Thursday, June 21, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Today, we are moving out of New York. Our boxes are packed; the movers are on their way. To mark the occasion, some thoughts.

***

I moved to New York City in 1999, when I was twenty-two years old. Now, twelve years later, I can’t remember what I imagined was on the other side of that move. There was graduate school on the near horizon, and maybe that was as far as I thought. I think, in the back of my mind, I planned to stay—this was, after all, where I’d dreamed of being for years; but if I did, I definitely hadn’t thought about how that would work logistically. I had no money, had never had a job besides waitressing, was young and cloistered enough to feel a measure of stability and relief when I got a work/study job with the Columbia Libraries paying $8.25/hour. I have to steal Joan Didion here: Was anyone ever so young?

I moved into an apartment in Morningside Heights, on West 118th Street, that had been assigned to me by Columbia’s housing office. I remember getting that letter, the thrill I felt at having this new home waiting, the bubbly excitement a waitress friend expressed when she said, “I love addresses that are numbers!” It seemed faraway, that new home, and it was, until I was there. Mom and Dad drove me. Fresh out of college, I had no more than a station wagon’s worth of belongings. We spent the night somewhere in New Jersey before driving into the city in the morning to move me in. I remember fearing that someone would break into our car that night, but I can’t remember what I would have worried about losing; a few Raymond Carver collections, a new pair of shoes?

I remember the day Mom and Dad left, waving to them from my front stoop and feeling like a starting gun had just gone off. I took my very first subway ride alone that day: the 1/9 to 79th Street, to a Starbucks, where I bought an iced coffee I knew I couldn’t afford, sat in a window seat, and wrote a few paragraphs of a new story. (I wouldn’t have known, then, that a few lines from those pages would one day live on in the novel my agent is currently trying to sell.)

I went to classes. I read piles of books. I wrote things. I taught. I finished graduate school with a collection of novellas, a dubious record of administrative temp work, and a history of romantic entanglements that had taught me, at the very least, what it was I didn’t want. This was no small thing.

I moved out of that apartment, eastward, to my own apartment on Manhattan Avenue, on the wrong side of Morningside Park. I took the apartment because it was the best option I could find on my miniscule budget, and it was still within walking distance of my favorite grocery store. But being on the other side of the park, looking up at Morningside Heights as though I was looking onto a previous life from a great distance, was depressing. The grocery store closed. And the teenagers who hung out on the street outside my window, screaming until the wee hours, made life there chaotic and unrestful. I got out of my lease after eleven months and moved to Brooklyn.

Finally, peace. Though my neighbors were certifiably crazy and I came to understand that the legality of my lease was shady at best, I loved my apartment on 5th Avenue in Park Slope. I loved the life I had while I lived in this apartment. I worked; I cooked; I spent hours in cafes and reading in Prospect Park. I crocheted an afghan while watching TV at night, cradled between an exposed-brick wall and a dark wood one, often falling asleep underneath the half-done afghan if I’d been to Pilates that day. I was alone—Andrew moved to Barcelona shortly after I moved in—but I was happy. This was the apartment from which I walked with a backpack to a taxi or the LIRR so many times, on my way to the airport to fly to Spain. And when Andrew and I decided to move in together in Barcelona, this is where I finally packed up my things (whatever I hadn’t sold), the place from which I drove away in a UHaul, away from the only adult life I’d ever known. For the four years I spent in Spain and then California, New York was either an ocean or a continent away.

And then—I came back. I’d always thought I would, and for the most part those years in California were spent waiting to return (until it actually came time to return—then our life in California unveiled itself as pretty nice indeed). I wasn’t returning alone, of course; we were a family of three now, and my new Brooklyn life looked a lot different than the one I’d left four years earlier. There were very few cafes in this life, and zero afternoons spent reading in the park. There were, on the other hand, countless playground trips and a new familiarity with the sidewalk cracks and stoops and window grates we passed on countless walks. Our parlor-level brownstone apartment—our final New York City residence—was easily the nicest place either of us had ever rented, and being Park Slope parents was fun. But there’s always danger in returning to a beloved place you left behind.

At some point between leaving my brick-walled, single-girl apartment and returning four years later to another Park Slope apartment just a few blocks away, New York life changed for me. Difficult had once been romantic; it wasn’t anymore. I remember being at a Laundromat once in Harlem, this must have been in 2003 or 2004, when a wild-running child knocked my open detergent bottle into my open suitcase (in which I had to pull my laundry to and from home). I had to stand with my suitcase in my shower to wash it all out, and when I recounted this incident to a friend, in it she saw confirmation that she could never live in New York. I found the opposite moral: New York was where things like this happened, and it was hard, and dirty, but all worth it in the end. Walking down wind-tunnel blocks in high heels in winter to get to the subway—relishing the subway’s warmth, the unspoken camaraderie in windswept hair—painfully cold, but part of it, too. Roaches the size of small mice; rats running across the sidewalk; preachers’ voices intensifying the noise in subway stations; hauling groceries multiple blocks; chance encounters; conversations overheard—all part of it.

