We might as well have met. That person we know in common, how is she? Though you may have been before me, or I before you, we have been, both of us. We live in New York City. To ask why is to invite so many unconvincing replies that the unsaid seems a more promising place to look for an explanation.
In the beginning of Meghan Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth,” she says she had “no idea ordinary people could live” in the castles of the Upper West Side. Also, that she “had to be one of those people.” Does that mean she wanted to be ordinary? Of course she didn’t. That’s no mistake on her part—in fact, she observes a constitutive failing in New York residents that just might be what makes the city possible. We arrive with a conviction that would be unearned if we ever tried to articulate it in the first place. That and a credit card.1
One might figure that fifteen years of inflation and the personal essay’s turn toward the unadulterated would have dated “My Misspent Youth,” but Daum’s litany of bills is still bracing, the actual amounts spent on student loans and bodega tulips feel written in blood. Even more familiar to me are those expenses that she thought nothing about. Whenever I spend money2 and consider the hours I worked to cover the bill, I don’t add so much as pray: Let one not equal the other; this cannot be the way!
My books have been shipped to Des Moines, Iowa, the hometown of my girlfriend of eight years. It’s far away. To get there you go on a road heading west until you’re no longer young. I’m not that much of a book collector.3 My personal stacks are owed to a stint at a bookstore and an unusually long stay—for NYC, at least—in the same apartment. So why move now? I don’t know how to answer that—and I’ve thought about it a lot. I can say Des Moines, Iowa, is a nice place. Des Moines, like an NYC neighborhood that’s still a shithole, is up-and-coming.4 As of late, it has been highly ranked by economic indicators—cost of living, job growth5—measures I’ve never truly considered and by which I’ve failed miserably. Not only do I have nothing saved,6 but by the inescapable logic of cost of living, I’ve actually wasted the maximum.
We all know what this means. “‘Why I Left New York’ is already the most basic genre of personal essay,” writes Rusty Foster. Weighing in with one is a “de rigueur career move” according to the New York Times. We’ll just see about that, sir.
Trying to justify living here is the subject and rhetorical trap of “Why I Left New York.”7 We’ve heard it all before—or not a word. The essays are like a dinner guest taking her time with her Scout knot of a scarf and baroque coat fastenings, telling you the one true way to live on her way out. They’re helpless but to describe the past as if it were covered in a layer of precious grit. The buildings of the old neighborhood are seen through a cool fog. The sex is so awkward that having ever done well at it would seem the more embarrassing confession. There’s a lot of looking out and over into the night. And yet the merciless changes wrought by money prevent this nostalgia from becoming too quaint. The city caters—small plates, private rooms—inexorably to people drawing salaries that sound like ransoms asked for by criminal masterminds before flying to non–extradition treaty countries. The times change, and some of the changes are worth resisting, but how obnoxious is it that all the resistance I can muster is to describe a Rite Aid8 built atop the American Indian burial grounds of my ardent youth? Hey, this thing writes itself! Something old, something new, something shuttered, something underrated. Despite it all I still read “Why I Left New York” essays, hoping that one cuts to the chase at last, looking to them, almost unironically, for the meaning of life. Despair drove Didion away, a departure she equated with the end of her youth.9 We don’t have that problem now: Our youths go on forever. Despair, though—still got it.
I’ve had to ask myself why, and am I ready, and is it over? I’m sure of the urgency of these questions, but not of their particular objects. Perhaps the reason we live in New York doesn’t have anything to do with the city itself. For sure it’s a personal question that stops a conversation dead in its tracks. The proper etiquette is to pivot to our common endurance. We tell one another war stories about paying too much, waiting, people, and other utterly unforeseen calamities. Such a sacrifice it is to be price-gouged, worked fifty hours a week, and made to line up behind people so good-looking that you imagine them the first citizens of a society that goes blithely on without you. We’re rather quick to bestow honor upon the ordinary conduct of urban life, the expectation—and the terms of the “Why I Left New York” confessional essay—being that this life is something we believe in (the 24/7-ness of it all) when it’s actually something we find entirely necessary.
