Last October, I returned to New York for work. The day I arrived I stood in an elevator and listened to a tall dark woman lament about having to move out of Manhattan. "I mean, I can't even stand the idea. I have everything here! A 24-hour printer, a 24-hour manicurist..." I hid my smirk in my scarf. Those 3am manicures! Those late night Kinko's runs! I know some people live different hours, but 24-hour manicurists? (My neighbor here in Cincinnati works the night shift at the Amazon fulfillment warehouse, though I still can't picture her getting a 3am manicure.)
The man she was talking to shook his head, "yup, you got the best of everything here." Another smirk, deeper in my scarf. I thought of my happy little house on the edge of the creek. The flit of birds at the feeder. Each person has his own version of best. I stepped out of the elevator and tripletted my way into the subway. I pulled out my book and smiled again at the echo of the man's words: The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe. In it, a young secretary has just been shown a dirty picture by the ticket man in the subway. I looked around me. People teetered over the edge of the platform, waiting for the train. A man with a shopping cart piled high with his belongings and antique crosses stood barefoot on a piece of cardboard, bending over an open book in prayer. I stood watching him, considering his prayer, wondering how he ended up there. One of the platform waiters walked into my field of vision, trying to break my gaze from the praying man. This is not what we do here. Don't look. Don't look at this dirty picture.
Little did they know I was praying with him.
I spent the week packing in as many friends as possible amidst a week of work. I visited I Hate Perfume and bought slightly overpriced pine-scented "home spray." I found a prized Nazz album at a Brooklyn flea mall. I ate Persian food and drank copious gin fizzes and large glasses of wine in dim and dimmer bars and photographed my parents leaping in front of brightly colored trees in Prospect Park. I tickled a friend's baby and scarfed down a pork bun in a crowded fancy restaurant's Brooklyn outpost. I visited the first restaurant I ever went to when I lived in New York, still there, and ordered the very same steak salad, still on the menu, and still as tasty. I turned in my seat as the Q train emerged from the tunnel onto the Manhattan Bridge. As I always did. Rituals from my own New York past.
On my last night in the city, I met Masha, a retired actress, on a white couch beneath an overgrown palm tree in an apartment in Washington Heights. I told her that I was a writer when we were talking about careers in the arts, and why she gave up hers, and as we were commiserating over money issues she said "You know what you should read? There's this book called Goodbye To All That. I'm reading it now."
I nodded and shouted that the book was in my bag, bookmarked by my MetroCard, fresh of the top of the stack of them at Greenlight Bookstore ("Do you have a Greenlight loyalty card?" "No, I've said goodbye to all this." "..." "Sorry, bad joke." "No, nice use of the title. Where do you live now?" "Cincinnati." "I just moved here, two months ago." "Where from?" "Phoenix." "Wow, that's quite a change. Well, hello to all this for you...")
Masha's was the story of the native New Yorker: she grew up a block from the Chelsea Hotel (Patti Smith's New York in Just Kids "those stale donuts she describes? I used to drool over those stale donuts!"), and we sat on the white couch under the overgrown palm tree and talked about how sad we were about what New York had become and she said "I know but you're lucky that you have somewhere else that feels like home. What else do I have?"
When I first heard about this book, I was furiously jealous I didn't get to write one of the essays. I could write this essay. I HAVE written this essay. I didn't read any of the essays at first that were being flung around the internet because I knew it would heighten my jealousy. Then Emily linked to Rebecca Woolf's So Long, Suckers and in a fit of weakness I read. And I shook. And I nodded so violently my head hurt. Because here was exactly how I felt, perhaps a bit angrier than I was at the city, but just as betrayed. Emily said that she would have loved to have read my essay for this book, and I wrote to her that if the Woolf essay was any indication, then anything I might have to say was already said in this book. And oh how it was. Multiple women refer to New York as "the ex." Elisa Albert, bless her, even mirrors my insane obsession with malls after first leaving the city. Editor Sari Botton's rent-stabilized situation, the ball-and-chain that keeps so many of us there (but you have such a great apartment!) for far too long, matched mine so nearly that I had to look in the mirror after reading it just to make sure I was me. There are those who felt complacent staying too long, those who said the city was no longer their city...
Masha the retired actress echoed Emma Straub's frustration with people from anywhere but New York saying they are New Yorkers. "You know what I say?" said Masha "I ask them where they went to high school," a refrain that sounded deliciously familiar to me from conversations among natives in Cincinnati. I never was a New Yorker. I never even pretended to be, though I may have behaved at one time like someone's expectation of one. But I was always an Ohioan. And I always had Ohio to come back to.
On the train back to the hotel (dear god, a hotel in New York! With the dark window overlooking a shaft and the bloodstains on the top corner of the mattress where the sheet is coming loose) there was a man on that very very cold night begging for money, walking up and down the subway car in a T-shirt and bare feet exposing one missing toe, saying "Please help. God bless everybody. Please help. God bless everybody. Please help." Before collapsing near the subway doors and holding his head in tears. I suddenly couldn't remember if I'd seen him before, if he was one of the ones hardened New Yorkers tell you to ignore, or if he really needed my help, and for a moment I considered what might happen if I took his hand and took him to buy shoes.
Back at the hotel I called J and told him about the man on the subway and he said how different it must be to see a guy like that when you live there and you have money, versus living in Ohio and worried about how you'll pay for your plumbing issues.