There were moments when an electric bolt of love for New York would actually make my chest swell, as palpable an infatuation as anything I’d ever experienced from a love affair: when I’d be swept up in a crowd rushing to a train in Times Square, or hear an opera singer’s practice session echoing down my air shaft in Morningside Heights during a downpour, or realize that a person in a neighboring seat on the subway was reading the same New Yorker article that I was. On late-night taxi rides home from La Guardia after holiday trips or weekends away, when the city would come into view, I’d feel an intense relief at my homecoming, utterly at peace as I rode up Amsterdam Avenue, where the shops were gated up for the night and the traffic lights seemed to turn green just as we drove through them. It was home, and for a long time it was everything I’d ever wanted.

When did I-love-this-city anecdotes give way to I-can’t-do-this-anymore? At first, when we came back, things were lovely, ensconced as we were in our temporary housing at Trump Place, steps from Riverside Park; Lucia and I spent our days traipsing around the Upper West Side and dancing to buskers in Central Park just like I’d imagined we would. And if it was actually pretty impossible to navigate Zabar’s and Fairway with a stroller, well, I’d get used to it, surely. Surely I would. And $13 loads of laundry at Trump would, I knew, come to an end when we found an apartment.

So it wasn’t the beginning that flicked the switch. But maybe it was the first time I hauled Lucia in a stroller down the subway steps. Maybe it was after Lucia started walking, and I understood for the first time that the grit of the city streets would coat her from head to toe after our walks. Maybe it was our first winter here in 2010, an insanely snowy winter, when I’d bundle us out of the house out of desperation to do something only to have Lucia scream mournfully when the frigid wind hit her face. She wasn’t an eager walker that winter, refusing most of the time to even move at the playground, and once she sat promptly down in a slush puddle when I turned away for a second. Once we went out only to find upon our return that our stoop steps had become so icy that I couldn’t get enough traction to pull the stroller up. I got up eventually, tearful and terrified the entire time that I’d slip and send Lucia tumbling back down, or break one of my own limbs. So yes, maybe it was that winter.

Or maybe it was those two months we spent in Mountain View in the fall of 2010, just two months after we moved back to NYC—a reminder of what that other life was, or could be, like. Quiet. Slow. This was probably the craziest, most intense time Andrew’s ever had at work, yet somehow our life felt easier, breathable. We were supposed to be there for three weeks; we wound up staying seven, and we were sorry to leave.

But I think what really did it for me was everything that came after that. I got pregnant in February of 2011, and from the get-go city life ceased to amuse. Being pregnant while being a stay-at-home mom to a toddler is exhausting. Being pregnant while being a stay-at-home mom to a toddler while living in NYC, when getting ready to go outside, walking to our destination, managing the toddler at that destination, and then walking home requires about a week’s worth of a pregnant woman’s energy (and that occupied us only till noon! the whole afternoon remained!), is so cruel and unusual that it’s shocking Park Slope is filled with as many two-plus-kid families as it is.

Everything was harder. The summer was so hot, yet I’d slather us up with sunscreen and haul us to the park on most days. Sometimes I’d let Lucia walk the entire way there—it could take us over an hour—but walking slowly saved me. Of course, as the pregnancy progressed, even walking half a block could send me into contractions. When walking is painful, living in the city is painful. And then I was hospitalized—not so much because I was in imminent danger but because if I found myself in imminent danger, I wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital in time since I lived too far away. Park Slope is eight miles from the hospital. But in city-distance, that’s life-threatening. So maybe this pregnancy is what did it after all. There was nothing romantic about any aspect of these city-bred inconveniences.

And then Greta came home, and getting outside—an increasingly urgent requirement once Lucia hit her high-energy toddlerdom—became a feat of organization rivaling packing for an international journey. Changing diapers. Nursing Greta. Packing snacks. Packing who knows what all else. And then we’d get where we were going and Greta would start crying, or Lucia would refuse to walk home, and I’d wind up pushing a stroller with one hand while heaving Lucia home under my arm and realize I no longer even noticed what cafes I was passing, that it had been over three years since I’d strode anywhere in high heels, and that the high-rent-for-great-location equation wasn’t balancing out for me anymore.

But for a long time, it balanced easily, and I couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else. I have stories like this:

The winter before I left New York, the winter of 2005, there was a transit strike across the city. No buses or subways were running. The only ways to get to work were to take a taxi, or to walk. I walked. It was cold, and snowy, but I set out early in the morning and walked from Park Slope to Union Square, shoulder to shoulder with other Brooklyn commuters. It was exhilarating. I walked home, too, the winter evening dark and cold, and on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge the Red Cross had set up tables with hot chocolate, and Marty Markowitz, the borough president, was standing there with a microphone, shouting, “You’re back in Brooklyn now! Everything’s okay!” to the commuters as though we were returning from battle. I was wearing a red faux-fur coat and a fur-lined hat that fastened under my chin, and I took a hot chocolate and even at that moment knew I’d always remember how I felt stepping off the bridge that night, Manhattan twinkling behind me, so happy to be where I was, unable to imagine a better place, another life, even though my toes were numb and I’d walked ten miles that day.

