s weddings. Everyone else’s vacations to escape everyone else’s terrible jobs and shitty apartments. Goddamn it!

I landed in JFK, giddy to be in an airport that felt like a spaceship, and after a robot took my photo at border patrol, I ran off to find the subway. My subway. I grinned when an orange- and yellow-seated train pulled up and then quickly became uncomfortable when a guy sat next to me and our shoulders were touching. I squirmed and shifted away only for him to relax further, pressing into me. The train filled with more people. Everyone seemed to me to be very thin and pale, and very well-dressed. Their clothes seemed to exist only to constrict — belt buckles and heavy purses, high heels, layers — as if all of the discomfort was what kept them upright, made them workers, made them respectable.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said to my friends at dinner that night — my old, dear friends who make me laugh like no other. What I mean to say is Why. But there was a bite to my comment, a bitterness. When I saw other women with babies strapped to their chest in carriers I got a flash of anger, like, No, I have a baby, or What are you trying to prove? It took me a few days to realize that my friends and these women were doing what I couldn’t, or wouldn’t — do. They were hacking it in New York.

I woke up the next morning at 6 a.m. — windows open, no air-conditioning, on an air mattress in the office of my dear friend’s Bushwick apartment — to the sounds of construction. It was that comically loud New York sound where someone is basically dropping a ton of cement onto something really clangy. The kind that makes you jump and laugh and scream.

It seems almost funny to come to New York for fun. Fun?! I was there to walk familiar city blocks, to check up on storefronts and give them a polite nod as I passed. That is still there, that is still there, that is gone, that is now some sort of bastardization of the noun “apothecary,” the vegan restaurant is now a “grocer,” or a very expensive “corner store,” a boutique for $9 condiments and very specific cheese.

Everyone I talked to seemed eager to figure out why I was there. They’d cock their heads, start out their questions with a searching “So—?” and end it with a delicate “Are you here for fun, or?” It would be a strange thing to think of any trip to New York as “for fun,” when visiting New York is anything but that. I think the best that can be said for a trip to New York is “it was really exciting, to be there!” It is better, more respectable, more understandable, more justifiable, to go to New York on business. What would you do here “for fun”? New Yorkers, for fun, for leisure, do things that are better done in other places: They go to the park, go out to eat, visit other peoples’ houses, go out of town. What is relaxing — what is leisurely — about choosing where to eat, how to get there, how long to wait, and what to order at a restaurant in New York? The parks in New York are respites from the rest of the city, a patch of green and bench in the middle of car exhaust. They are full of trash and shit and people with nowhere to go. There isn’t space on the bench. There isn’t a table available.

I visited New York and for the first time understood the experience of outsiders, of my parents complaining about blisters and exhaustion, of my sister rolling her eyes at the fact that we didn’t have a TV, of out-of-town guests wanting to just go to McDonald’s, just sit in a coffee shop forever, just stay in for the night. It was late June and hot — an idiotic time to visit, but maybe I was afraid of a perfect fall day. Maybe that was too threatening.

Eight-eight degrees or no, everyone wore pants. I bought a pair while I was there, navy-blue wide-leg pants from Uniqlo. Navy blue is not an island color. If I wore those pants at home, in the Caribbean, people might mistake me for a policewoman or flight attendant. But there I felt goofy and self-conscious showing up to a book party in my gauzy pants and pocket tees. All the editors and authors and agents towered around me in heels and Ann Taylor Loft. When a friend said, “You have such a nice glow,” I said, “That’s about all I have,” without thinking. This was how quickly the effects set in.

I Skyped my family in the Caribbean and my husband asked if it were sad, to deprive our son of a New York childhood, that Sesame Street fountains at the playground thing. But there are fountains elsewhere. In the rest of the country, there are always swings available. You do not stagger into the park drained of your humanity, and then sit next to a sweltering barrel of garbage. There are other places with sidewalks, and storefronts, and crosswalks where drivers actually do stop for you to cross the street. There are bike lanes elsewhere.

There is music and literature and cinema and smart people elsewhere, too. But granted, it’s not quite as good, or quite as big, and there’s less of it. It is not always the best. This is easy to dismiss as a nonfactor; who would really say that that’s important, but I think it’s what you choose by living in New York. You choose difficulty. You choose trudging. You choose harsh winters and hot summers, no central air or central heat, no thermostat. You choose plastic bags digging creases into your wrists as you climb stairs with your four bags of groceries, meant to last three days at most. You choose compromise, choose expense, choose discomfort, in exchange for the best of everything, except quality of life.

I can’t do it anymore. I’ve gone soft. What that means is that I’ll be forever living in not–New York, in a second-rate place with an in-unit washer and dryer. And that’s the cost — knowing that there will always be a city that has everything but that I can no longer take. There will always be a city to contend with, to compare to. It’s incredibly annoying, but hey, that’s New York.