- September 1st, 2014
"...quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later--because I did not belong there, did not come from there--but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs."
-- Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That
I think I understood the concept of L.A. before I did New York. Hollywood was where they made movies, Hollywood was where famous people came from. I had to go to Hollywood. New York came later, an afterthought.
The first time I saw New York I was nineteen and had a curved barbell in my left eyebrow. I had been accepted to two schools on the East coast, none in the West, and I was visiting in April of 2009 to tour them both. When I got off the plane I saw rows of HSBC advertisements and the back of my mother, barrelling forward toward the gate, and I couldn't stop smiling. I was there no more than two weeks and yet the first time I left New York I missed it immediately. My expectations had been unfair, the city had then been an abstraction in my mind, it was where F.R.I.E.N.D.S. was from and unspeakable opportunity was to be had, but New York still amazed me.
Twenty-one to twenty-four, those were my years in New York, not the whole time, but enough. The city raised me. On my 21st birthday I took the Metro-North in from Poughkeepsie, in the nicest, most uncomplicated black dress that I owned, and black flats and two pairs of socks because it was the beginning of February. I was in the Upper East Side by six for dinner at a place that used contraptions to remove bread crumbs from the table and at Chelsea by nine to watch my first Harold Night at the Upright Citizens Brigade. It was possibly fifteen degrees Fahrenheit and there was still enough of a line that we had to wait outside for another thirty minutes to be let down the stairs into the theatre. Denise and I huddled stoically against the brick wall and the wind and when we finally got inside we sat on the floor at the corner of the stage, which was a little wet from the bottoms of people's boots, and I felt like the luckiest girl on earth.
It was hard not to feel that way in New York. When you're from nine thousand miles across the world, everything feels extra special, and the streets seem slightly more cinematic. The summer I turned 21, that is, the summer of 2011, I got an internship with The Tank and commuted three times a week to Times Square from Bushwick, where I lived with eight other kids in an apartment with six rooms. In 2011 Times Square was still exhilarating to me, and so was drinking milk out of solo cups in the morning.
During the day when I wasn't at work I'd be somewhere else in Manhattan, probably walking down an avenue or eating a macaron. I ate a lot of dessert that summer, and got really tan because every Sunday from eleven to three I would set up and take down a makeshift stage for a standup comedy show in Central Park, or Washington Square Park, or Tompkins Square Park where we would get screamed at and threatened, and during each show my role was to take photographs of the comics. In the nights we improvised songs to bongos and let Danny read our tarot cards and played beer pong on the roof. It was a bohemian cliche but since I was the one who was living that cliche, I didn't mind. Once a strange teenager threw up on our floor and we always had French visitors coming through our door. In the same night I hit the back of my skull on a pavement and lost my ID because I was so drunk, but then we went and got burgers. And early one morning towards the end of summer I couldn't sleep properly on account of all the alcohol still sitting in me like lead, so I went back up onto the roof with a thin book by Paulo Coehlo and watched the sun rise over the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the church towers of Brooklyn, reminding myself that this couldn't be forever.
In a lot of ways though I tried desperately to make it last. I was a lot hungrier back then, looked at my time there like it was life or death and the limits of my being like they had to be disregarded before I could be fulfilled. I'd hold two internships per summer (one during the school semester) and stay in the office till midnight for no pay and wake up at 3 A.M. to get to Dave & Buster's for a shoot by 4 and drag packed boxes to the Duane Street Fed Ex from West Houston. That was the summer of 2012. I got yelled at routinely by my boss and I couldn't sleep in my own bed because we had no A/C in the apartment in Prospect Lefferts and I complained about all of it in the way New Yorkers complain about the subway, I took a secret joy in the fact that I had issues such as these to complain about. The truth was I was living a well-told narrative, handed down for generations, and that was unquestionably its own reward. I would flake on appointments with friends at the last minute because I'd be stranded on 10th Avenue with a metal bar stool for a next-morning shoot but then I'd call Paul on the phone saying Paul I need you and Paul would drift in to my rescue, and at that time that was enough. At that time I didn't care about the rest. It was the feeling that in my exhaustion and despair I was securely at the tip of a path to something grander.
Along the way something changed, obviously, although I cannot identify the moment exactly. All I can say is that one afternoon in my final semester at college I was lying in some grass looking at how blue the sky was above and how nice the music felt in my ears, and I made the agreement with my parents, I was going to stay one more year, and then I was coming home.
Committing to an extreme decision made exercises in comparison moot, which was the most redeeming thing about it. "Do you wish you could stay?" people would ask and honestly I would say, "I don't know. If I was staying, my year would have been very different." And it might have not been the sort of year that would have been worth prolonging. Even to this day I like that I never thought it valuable to talk in hypotheticals.
But naturally I think about them every now and then. I think about every time I felt proud and humbled that I lived in that city. I think about the house parties where I learned how to talk to people and that people somehow seemed to like me. I think about the apartments I'd been in, working on music and wondering about art, and the truth-tellers I fell in love with and how I learned to tell the truth about my love. I think about the subway and how it was always a gamble stepping into a car, how it could unbalance me or heal me and about the one time it literally changed my life.
I was living the autonomous existence of a single writer in Brooklyn and my time was fluid and in that sense I can miss New York. I would eat leftover burritos at odd hours and there were entire days which went by where I ate exclusively pizza or fried chicken. I answered to no one, so if the weather was just right I could slip out and in, and when I wasn't work I'd be somewhere else in Brooklyn. In moments that were especially cold and dark the anonymity of the city was warm and inviting, and the vastness around you made bumping into a familiar face on Union Street or at Kimchi Grill a small miracle that elevated your day. Sometimes I think about what I left behind and about the friends carrying on.
But then I think about how I fell disillusioned with the comedy scene, found flaws with the UCB, how I hated Times Square, how no one seemed to have any time for one another, how in many ways I still felt like a child next to my peers. I had become so comfortable with the city that I took a secret joy in finally being in a position to critique it.
I think about my parents, I think about love and how it is my new principle to make decisions based on it. I remind myself that I can make art anywhere, that I can be happy anywhere, that I have to see the cathedrals in the pieces of brick. I can live many lives in one.