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On Loving And Leaving New York: Currency

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1.

Maybe you’ll be an actress. Maybe you’ll do stand up. Maybe you’ll suck dick for money. Maybe you’ll wear intense glasses and make dramatic proclamations into a swank office telephone. Maybe you’ll meet your married lover for a drink on a rainy night wearing nothing under a coat. Maybe you’ll make art in an airy loft in a deserted part of town. Surely there’ll be long ruminative walks through the park. The voice-over will be witty as hell.

You can be weird in New York, that much is certain. You can be strange and melancholy and buxom and tall and dark and discerning. You can behave generally like the exuberant dork bitch dyke intellectual you semi-consciously understand yourself to be. Apparently they value that sort of thing there!

Ape the hell out of Didion’s prose in conversing with Dear Diary and get into a decent college despite your hilariously low GPA. Damn, her sentences are cool. Mr. Bellon’s AP English class is the only thing about which you can muster a shit to give.

Let’s go down to the East River and throw something in, ani difranco growls over the din of your mother’s tirades outside your locked bedroom door. Something we can’t live without and then let’s start again. Mutter this phrase tunelessly to yourself while you ride out panic attacks in the shower. Soon you’ll be there and here will not matter so much anymore.

It won’t be Didion’s New York, though. Not Woody’s, either, or ani’s or Ephron’s or Lebowitz’s or Sontag’s or Warhol’s. Not Holofcener’s, not Lethem’s, not Patti Smith’s. Silly — though tempting — to pretend otherwise.

You’re neither spoiled nor truly reckless enough to truly inhabit the extremes of the experience, but do what you can. Get regularly shit-faced with a gaggle of girls more or less just like you. Give spike heels a try. Take strangers home from bars. (Nerd: keep a running list of their names, the names in fact of every man with whom you ever so much as make out.) Rarely turn down an invitation or a narcotic. Wind up in strange/desperate/squalid/exorbitant apartments, clubs, bars, restaurants. Forget how you got there. Guzzle jack-and-cokes until everyone seems like a dear friend you’ll meet again in another lifetime. Bring the house down at Marie’s Crisis with an off-key but deeply felt “Adelaide’s Lament”.

Flatiron office job, Midtown office job, Grammercy office job, Chelsea freelance job. Forever late to work. One boss gives you a wool and silk embroidered robe from ABC, which almost a decade and a half later turns out to still be one of the nicer things you own. The 2nd Avenue Deli, Veniero’s, Tompkins Square on the verge of sanity. Grey Dog Coffee, where your first husband gets himself banned for general orneriness. City Bakery. Community garden on Avenue D. St. Mark’s. Lifethyme Natural Foods, Cobble Hill Theater, Yoga Lab, the Victory, Flying Saucer, Blue Sky Bakery. Read the Post and the Daily News cover to cover over lunch. New York has people, other people, always more and more people. Get to know as many of them as you possibly can. Don’t bother to remember bars; bars are interchangeable. Oh, but the Other Room. Oh, but Max Fish. Dress in costume. The Laundromat is a treat. Anytime you can walk the streets. Not like in L.A., where life unfolded in the car or at home or in the car or at school or in the car or in the locked bedroom or in the car or at the mall or in the car. Barf, LA, where girls competed to see who could stand out the least, who could come closest to disappearing. Your whole childhood boiled down to eating a surreptitious ice cream cone with your face in a book in the backseat of a car driven by a raving lunatic. Yes, ice cream and books got you through, and the books all pointed in the general direction of New York.

At Lil’ Frankie’s on Fridays, Matt the hot waiter picks up the tab and shares the last bottle with you and your bestie. She thinks he wants her but you’re pretty sure he wants you. It’s a flirt-off. He wants you both, obviously, but you have zero desire for her, which is probably why you’ve been friends for so long. Some other girl eventually sleeps with him. Years later she informs you gleefully, like she won.

Orthodox girls in doorman rental on West 96th. Railroad shithole with appalling broker’s fee on East 11th. Nesting pigeons cooing in the air shaft day and night. Boyfriend’s squat on Carmine. Transient girlfriend in a garret (a garret!) down on the Hudson. Amazing below-market brownstone floor-through on Washington Place. Host big parties. Your favorite college professor comes to crash. Fight with the boyfriend constantly until upstairs neighbors complain about the noise.

Warren Street sublet. State Street gem. Fifth-floor walkup with super in VFW cap forever smoking on the stoop. F train, A train, 2 train, 6 train. Bodega, bodega, bodega. Amazing consignment shop on Atlantic. Brooklyn promenade.

On rooftop in Brooklyn at one in the morning PJ Harvey sings about being on a rooftop in Brooklyn at one in the morning, and someone says something you’ve never forgotten. Your story’s not seldom told, sweetheart.