And this:

In October of 2001, I attended, as I used to do every year, the Blessing of the Animals Mass at St. John the Divine. The church was full of dogs and cats and birds, every seat taken; I’d waited in line for a ticket. The Mass was spectacular, with dramatic puppetry and beautiful music, moving on an ordinary day, let alone so close to 9/11. At the very end of Mass, the pastor returned to the pulpit and announced that the first bombs had been dropped on Afghanistan. Then the church’s massive bronze doors opened, and the final Procession of the Animals began—birds of prey, farm animals, bees in a glass box, each accompanied by a robed handler who had tears streaming down his or her cheeks. At the end were rescue dogs who’d been working at Ground Zero, clad in their bright vests, with wreaths around their necks. The animals processed slowly, nobly, peacefully, as the people in the aisles sobbed over the beginning of the war.

And even this:

For a while during and after graduate school I was a personal assistant for the wife of an investment-banking CEO. From the thirty-ninth floor of a midtown office looking out grandly over Central Park, I “wrote” correspondence from her dog to other dogs. I once stepped on and off a digital scale for an hour or so to “break it in.” I transcribed the instructions she left for her assistants on microcassettes, including a long rant one day about a discontinued cutlery line that had sent her into a flurry over how she could get more fish forks. When she went away to their home in France, I packed up large FedEx packages of baked beans and Uncle Sam’s cereal. This was a window into another kind of New York life.

These are sentimental stories; but for a long time, stories like this were reasons to stay forever. Now, however, though they’re obviously not reasons to leave, they seem like brightly colored breadcrumbs on a path I stopped following a long time ago. That path led me to Andrew and Spain and California, and the path I found myself on when we returned to New York never quite lined up with that one in quite the same way.

I’m thirty-five now. I was twenty-two when I moved to New York, twenty-nine when I left in 2006. Of course the paths don’t line up. The time is split into a before and after: when I left, I was still just me, high heels and the Sunday Times at a bakery and international trips planned spontaneously and packed for lightly. Now, when I let one of my children cry for one extra second so I can grab a snack to keep me from passing out—so nearly impossible these days that I’ve resorted to spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar—what comes into my head every single time is the FAA’s guideline about putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Sometimes the days seem like fights for survival—but there’s happiness in this, too, when I can sink down on the couch after bedtime and take a second to finally feel it. It’s the ordinary days that make the life.

Maybe that’s it right there. Ordinary days in my old life—grabbing a coffee and donut from a cart then people-watching in Union Square; spending a Saturday gallery-hopping in Chelsea; catching every single exhibition to come through the Guggenheim and MoMA—were what made it New York for me. Ordinary days now—feeding, diaper-changing, playground-going, playdate-having—are, for me, made difficult by the cramped quarters and city crowds. These ordinary days need a different backdrop. These ordinary days need a gigantic, pristine, uncrowded Whole Foods, a driveway, and a big backyard.  

I trust that the day will come when I can once again make it through a day without being spit up on or hand-stamped with strawberry jelly; I trust the day will come when Andrew and I can once again plan a big, exciting trip (perhaps with two small extra passengers this time, thrilled and wide-eyed over new places, new experiences). But even when the girls are older, the base of our life will no longer be New York; this isn’t just a move for the baby years. It’s a permanent change. Our life will involve New York—it is, after all, just a thirty-minute train ride away—but at the end of whatever nice day or evening we spend there, we’ll hop on the train once again and come home.

From 1999 to 2012, I had thirteen years of city life with a four-year blip of expatriatism and suburbia in the middle. And now this is it. I’m heading out of New York for good this time, a dog-eared chapter finally closed. Oh, maybe Andrew and I will come back one day, after we’re done spending our money on goldfish crackers, college, and weddings. Maybe we’ll rent a lovely little apartment on the Upper West Side and spend Sunday mornings reading the paper on a bench in Central Park, smug middle-aged urbanites. Who knows where we’ll be three decades from now, what we’ll want? Who knows what New York will even be like?

For now, we’re leaving. It’s the end of something, the beginning of something. The end of everything, the beginning of everything. The girls won’t remember their time in New York, but I’ll remember mine. I’ll remember all of it.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful
--Laura A

Jennifer said...

Ah, I remember the transit strike so well. I biked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the ice storm to deliver my last paper to grad school. Some cop wrote me a ticket for riding on the sidewalk along Navy Street.Yeah.Who knows what's in store of us next? I can certainly relate.Thanks for this slice of real life.

Kristi said...

Aw. This just made me cry on the midtown direct!!! Welcome to maplewood...... Kristi

Anonymous said...

Great piece. I moved to Nyack over a year ago from being 17 years in NYC. You really captured this time, and got me thinking about how I should have taken some timd to reflect on my own transition. Really lovely piece. So glad you shared it.

Lisa Stein said...

Beautifully written. Reminds me the old life isn't there for me anymore. Time to move on...

Brunocerous said...

Wonderful. Thanks for writing this.

As a native New Yorker who has lived all over the U.S. over the course of a decade, I can comiserate. Now, I'm in Brooklyn, with a partner and two children, and these things weigh on my mind every day. Glad I'm not the only one.