Thursday, March 19, 2009

The New York Time Limit

Yesterday, I took that facebook quiz, the one supposedly defining what city you truly belong in, and I was deemed a New Yorker. The answer is not surprising, for I have always been a New Yorker.

I grew up on the New York subway line. I never even learned to drive, to the bewilderment of my suburban raised friends. At some point or another, I have walked almost every block of this city, though I have not always been sober enough to remember in which direction. And when I went off to college in upstate, and then to London for a semester, coming back here was coming home. I felt like me here, a comfort, which is now, becoming a bore.

Even now, as I shuffle around this city, I often feel like I’m just fidgeting in place. The new neighborhoods blend into the old, every step is already a memory, even if it’s a distant fuzzy recollection. There's no anticipation upon crossing that bridge. I’ve ridden the train far more times then I’ve ever ridden in a car, to museums, and writing classes, bars, internships and, at best, days of just wandering, and there was always anticipation. 

The majority of my youth was spent in variations of Little Ukraine, in the many enclaves of Brooklyn that manhattanites  visit but rarely stay in. When I was young,  Manhattan had meaning, going to Manhattan had meaning. And now, that I’ve settled in my own place for this last year, on the other side of Brooklyn, somehow, a neighborhood a world away from the one I grew up in, I’ve been wondering a lot about what this city means, and the many ways it exists as something other than it is.

In 1967, Joan Didion wrote Goodbye to All That, in some ways a eulogy to New York and the world it represented. I don’t feel like much has changed since then.  New York still has that mystique, the idea of New York hasn’t faded. New York is still the place to make it, and find yourself, and to have lived. To all those kids coming from small towns in Kansas, New York is still gritty, perpetually big, often cold, and exhilarating in all of it’s strangeness.

But what happens if you have always lived here. If for almost twenty years, New York is what you have known. I understand the New York fantasies, the Sex and City inspired thoughts of romance, the Breakfast at Tiffanys inspired dreams, the Gossip Girl expectations of living the high life, and even the hipster illusions of bohemian poverty. I had my vision, of  the New York of possibilities, too young to have appreciated all it’s dreamlike qualities.

I almost envy the kids from the small towns, that come here in their 20’s when New York can be new to them, who can see New York as special to them, that can still make a coffee shop, that has always been there, their own. It’s a special perception that only comes with open eyes. Joan Didion described this young exhilaration almost too well;

“I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

But, after eight years, all the new people and experiences that Joan Didion had loved were followed by the apathy that comes from knowing a place too well:

“ In retrospect it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots—the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.”

I took Joan Didion eight years to let go of New York. I wonder how long it will take me, or if it has already in some ways taken effect. I always imagined myself being old in New York, but now I’m thinking about this middle ground. The New York of possibilities existed for me at 13, perhaps in small doses at 18, but at only 24, the New York of realities is creeping up on me. And I’m starting to feel as if, New York is a first love fading, that there’s no more butterflies. It’s a sad thought.

Perhaps, I should learn to drive, or slow down for a while, or sit in the sun, or work on a farm. Maybe, I should exist outside of being a New Yorker for awhile. I don’t want to think that I can only live in New York, just because I have always lived in New York. It’s easy to leave a small town for the big city, but how do you leave the place that everyone else is coming to, a place where you’re sure you belong coming back to.

New York is a romantic notion, but all romantic notions have to fade at some point.


  1. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker..I haven't lived in NYC full time since I was 18 (am 46 now) but I grew up in Manhattan and I will always be a New Yorker: I don't drive, I used NY expressions all the time (fortunately my British spouse and Canadian children have learned them too!). I wrote about NYC history a LOT. My roots are all there. Mostly in Brooklyn (my father grew up in Flatbush, my mom and grandmother were Brooklyn-born Queens types). It's part of who I am, part of why I will never feel entirely 'at home' anywhere else (though am happy living in Canada).

    I loved this post and I get it, yes I do.

  2. "Used' and "wrote" ought to be in the present tense, sorry. Also I cannot type all that well without enough caffeine coursing through my veins.

  3. I think everyone feels that way about their home town. I live in a medium-ish sized town in the south (Huntsville AL) and feel that way...I can't imagine myself living anywhere else - and definately not anywhere up north. I know I need to get out of here - but I just can't bring myself to do it.

  4. Another fabulous post - wonderful writing. I love NYC, but have only ever experienced is a visitor to a glamorous party. I probably have some similar feelings about London.

  5. i'm starting to feel that way about london and i've only been living here for three years. i think sometimes working in a city just grinds you down. you feel like you've been to all the interesting places, discovered all the back corner bars and there's nothing new and exciting to greet you. the reality for me is that i've just gotten into a rut when it comes to how i spend my freetime. a week ago my husband and i took two days off work and played tourist instead of going away. it definitely made us appreciate living here again - we had the time to see the city from a completely different perspective without the maddness of rush hour or the countless people crammed in the bars after work. we still very much want to move somewhere else in two years time - we're looking at nyc, san francisco, seattle and portland. after seeing my parents (who have lived in the same city for most of their lives) i want to make sure i experience life in a number of different places. a change of perspective always does a person some good and if you hate it, you can always move back...

  6. Perhaps, I need to take a none working day walk. Perhaps, a city doesn't grind on you as much as going to work does.

  7. Does that mean that you are beginning to come around to my suburban dreams of picket fences and big houses at an affordable price...can it truly be...? Or are you just kidding yourself and will continue to occupy an apathetic, NYC-centric, yuppie frame of mind....?

  8. lol. I'm not a yuppie I just live in an incredibly yuppie neighborhood, that is far too expensive for the likes of me.

  9. come to my town of 7000. I will show you a goooood time. I didn't visit nyc until i was 18 and it was scary. I thought how do people actually live here. now i'm totally the opposite. people ask me "how do you just visit there for the weekend- aren't you afraid of being mugged??!!"