As I departed New York after a two year stint, people asked me what I initially desired most out of my time in America’s largest metropolis.
I told everyone I simply wanted to fall in love with New York. But even more than that, I wanted New York to fall in love with me.
Before I wax on about my time in the Big Apple, let me address the elephant in the room. Leaving New York pieces are now a cultural commodity, a dime a dozen affair. 277 people are leaving New York everyday. As a result, the number of essays chronicling the departure from this city has shot up 400 percent in the past couple of years.
Admittedly, these pieces can be an exercise in self-absorbed naivete. Believing that unparalleled transcendent struggle and discovery are confined to a place with high rents and high rises is absent of reality and undoubtedly elitist.
I jot these thoughts down noting NYC was not a profoundly transformative period where I feel my soul was reincarnated. Instead, I feel I’ve acquired a valuable Master’s degree in resiliency and determination.
The truth is, I never had any desire to be a New Yorker or live the New York City life. The West suited me. I had always envisioned spending my entire life in San Francisco. Early on, the tech douchery wasn’t daunting and the cooler summers were refreshing. My chill squad, fresh produce, low key evenings, and the fill of nature filled my jar of jam. The late nights, lavish lifestyles, concrete jungle, and bone crushing winters offered by SF’s older, more sophisticated East coast sibling never seemed appealing.
But like so many New York migrants, life’s unexpected twists and turns placed me in the city that never sleeps. My NYC story began because I rolled the dice and ventured into a new career at 30.
Within a New York minute, I was enamored by all of it: the endless supply of international eateries putting all foodcourts to shame, its distinct neighborhood vibes — the soul in Harlem, the remaining grunge in the West Village, the global aura of Queens, the stupid University of Michigan hipsters ruining Brooklyn, and bourgeois of the Upper East Side.
I was hooked by the intellectual prowess of so many of its dwellers, its numerous creative outlets, and the fire and spunk encapsulated by a typical native. This was the avenue to dig into my passion for writing, and do so on the biggest stage.
There was also the unrivaled potential of spontaneity — during my first Halloween I came home to 5,000 kids trick-or-treating on my block while Juilliard students busted out the instrumental version of the Night Before Christmas soundtrack. An hour later, I met Tony Danza.
I wanted the DNA that runs through this city to run through me. The toughness that it takes to tackle the seasons, the thrill of finding your crew that never leaves your hood, and the joy of understanding late night host jokes about the crumbling subway. I didn’t want to be swept away by the magic of the town, I wanted to create and contribute to it.
But any shot of infatuation follows with a chaser of reality. Within two weeks of moving, I lost my job and health insurance. Job prospects looked bleak and with no deep network, securing one was an arduous task. As a writer, I submitted over 50 applications for fellowships and programs only to be rejected by 49 (thanks Indian Atheist magazine for your early support). Job offers were extended and then withdrawn. Winters months were spent sporadically shutting down heat; Meals were avoided to save cash.
“New York City was a place where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.”
The hyper hustle and bustle of the city (coupled with other factors) made forming a posse difficult. In a town of nearly 10 million people, I spent my first year feeling isolated and immensely lonely. The original self-perceived vibrant landscape that was filled with an array of experiences and opportunities felt like a distant fictional concept.
In Sari Botton, Melissa Febos, Mira Ptacin, and Cheryl Strayed’s collective book Goodbye to All of That: Why Writers Love New York City (and Then Leave It) the group of writers struggle with the question: why do so many risk so much to make it in this city while enduring such an arduous life? (Bob Dylan once said, “New York City was a place where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.”)
In Ms. Febos’ opinion, many stay because, “New York is an iconic place, and of the symptoms of iconography is that we graft our identities onto that image, while borrowing the certainty of its familiar dimensions.”
Others point to the belief that New York can provide an unrivaled ecstasy of positive emotions, infinite titillating conversations, and nirvana-reaching salvation in work and/or love. And the ability to envelope insecurity into one’s ambition.
To me, all of that is true. Throngs of good-spirited humans land in NYC with thought out intentions and rational expectations. Many whose ambitions benefit us all. But what attracts so many to trek to this illustrious urban playground is an occupation, an obsession and the ability to firmly latch onto others, and conflate that with love. And what keeps many here is not realizing that none of those capture the true spirit of that feeling.
I make no judgements. I was guilty of such thoughts. Believing that finally obtaining my dream job for my dream company, working constantly at my new career path, making a growing number of friends, and more freelance writing opportunities would fill my eternal cup of joy. I was falling into the masochistic trap of trying to personify the epochal stature of the city that birthed Truman Capote, Sinatra, Jon Stewart, and Jay-Z and seen in classic films such as The Apartment, When Harry met Sally, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The Godmother of leaving New York essays is Joan Didion. Her 1967 piece titled, Goodbye to All That highlights the literists’ growing and eventually waning love for New York. As she departs it’s clear her time in New York is drained of any meaning. In it Didion muses, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
For me, it was the opposite. It was crystal clear it was time to turn a new leaf. It came with the eventual realization that bliss is procured internally, not externally. No loftier resume of accomplishments obtained in New York was going to give me that peace.
In my second year, I began to find pleasure in connecting with native New Yorkers who took me in as if I was family, starting mentoring those who wanted to advance their careers, and nights of staying at the office until 2am became less regular.
Alone time became a gift. Having the ability to walk through Central Park and take pictures for tourists will always be the best part of my NYC experience. Strolling through one neighborhood to another left me in awe in how quickly America’s biggest city can flip over into a new vibe with a new tribe. How the complexity of such an enormous urban jungle can still feel personal.
During this time by myself strutting through the city, I came to the realization that it was time to walk away from all of it. My meaning tank was not emptied, but had been filled to the brim.
So, I leave New York with an abundance of love. A discovered deep love and affection for another human being, a greater appreciation and love for those who supported me through thick and thin. And above all, love for all of myself — the warts, the works in progress, and cornerstone components of who I am. None of that would be possible without residing in the cultural Capital of the World.
I will always love New York for that.