A summer spent stoned, Dean Wareham flooding the headphones. Cry constantly. Became a student of yoga. Lose friends. Write your way out. Write your way in. Filthy cliché. Fall in love, out, back in. Let a love or two pass you by, so you have something to think about wistfully in old age. Stop drinking, mostly. Give birth in the bathtub of a condo on the fourth floor of the old Board of Ed building on Livingston Street. Gather up your fledgling family and flee.

 

2.

What happened was a wildly great guy. A love affair. Destiny. No idea where Albany was, but you were game. Then the baby, and the living-in-two-places thing got old immediately. You could’ve fought to stay in the city. But you didn’t have a whole lot of fight in you just then, and it was easy to say fuck the city. Felt pretty good, actually. Fuck Brooklyn. Fuck the scene and all who flock to it.

But the harsh reality of Albany. There was some idea that it’d be a friendly place, an insta-community kind of place, because people have to stick together, even more so in a postindustrial wasteland kind of place, right? No.

A town designed (rather, corrupted; see William Kennedy’s “Everything Everybody Ever Wanted” in the definitive O Albany!) to discourage human contact, communal life, organic gathering places. Your basic urban-planning nightmare. American state capital. Pathetic monument to the personal automobile. The highway blocks direct human access to the river. To reinvent Sinatra: if you can love it here, you can love it anywhere.

At first you get off on going to the mall. After a decade in the Center of The Universe, a cheese-ball exurban mall seems the height of exoticism and delight. Classic beige sterile trying too hard fifteen plants in an atrium under a skylight of which some third-rate architect was very proud. State-of-the-art twenty years ago multiplex with arcade. Escalators, muzak, teenagers up to no good. Israelis accosting you with samples of Dead Sea shit from a cart. The hideous seasonal store: Halloween crap, Christmas crap, Valentine’s crap, St. Patrick’s crap, Easter crap, Fourth of July crap, Back To School crap, and around again.

People in the city cock their heads and say how is it up there? Is it, like, really, really cold up there? Don’t blame them; you couldn’t find it on a map two years ago, either.

A film buff tells you early noir films were often set in Albany, which adds a nice new dimension. Live on an Olmstead-inspired park, in a grand, creaky old house built around the time your great-great-grandmother was keeping house in some muddy shtetl. Fireplaces, oak moldings, tile bathroom, original tub. Stoop with pale pink columns. Wild, mature perennial garden. When people visit from the city their jaws hang open.

Albany consolation prize, you explain sheepishly, because it costs roughly the same as a windowless cell in the basement of a house in Crown Heights.

One time you and the kid get caught in a summer downpour on your way home from the park and a lady sees you from her stoop across the street and calls you over to her house, where she makes you tea and gives the kid toys and insists you stay for dinner. The struggling local businesses on bedraggled yet faintly charming Lark Street, forever On The Verge. At Lark Fest, drunk dudes urinate and puke everywhere and neighbors commiserate and it’s almost cute. Metroland, the highly lovable alternative news weekly. Perpetual fryer smell from Bombers, where you eat once and vow never again, the pristine haven of Crisan Bakery, everything made from scratch by Iggy and Claudia. Dove and Hudson: Walk in and breathe books and something you’ve been thinking about — say, Mircea Eliade, say, Paula Fox, say, a guide to Ayurveda — appears on a shelf at eye level. They keep your honey’s book in the window, next to the Robert Caro doorstop about Robert Moses, proud of the neighborhood guy done good. Ben and Jerry’s on the corner, across from the enormously fat cats at the bodega.

Hi kitty cats, waves your boy as he strollers then trikes then scooters on by.

A spring then summer then fall then winter.

Little guy’s growing too fast, says the pockmarked guy who stands out front smoking, keeping watch.

A couple opens an organic local café/bakery on Delaware, down from the Spectrum and New World Bistro. She was crying once when you went in and you understood that their undertaking is unimaginably difficult; traveling to Phish shows in the yellow VW van used to be way more fun than convincing this struggling shit-balls community to rally around its local organic café.

Takes time but you find truly wonderful people. No worries about where the kid will “get in” to preschool. A shaggy collection of salt-of-the-earth peeps. No one gives a flying fucking shit what you’re wearing. There’s always room for you and your laptop at the okay coffee roaster.

From your kitchen window watch the sun rise on Empire Plaza, Rockefeller’s misguided monument to his prick, with its impressive collection of modern art, reflecting pool, neo-fascist concrete expanse, bizarre underground city, wintertime skating rink. The way those four capital buildings stand sentinel on the horizon. The aptly named Egg, where Rickie Lee Jones opens with Satellites in a hundred-seat theater.

The drive on 90 to preschool, past Nipper the dog, the hills and the river and the skies you would not believe. The river walk, the pedestrian walkway. Miles and miles of bike path. The U-Haul truck rotating slowly on top of a storage facility on the river.