I remember a conversation I had with friends when we were still young. We were on Fire Island for the weekend. It was a modest little house; the real luxury was in not having to try so hard all the time. We were 25,10 perhaps, not that we could help it. We were playing a game of purposeful irreverence and seeing how long it could go. The question: other than New York City, did anywhere else qualify as a “place.” The rules were these: we would name would-be “places” other than NYC, and Jen, appointed judge, told us whether they qualified. A real place, see? Dots on a map didn’t count. A place was of consequence; a place mattered. In turn, we named our American cities of origin. Jen shook her head: Nope. West Coast upstarts that weren’t the East Bay of California?11 No—Jen seemed to be trusting her instincts, but even if she was not, it was agreed that we should establish no criteria. Just name a place already and she’d confirm it. Post-industrial wastelands with rumors of cool revivals? Not there yet. Also: not even close. Sun-belt population-boomers? Oh, no, not at all—did they even bother posting signs for those glorified truck stops where the old went, probably to gamble, certainly to die? Our friend walked in the room and asked what we were talking about. We summarized. Nonplussed, he reminded us of the certain existence of rust belt towns, outside of which some of us had gotten an excellent education, and where they were giving away houses and livelihoods to the able-bodied. It’s some thing, yes—roads go there—but a place? No. Paris or London? In a novel, maybe. Okay, what about Marfa, Texas. Eh? See what we did there? Almost. But you don’t bet on a wildcard. P-l-a-c-e spells place. No sale. I agreed with Jen’s every judgment. We all lived in New York City; none of us, I can only assume, in boroughs other than Brooklyn.
Daum lets the terms “Urbanity” and living “in an authentic way” go un-belabored. We would belabor the hell out of them today, wouldn’t we? In a city-culture that polices any hint of posturing, the urbanity on display has nevertheless been staggering. Everything you’ve heard is true. The flea markets that only have ramen burgers, rabbits slaughtered in the backyard, salads just a handful of watercress ripped from the ground, so bitter as to say eat it, fuck you!; the soft hairs at beard’s end of a kung-fu mountain-man all of twenty-three-years old, wizened prunes of the same age shaking their heads in dismay at the latest style of non-pants; in a “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” shirt and playing kickball; kamikaze tattoos before their date with a laser, sidewalk overflow Zumba; and the front-of-house face that quotes a three-hour wait—the sheer control of that face, which betrays the fact that she cannot appear to make fun of you for even asking, but must admit it’s a little funny; out on the streets but not all points south or east of said streets where none of us would be caught dead. It’s called Brooklyn. Where a certain set of ethics that, despite being in many cases as sensible as a bike lane, have been refined to an absurdly narrow artisanal point. Suffice it to say, I spent years cultivating a life that was caricatured most vociferously by those who lived a life most like mine. I did not live that meticulously, I don’t think, though perhaps the great convenience of the city is to provide the strange reassurance of fanatics. Daum calls it a sense of entitlement, but if we’d wanted to ensure futures exactly commensurate with our privilege, the rich wouldn’t come to live as if poor, and the poor wouldn’t come to act as if rich. No one deserves any of this.
The most unspeakable part of the human ego buys the first ticket to this city. And because this part of us is potentially so humiliating, we speak of views from buildings, or regret our inconsistent patronage of museums. The city is a place to bear the secret of what makes you so goddamn special.12 Not necessarily the kind of special that makes it out of the chorus line, or climbs to the top of an industry—more like the special that shoots itself in the foot. The specialness we have in common. It’s hard to say loudly or t-shirtedly but NYC is the cumulative effect of all of us stark individuals trying to live the same life. Brooklyn is a bottleneck and a pageant, a place to make visceral distinctions between you and not-you. The city is a kind of magnifying glass for existential anxiety.
I only know one parlor game and it is looking around at young people, feeling deeply in-the-know about their being in endless, pointless distress over insufficiently expressing themselves. I don’t know what shoes you’re wearing or anything. But I know this, because it is a distress that it is my own. Watch the distinct sulk of the sidewalk’s many dudes in the get-ups of imagined success. The popular term for it is insecurity, and it is rampant. Unsure of what to say at bars or parties, we nevertheless yell it in one another’s ears. Watch someone’s face as someone else says what they wish they had said. “What do you do?” etc. Watch the men watch other men with other women. Feel the radiant suffering from a long marriage to the insane idea of life turning out a certain way.13 Do I have this right? Where else can you be wrong about as many people as possible? Where else are there this many people stiflingly similar to you to be wrong about per capita? And where else would you realize you might not be who you thought you were with such ruthless efficiency? At a party, we want to belong and not belong. Brooklyn is the place to be in order to thread this particular needle. Something strange happens to that ego-upon-arrival; once inevitably crushed, it begins a transformation into that nameless part of us that is not jealous precisely because it can’t imagine not being itself—at this party, with its tin ceilings and plastic cups, where we wanted to be invited, but did not much want to go.
