Text Story Collection
I have a complicated relationship with New York City. When I first moved there I was young and there was no other place I wanted to be. Smitten in the way that belongs to the young, I wrote bad poetry and read good poetry in praise of it. I collected and read and re-read books about the history of the City or that use the City as a backdrop or a foil. I loved flying in over the vast grey landscape of artificial canyons and fabricated mountains as I returned to what I thought of as "home" when I came back from work trips or family vacations. I was mystified by people who wanted to live anywhere else, and extolled the virtues of what I thought of as "my City" to anyone that did not walk away.
Needless to say, there are many people who still feel that way. Some of them are good and old friends of mine.
Also needless to say, my views about the City shifted.
The reasons are many and varied, and took several years to fully assert themselves, but for a lot of reasons I started to feel crushed by the relentlessness of the city, and I started to resent many of the things that I had previously celebrated. Important to note that the city itself did not change, of course, it never does. Or rather, it is constantly changing in the same ways over and over again. What shifted were my own feelings about where I was, physically and existentially. Most importantly, I started to think about where I wanted to be and how that fit into my life where I was and I realized that there was a disparity between those two points.
In 2006 I moved out of the city, feeling like I was able to breathe again for the first time in years (my wife did not share that feeling of deep relief, and it was and remains a topic of discussion). Moving to Providence, Rhode Island was a joyful experience for me, and I thought that I was at last free of the concrete shackles of New York City.
Except my emotional DNA had been irrevocably altered by a decade in New York. There is something about the city that got under my skin, that burrowed down through flesh and sinew right to my bones, and then dug deeper, into my marrow, where it took hold and has not released its sharp grip even now. Though I emphatically do not want to return long-term to that place, I even now can not escape what Thomas Wolfe calls "the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go." Having spent time there, having met my wife and gotten married, having made a great many friends and forged experiences that shaped me, I am to this day connected to this place I have so little desire to be.
In some ways I still think the way a lot of New Yorkers think, that it is the center of all things, and that all other cities want to be like it. It would be hard for me to move to Boston, say, or Los Angeles, because if you are going to live in a city why wouldn't you choose the City so nice they named it twice? Everything else is just second place, an "also-ran."
I fully recognize how broken this thinking is. And, as I say, I have no desire to return. Flying in this past weekend, looking down at those same grey canyons and fabricated mountains that used to fill me with joy and pride I had to suppress a shudder. I felt a flash of thanks for having escaped, and for having a different home to go to when I flew back out and a flash of dread at the knowledge that I would be inhabiting these concrete canyons for a day and a half. Six years later the feelings that City evokes are strong and complicated.
Perhaps the most important thing leaving the City did for me was that it gave me a feeling of power over my own decision making. I had gotten into a way of thinking that had a lot of rigid (and self-imposed) rules about behavior and consumption and my ability to have my own hand on the tiller of my own destiny. When I left, I felt that I had been given a chance to re-write all of the rules, to wrest control of the tiller away from the forces that had been directing it and take control of it myself. Sometimes we really do need dramatic change of locality to remind us about the power that we do have over our own lives and over our decision making.
Moving away from the City did that for me, and it has so far proved to be a lasting lesson, one that I have been working to keep in the forefront of my mind. We have so many external forces prodding us to abdicate control of our decision-making: Social customs, familial behavior patterns, corporate desire to sell us things, a collective commitment to equating value with cost. If we can calm the maelstrom and step back and really look at the decisions we make and really pay attention to the factors that are causing us to make them, we often find that we alter the way we make those decisions and often we alter what those decisions are.