At the Shitty Bagel Chain surrounded by Real People (meaning: not living meta-lives on top of actual lives, not trained in matters of ultimate coolness, not wealthy, not angling for notoriety), notice how it’s a bit less noisy in a super-ego sense. You can relax. You have nothing to prove. No currency to fight over.

A Manhattan-reared artist living in Western Massachusetts shakes her head at the thought that anyone still wants to live there. Take your art where it matters, she says. Think about an inward-focused life. Where can you best lead one? Do your thing, stand tall. Life’s a turning inward, you’re convinced lately, a getting quiet, learning to observe and be still. Some call it meditation but you get scared off when it has a name.

Within an hour radius: Troy’s vibrant art community, too many kick-ass farmer’s markets to count, Saratoga, Hudson, the Berkshires, the Catskills, Ghent, Chatham, Great Barrington, Saugerties, Tanglewood, MassMoca, Kripalu. You actually love it here, turns out. Look closely: it’s a promising place. There’s work to be done. There’s potential. Put your money and effort and energy here, where it’s possible to make a difference, make a dent.

And Lord, what about those creepy bird calls in the train station garage? They sound like rhesus monkeys. What are they? No one seems to know. Detailed conversations between those animals, day and night. Turns out they’re not animals at all; only a recording designed to discourage actual animals from nesting. It’s so weird and uncool here, so devoid of cool, that it turns to be pretty cool. But the question remains, only partially because of the mindfuck of having recently become someone’s mother: Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing here?

The question is: Where do you belong?

“Where do you feel taller?” asks a tarot queen in the Berkshires on a perfect day in October. Excellent question. Up here, you guess. There’s your answer, then. Growing up you loathed being tall. Girls were not supposed to be tall. Girls were supposed to be as small as possible in every conceivable way.

“Where upstate do you live?” wonders a cool girl behind the counter of a cool north Brooklyn café one day.

“Hudson,” you tell her, because you can’t deal with this chick writing you off as some irrelevant bumblefuck mom. Hudson has name recognition, artists and art and currency. There’s a juvenile need for this random chick to understand that You Are Culturally Relevant. Shame, rage. You’re ridiculous. Why this need? Are you twelve?

“Oh my god I love it up there!” she says. “Sooooo cool.”

You nod. You matter. You are an arbiter, goddamn it! AN ARBITER.

 

3.

To talk about New York — living there, aspiring to live there, having lived there — is to talk about currency. Not privilege and not money, mind you; money is simple. Money is straightforward. Money can give you choices, options. Privilege skews how you see yourself and others, fucks with your head. Currency is something else. Currency is terrifically complex. You can’t buy currency; it eludes plenty of rich, entitled people. Money and privilege can make you comfortable, but only currency gives you real power.

Beauty, originality, fearlessness: these are a few of the currencies of New York.

Papa Irwin, small time shyster genius youngest son of alcoholic Montreal policeman, bought a parcel of land in Los Angeles on the corner of what is now Sunset and La Brea in 1950, and moved his family west. Rumor has it he and his uncle were traveling salesmen, sold condoms to whorehouses. Papa called New York City “that cesspool,” aghast that you lived there. Alone, no less!

Your parents got married at the hotel from Pretty Woman. Big Brentwood Spanish-style homes, Bullocks Wilshire, I. Magnin, Sweet Sixteen at Louise’s. Birds of Paradise, Magnolias, Palms. The flats of Beverly Hills before the Persians. Bat Mitzvah a few blocks from Santa Monica beach. Fancy private school. At sixteen Maggie Gyllenhaal had sumptuously hairy armpits, the most incredible vintage wardrobe, the confidence of a legend. (Currency, friends.)

It’s not until you’re long gone that you begin to understand: It’s unusual to be “from” a place that comprises a lot of fantasy lives. But from there you are, and what an education you got! The culture of name-dropping and status anxiety, the whiff of desperation inherent in any attempt to assert oneself that way: it was in your microwaved baby formula.

You don’t seem like you’re from L.A., people say.

Thank you, you say.

New York was an escape. You could give a shit about yeah so were having brunch at Balthazar when I blew this marginally famous person in the bathroom of that bar on Ludlow the night of the Williamsburg heroin orgy wearing the dress I bought at the Barney’s warehouse sale to the best show ever at the venue on the cover of Time Out. All that puff-out-your-chest to prove just how connected and prescient and rooted you are. When obviously the real questions are: Who lives in the shittiest neighborhood and cares the least? Who gets in free? Whose art is so essential it cannot be ignored?