Individuality and uniformity require each other—are not even proper opposites. Everything else is window dressing, I think, compared to that negotiation—undertaken at any time, on the street, at the desk, in the room—between one humanity and infinite divergence. In a place where people try to become who they most want to be, and have made discrete degrees of halting progress, the pie-in-the-face is thrown harder. Like, really hard.14 The city, finally, is an engine of self-effacement, and I guess I think everyone should bite this bullet. Have a nearly-unhealthy-sense-of shame—live in Brooklyn!
I have tried to diagnose the severity of the pathology in myself. Of course, I have tried to treat it.15 My youth was occupied by two ordinary things: working, and going out. During that time I put nearly all of my expenses on as many credit cards as would have me. Anywhere else, that would have been an all-out strategy for financing a movie having only researched the lead role: oneself. For a number of years I went out to see shows: music of multiple closely-related genres for which any term would be alienating for every reader. I remember being part of something, and then being asked to move a little further down the block if I wanted to smoke a cigarette.16 Nostalgia sanctifies and mortifies. I think of everyone I knew then tenderly, and I remember wanting to tell them, well, that essentially, but instead saying little, saying nothing, or something to later regret.17 I then returned to a corner of the room from which nothing of the stage could be seen.
Memory is an embarrassing collection of dolls made to look like you at age 21, 22, 23. The city of the past I always remember as being cold. I remember how far Kent is from the G. I remember waiting in those underground stations where one can still hear the rain; I remember the cocks and mustaches improving the wall’s advertisements. More than anything it seems I remember going home to relieve, momentarily, that great anxiety. A map in the head has its share of faces and times, but mostly it’s a map of street corners with underperforming storm drains.
It was over, for Didion, in 1967. It was on the brink of actual ruin in the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” ’70s NYC. But so eager are we to have borne witness to the city’s true heights and true decline that we will not allow history to repeat itself, not this time. So we give you the narcissism of small differences between Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Heights Crown and Prospect.18 There is a feeling that it’s actually happening this time. An inexplicably re-inflated real estate bubble, finance in recovery—it’s a miracle! But for very few people. The fundamentals are strong for a city where no one lives.
In his Kenyon College address, David Foster Wallace spoke of what he called the default setting: the tendency in people to be selfish and resentful of others—primarily whoever’s ahead of us in line. Marilynne Robinson speaks of people as “Brilliant creatures, who at a very high rate, predictably, are incomprehensible to each other,”19 and whose common failures in life did not deprive them of their essential dignity. These ideas meant a lot to me when I read them, but they’re difficult to put into operation. Both are a matter of conscience, ideas that transmit by no other method than sinking in: the perils of being centrally special, in Wallace’s case; our willful ignorance of a common grace, in Robinson’s.20 They both try to derive from the same principle a way to think of yourself and a way to treat others. New York City provides no end to people one can try this on. The human morass blocks train doors at every turn. In Brooklyn, where there are more people more like me than anywhere in the world, the preciousness of the self, of life, is held in tension. The city has disabused me of the notion that I’m special for any of the reasons I might have previously thought, and has deepened my conviction that I am utterly distinct, incapable of being otherwise, possessed of a singularly incoherent destiny, at an unbridgeable distance from you. That’s what a place does. It’s tough. It’s sort of a joke. The joke is on me, it’s about me, and I’ve done nothing but practice its delivery. The joke is all I’m ever thinking about and even so I told it wrong.
