Everyone can tell you how to move to New York, how to dress, where to shop, where to get a cocktail. But almost no one will tell you how to leave. Leaving the city is a very particular shame that is never mentioned, except with a small sigh of pity, of longing, until the subject changes. The Johnsons got pregnant and moved to New Rochelle. I hear they’re well, but we haven’t really kept in touch.
Preparing to leave, then, is a daunting and lonely task. When I moved to New York several years ago, there were slaps on the back, congratulations (as though I’d already accomplished something noteworthy), and advice. Even when I went back to Colorado, where I grew up, for Christmas each year, my mother and father would introduce me differently. This is our son Casey, who lives in NEW YORK CITY.
The world is proud of you for coming here, but less sure what to think when you leave. Search in any bookstore, and there are dozens of books on how to live in the city. And every uncle, friend, and passerby has something to offer. Make sure you try Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn, it’s the only pizza in New York I’d eat. Or, don’t buy your suits at Bloomingdales – you can find the same thing at Century 21, though you’ll have to fight the crowds. Every corner or detail of the city is claimed by someone, somewhere, as their own.
The only reliable voice I have ever found on leaving the city came from Joan Didion in her 1967 essay Goodbye to All That, which begins: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” I remember when New York began for me, several years ago. I had moved out to stay with a friend for a few weeks before beginning my job working for an NGO at the United Nations. The size of everything was astounding, and so were the prices. I remember getting lost trying to find my way to the headquarters of the organization where I would work, and calling them trying to explain why I was late, but being too embarrassed to say and making something up. I had confused west for east, and thus Riverside Park for Central Park, and the Hudson River for the Jackie O Reservoir. I realized my mistake and took a bus across the park, arriving at the office an hour late. I was briefed by my future boss, after which I hurried to the nearest Duane Reade and bought a pack of cigarettes, my first in years, and smoked three to calm down. It seemed like a city where nothing less than perfection would be tolerated. Was anyone ever so young?
As the months passed by I grew used to the pace, and no longer confused west for east, rivers for reservoirs. Everyone who has moved to New York remembers the first time someone stops them on the street to ask for directions and they are able to give them. With time I felt the deep satisfaction of ritual, familiar rumble of the subway under my feet as I walked down Lexington with my morning coffee, the late night rowdy crowds that would gather at JG Melons on Fridays, just down the street. I came to expect the flowers on Park to magically appear one day in April as though constructed by a team of elves in the night. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite hipster bar, the best cheap museums and free events for Saturday nights.
I got used to the late night parties, the blend of red wine or bourbon and cigarette smoke. And someone would usually have access to the rooftop, and so we would make our way up and point out the buildings we knew and watch the city lights reflecting on the river. Or if it was cold we would stay inside and pour another round of gin and tonics, the clinking glasses mixing with chatter of names of friends who we were all supposed to know but who had gone off to study medicine at Harvard or taken that job in London. They always went to Harvard or to London, never to Rutgers or Kansas City. And this just added to the surreality of the city. These weren’t real people, and these aren’t real places.
This seems to be a permanent fixture of New York. That it is a mirage more than a life, at least for those of us who have come from somewhere else. Didion mentions the surreal quality:
You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May. For that reason I was most comfortable with the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disciplined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California.
In my case, Colorado.
But New York, more so than other places, is a city of extremes. The ups are high and the downs are low – and they come upon you suddenly. Not too long after I got here, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and then Fanny and Freddy. Friends from Colorado called to ask if people were jumping off tall buildings on Wall Street. I expected they were. And all those earnest and confident young men and women, filling their crisp suits and their sleek offices, began to disappear. First those in finance filtered out of the city, and then the architects and the real estate workers, then the lawyers. Familiar faces at events and parties would be noticeably absent. Suddenly people were going to Rutgers and Kansas City. Elizabeth moved back to Houston to live with her parents. Jimmy lost his apartment and is staying with his uncle in Delaware. NYU Law got a record number of applications this year so Tommy didn’t get in. He took a job at a restaurant in Queens.
Suddenly we weren’t quite so young or quite so entitled. Suddenly the paradise of New York was preparing to cast many of us out. Were we unworthy? Where did we go wrong? This was something that no one had prepared us for.
And I am still not prepared to leave, now that my job has ended, my lease expiring in two weeks, my next job starting in a different city, a different world. Where does one go after living in such a place? No one seems to know. Didion decided one day that she had stayed too long at the fair, and simply left. Perhaps, one day or another, that is what it is like for us all.
Perhaps the best advice on leaving the city came from a friend of mine (we’ll call him John) who has recently left himself. John had a prestigious job with Citigroup until the financial disaster, when they shed a number of high level positions, including his. He stayed in the city, applying for a number of different jobs, interviewing at dozens of places but getting no offers. Eventually he lost his apartment. He moved back to his family’s home upstate, and I didn’t see or hear much from him for about 6 months. His was the fearsome sort of story we only whispered about.
But in those months he started taking classes toward his M.B.A. and is now working on starting a small business. Several months ago he proposed to his longtime girlfriend. It seemed that his job at Citi, his large apartment, and his ambition had been the things keeping him from doing so. Last Saturday, they were married.
The wedding took place at the Union Club on the Upper East Side. I sat at a table with a crisp, white table cloth and more tiers of silverware than I had any idea what to do with. The evening was presided over by the portraits of former presidents who’d been members of the club hanging on the walls. I clinked my glass with that famous movie director and writer, the one who writes such witty dialogue about detachable collars. Everyone wore immaculate clothes and talked about their important friends who do interesting things. It was one of those evenings that can only happen in New York, the kind you dream about when you learn you are coming to the city.
And yet I could not help but think about something John had said to me several months ago, when he had just gotten engaged. While we nursed our bourbons, he warned me about believing the fairy tale of New York, as he had done for so many years. There is the pressure to succeed, to have the right job and the right clothes, to have the right person on your arm, he said. And as much as I want those things, there is a difference between the demands of this city, and my actual life. And getting my life in order has made me see that those demands are kind of silly by comparison.
And so, surrounded by the portraits and the champagne in the crystal glasses and the suits and bowties and gowns, we all got up to dance. It was a scene meant to make an impression. But John was not impressed. Like Didion, he had finally seen that all the pomp and society was really just an illusion, a Xanadu where one does not live, one merely visits. He began to dance with his wife knowing that none of this was real. Except for her.