Love letters to New York are invariably designed to make the reader feel like a loser, no? You might feel powerless in New York, but you can always make some poor shmuck who’s never lived there, or, better yet, only recently just moved there, feel even more powerless. Fine: So maybe you remember when Alphabet City was scary and Brooklyn was cheap. Maybe you went to Elaine’s, KGB, Mars Bar. Maybe you got mugged. Congratulations. If you remember its previous incarnation, or the incarnation prior to that, you own New York. Here’s your I HEART NYC t-shirt. You’re legit. You’re rooted. Now shush. An ultimately boring ass economics, and honestly the whole marketplace can pretty much suck it.

Your identity isn’t reliant on that place, on any place; it’s just a construction. Magical thinking. You have Stockholm syndrome: The city took you captive, stole your heart, ran off with your imagination, left you broke and battered. Sure, sing it a freakin’ love song. But make no mistake: the city owns you.

Still, you really do miss that goddamned place, something about its weird, destructive pull. Plenty of good reasons to hop a train down: Gigs, friends, family, marvelous head shrinker. Kiss your family, get on the southbound, read a silly rag, watch the river whiz by. Usually a whole row all to yourself. The conductors smile. Mustachioed flat top guy and buxom grandma-type are your favorites. Once in a while the vibe’s a little on the scary side. Once there were bomb-sniffing dogs and TSA agents. And compared to the train situation in, say, Western Europe, Amtrak is an overpriced disgrace.

But it’s a lovely liminal space, the train. Put on headphones. More often than not a little stoned. (Only backfires when you miss your train; once you had to drive to Poughkeepsie to catch MetroNorth absolutely baked and your friend stayed on the phone with you the whole way, and you said out loud to her and to yourself and to the empty highway okay this is really not okay I’m being an asshole and I gotta cool it with the pot.) Gather up your stuff at Penn Station. Sentimental souls need rituals. Go up a few escalators and emerge across from the grand steps of the post office on 8th Ave, where the camera would pan up in a dizzying spiral if there were a camera.

Paying respects to lost youth, you text people. Drink? You hate making plans in advance. You also hate alcohol, but want that looseness you used to enjoy, that who-knows-where-the-night-might-take-you lately in such short supply.

Needless to say, you love your family. You are awash in love and gratitude for your beautiful life up the river. But you cherish these field trips. Time is not linear. The old you is a fossil trapped in amber, perfectly preserved. Stay in a friend’s tiny studio. Read a good book over breakfast at the perfect tiny brasserie down the street.

Sit on your old stoop for a while. Couple hours before the train home. The girls are all in costume. An old lady shuffles past, looking at you, amused. You’re in costume, too — city drag. Scribbling in a notebook, to boot. Two women walk by. One is pushing an infant in a stroller; the other’s hugely pregnant. The pregnant one says she feels “a lot of pressure”. The other one says something — something “heavy”. If you’re not immersed in such things they can seem repetitive and boring. But if you are immersed in them, they comprise your life, so what are you supposed do? You too waddled these streets with friends, talking about bodies and birth and pressure and heaviness. It now seems an almost unbearably special time, but it was just life.

A film guy and his actress girlfriend moved in when you left. What if they find you sitting here on their stoop? That would be kind of sad. You once ran into the actress around the corner and were embarrassed, like she’d know you were casing her apartment. You’re upset they live here, kind of. This magic gem of an apartment that used to be yours. They still get mail for you occasionally. The super died last year. Never saw him smile but he was a good guy. The way he sat there, smoking, vacant stare. They way he said yeahhhhhh with that sandpaper voice.

All accountable, reasonably happy grownups are the same, but unhappy immature drama-queen wretches are all unhappy in their own way. There’s something terrifically sad about growing up, which is why sometimes people refuse to do it. (Some of your very favorite people.) I mean, Jesus, it’s only a place. It isn’t responsible for who you’ve become; it could have been Tel Aviv or Berlin or San Francisco or London. Could’ve been rural Idaho, Sebastopol, Ireland, Texas. And anyway: How many people are lucky enough to choose where they live?

You fell in love here a lot, wrote some books, gave birth. How could that time not hold you in thrall? Change is seen as something evil only by those who have lost their youth or sense of humor. That was Cookie Mueller on the East Village, 1985. The city’s not the same and you’re not the same and you’ll never get that time back because time is a spiral, girl. A spiral. Life is elsewhere now. Live it.

It’s just you miss the reckless girl who lived here. Retarded funny stubborn blind unforgiving little wench, beholden to no one, blindly enacting her will on everything, everyone. It was your youth! Now you’re older and wiser and better in about a thousand ways. A halfway decent sense of self on a good day, for starters. Now you know some things about where to put your energy, about what it means to build up instead of tear down, what it’s like to nurture good things so they grow. You wouldn’t trade anything for anything. All of this is true. And yet let us not skirt the issue that something was lost. Something has been lost.

 

(From Goodbye to All That: Writers On Loving And Leaving New York, ed. Sari Botton, Seal Press, Oct. 2013)