1. We throw away what clothes we brought with us and buy new ones. With no one to say “hella” to, I never said it again.↩
2. Restaurants, jackets, interest on a credit card balance that’s mostly the zombie-deadweight of cigarettes since quit.↩
3. DeLillo, L. Moore, Z. Smith, DFW; Baseball Prospectus when the print edition was a thing; research for the Jeopardy! category “Ask me about the Iraq War”; this Elizabeth David book in which she tells you the only way to clean copper cookware is with salt and a lemon wedge. No signed first editions or anything.↩
4. To what? Even in shorthand, the discourse is fraught. Gentrification: what any of us would want if we weren’t all against it.↩
5. Or in some subcategory which delimits recent emergence or rates by a secret-sauce formula or resorts to vague superlatives: Des Moines is among the “best places to live,” and it’s the “number one spot for US insurance companies.”↩
6. Let’s go full Daum and say that my W-2 has never broken $15K—which doesn’t tell the whole story. I have a loving, generous family. But wait: With UWS castles in the distance, I must specify that a tendency toward full-disclosure finances was handed down by my parents, who raised three kids on an income that never reached six figures—I saw it in the ledger they made us. Like anyone of relative privilege I take special interest in those with more: the beneficiaries in New York Times articles about parents shelling out Bohemian rent money and you-know-who in your social circle taking his sweet time between jobs. Then again, you should shed exactly zero tears for me: My girlfriend hands me cash and says, “Buy yourself something nice.” And I would not mention deaths in the family except to end this audit with thousand-dollar checks in the mail that very well might have been gone by the end of the month.↩
7. This time, it’s personal: At the end of “My Misspent Youth” Daum moves from NYC to the Midwest. In an Other People interview, she uses a metaphor to compare life in New York with that in Lincoln, Nebraska: If life is landing a plane, people in NYC are assigned just that one narrow LaGuardia runway right at water’s edge, while people in the Midwest have all the prairie on which to skid. Apparently heartland values, religion, and small-town insularity are nothing compared to the punishing rectitude of the big city. It should be known that when searching for an example of this fearlessness, Daum seemed primarily struck by the freedom with which Midwesterners get married and bear children, but, in general, the metaphor sounds about right to me. Daum did after all go there to find out for herself, which is more than what 99 percent of the coast-born would do before making comparisons of their rat race and life on the plains.↩
8. Psychedelically mirrored nail polishes and mayonnaises suspended above a carpet that never fails to sadden.↩
9. Didion’s original is a beauty, though more than anything I hold it responsible for the genre’s excesses. Her description of how her NYC tenure elapsed as “eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve” is, however, not improvable.↩
10. It is with an aching heart that I want to come up from behind this memory and knock it over the head.↩
11. I’d say roughly half of us were from or had business in this bourgeois paradise that maintains a vibrant punk scene for its sensitive teenagers.↩
12. This is not at all to imply that we are in fact special, or that everyone else is not. It’s a point I hope to complicate in a moment, but just in case let us be clear right now: what distinguishes us may be an inordinate amount of time spent thinking about whether we are indeed special, and how we would go about proving it.↩
13. “You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality” writes Zadie Smith in her NYRB essay “Find Your Beach”—of the “Where did New York Go?” genre, which overlaps “Why I Left New York.” Allow me to quibble with someone much smarter than me: She calls this aspect sociopathic, and while I recognize it in myself, I think 99 percent of us aren’t making long speeches on the nature of good and evil before leaving the execution of a secret agent to clumsy subordinates. The reality of NYC is more about having to slouch back towards sanity. We are made to realize how impossible it is to ball up and shape life whatsoever. We fail a little more publicly than one would if they lived elsewhere. A city of sociopaths in $2300 one-bedroom asylums—it’s a good joke. In fact, I imagine we think of making it every day—a commute involves a lot of cold-blooded stares. But in the end, the city is only for those with a better sense of humor than a sociopath.↩
14. Liz Lemon: “Like Jay Z says, ‘Concrete bung-hole where dreams are made-up, there’s nothing you can do.’”↩
16. I would extend this metaphor but, as a friend of mine recently put it to me: “Barf.” I still want to unpack it a little, but this next part is only for brave souls/total assholes. Certain parties coalesced around “DIY.” Unlicensed show spaces were vulnerable to every complaint, so interns had to march people down the block where they could be mistaken for incidental night life. But here’s one thing I can’t let go. Before “DIY”, people did it themselves. There were backrooms with bemused patrons, the occasional raised stage, downstairs, upstairs, small clubs with lights—like at a “concert.” Everyone helped out. They didn’t need labels or sponsors. Worthwhile to invest in a van. Drink tickets were nice. All they needed was one another. And yes, before Silent Barn there was Secret Project Robot, and before there was a really, really nice ferry slip there was a hole in the fence at the end of North 7th that led to a rocky beach looking out upon what was left of an old pier, which resembled a fossilized lower jaw, etc. My point is only then is a layer of “authenticity” draped over what’s already there.↩
17. I recently told a friend I haven’t actually seen in years that I loved her—I think, if I recall correctly, “more than words can say.” It went surprisingly well, but she’s a gracious person. This reminds me I need to visit an old friend’s new business. I love you, I’ll tell him, which is what every new small business owner wants to hear in those first days, working every shift, unsure if you’re still loved.↩
18. Though I haven’t yet left the city, I have left a twelve-year rent-stabilized apartment unambiguously within the borders of Prospect Heights, which, by the half-joking law of the jungle and Brooklyn real estate, I should have defended with tripwire and machine-gun positions.↩
19. Profile by Wyatt Mason in the New York Times Magazine.↩
20. Also, neither writer meant to break into the fortune cookie business. Part of what makes it good advice is that it doesn’t ask you to repeat easy steps. Instead, we’re talking human fellowship in one incredibly difficult step.↩