So many essays in Goodbye To All That begin with stepping over bodies. And I left New York that time, not remembering if I'm supposed to step over the body or not. Or if it's my body being stepped over.
A year later, I returned again for work. This time I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn, on a brownstone-and-tree-lined street butting up against the back of the bandshell in Prospect Park. On my first day there, I pickled something. The mornings when I commuted into work, I saw so many children with parents walking them to school that I thought they were actual field trips. We ate bahn mi from the Vietnamese place on 7th Ave, and at night I watched the distant Empire State Building changing colors. I walked through Columbus Park in Chinatown and sat on a bench eating dumplings and listening to the sounds of Cantonese and Chinese Chess and erhus. I marveled at the tops of skyscrapers. I even talked with strangers on the subway.
I was more at peace with the city than I’d ever been.
Of course there were still times I lost my patience. I had a cab driver who drove too fast and made me nervous. I witnessed more than a few fights among strangers. After a Bryant Park lunch with an old co-worker, he accidentally led us through Times Square, and more than several times I was bumped, shuffled, blocked, spun around, to the point where I found myself standing still and screaming to the heavens. I’d lost my New York mojo.
There was something significantly different about this trip, and I realized that I had let go of any idea of this city as mine in the present: it was someone else’s city now. The gaggles of young kids standing in line for a club on the Lower East Side, a line through which we cut like a picket line after karaoke. “I could be their mother,” I said as we stood on the curb, watching their eagerness. The throngs of young professionals who now clogged the entrance of my office building, names I’d never know, editorial assistants who would one day soon rise to publishing stardom. Even most of the people I love who still live in the city were talking about their plans to leave it, and I realized that they were more or less my last ties there, and it now belonged to someone else.
My place was taken. I embraced the fact that I was nothing more than a tourist now.
On the Friday of my last weekend in the city, I was forced again to walk through Times Square to get to the train that would take me back to the brownstone-and-tree-lined streets of Brooklyn. I lamented it over the phone to J, who understood what I meant. Times Square was the worst torture ever held over the heads of resident New Yorkers.
But that’s not who I was any more.
I walked down 42nd street and looked at the street artists doodling caricatures of European and midwestern tourists. And then I saw him: an artist sculpting a bearded man out of clay. He moved his hands quickly and expertly, adding and subtracting gray mounds where the beard began to take shape. The subject’s friend stood to the side watching.
“This is amazing,” I said.
“Isn’t it?” His friend said. “He could work really fast and churn out hundreds of these but he’s really taking his time on each one. My buddy’s been here over half an hour.”
I decided I would be his next subject. After the bearded man and his buddy left, I sat on the little folding stool, possibly the first time I’d ever sat still on 42nd street instead of attempting to pierce my way through the throngs as quickly as possible.
The artist, whose name was Lin, had studied at the art academy in China. He hadn’t sculpted for 30 years, but decided to pick it up again last year.
“All people are artwork,” he said.
“Awkward?” I misheard.
“Artwork,” he repeated.
I told him my favorite number in Chinese was “er shi er” - 22, because I liked the sound of it. He then told a story in Mandarin to his neighboring vendor, during which I heard “er shi er” repeated a few times.
“Do you understand me?” he said in English.
“Not really,” I admitted, and so he repeated the story for me as he sculpted.
He had been gambling in China, and he sat at a roulette table. The dealer spun the wheel and then the ball, and it landed on 22. Nobody had won. But Lin had $300 left in his pocket, and at the table behind him, he said he heard the wheel spinning, making the same noise as the losing wheel in front of him had made. At both tables the dealer had started the opposite spin of the ball on the number “2,” and as Lin listened, he knew that the same sound (“chchchch” he imitated the whirl of the roulette wheel) meant that the ball would land on 22. He placed his bet, and he won.
“You mentioned 'er shi er,' which makes me think of this story,” said Lucky Lin.
Two women stood over his shoulder the entire time, commenting on his progress. “Oh my GOD that NOSE, that’s JUST like her nose.” “See that bump there on her cheek? He even got that right oh my GOD!” These women delighted me so much I kept laughing, until Lin reminded me to turn my head and resume my pose.
And so I sat still, for half an hour, looking a stranger in the eyes as he studied my face, and all the people trying to pierce the throngs of 42nd street passed by and commented on the progress of his artwork. When he finished, he turned to show it to me, and I saw myself at 38, exactly as I look. He even got the crease in my forehead, carved by years of anxiety, just right. In his rendition of me, I’m smiling the smile of someone who has been down a few roads, but is fine with where they all led her, and is now sitting in a place she never thought she’d sit still in, laughing with strangers.
I was there in the place I thought I hated most in a city that was no longer mine, listening to the sound of the spinning roulette wheel. And I knew then that I could finally beat the house by just stopping to listen.
Never Can Say Goodbye, the counterpart to Goodbye To All That, comes out today. And I can’t wait to read it, because I’m finally in the place where I’m happy to read about someone else’s city, a city that is part of my past, a city I said goodbye to long ago, ready to make my own mark in another great city. I’m lucky I had somewhere else to go, another place I could call mine. To those of you who loved and lost your New York: I'm so sorry. Honestly. To those of you who now embrace New York to the fullest, just as it is: please, it’s yours. I've vacated my spot, I'll accept whatever changes you make to it. Allow me this: just to pass through slowly, as a tourist again, head up, marveling at the tops of skyscrapers.