There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to decide where he wants to live. I’ve spent the last nine years living away from NYC, though I always long to return. But the NYC I used to know—yes, cue up the elegiac tone and dirges—isn’t the place it once was, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except there is sort of something wrong with that. For a young man fresh out of high school, NYC was exciting and terrifying and also a city I’d always dreamed of living in and never ever expected to leave. But in 2007, after another six years post-9/11—I’m pretty sure I still have PTSD because of seeing that second plane strike the second tower—I left to take an adjunct teaching position at GWU in DC, but then I left a semester later because DC wasn’t NYC and I went down to Austin to visit friends and applied for a position at Gettysburg College as the Emerging Writer Lecturer, which I ended up getting, so I spent a year in Gettysburg, traveling back and forth to NYC because Gettysburg was a little sleepy, four hours each way, but it was well worth it because I met a guy while I was staying in Kate’s apartment in Greenpoint (she was generous enough to offer it because she herself was in the process of leaving the city) and began this wonderful romance with him, which then took us to Berlin (he was German and needed to go home; expiring visa, etc.).
I could write an entire novel about that experience—actually, I kind of did and that’s the novel I ended up writing in Atlanta, but I’m getting ahead of myself—but suffice to say that while in Berlin I did some writing and worked on some short stories, which I’m still rewriting today, some six years later. While I liked Berlin, it was also not NYC, and I kept longing to go back there, as did my bf, who had spent ten years in the city, also missing it, although he loved Berlin, not as much as I did, because, like I said, it wasn’t NYC—but what, I began to wonder, does that even mean? What does it mean for a place not to be NYC?
For one thing, it means that you don’t have access to myriad opportunities the second you step out your door—the thing about NYC is, once you do step out your door, you’re instantly part of the fabric of the city. You are one with it, on a good day, and at complete odds with it, on a bad one, but you’re still a part of it regardless. I never feel that way about any other place I’ve lived, whether it’s Berlin or DC or Gettysburg or Durham or Austin or San Antonio or Atlanta or Hudson or anywhere else. I’ve lived in a thousand places since leaving NYC in 2007 and what I’ve come to see is that comparing any of these places to NYC was both unfair to the place but it was even more unfair to me. No one told me that I had to leave NYC; it was my decision to go. And yet had my writing career afforded me the money and the time to write, to pay my rent, to buy my groceries, etc., then perhaps I would have stayed. Or not. The thing is, who wants to spend half of his wages on rent? NYC is a city that takes as much as it gives, but back in 2007 I felt as if that equation was completely out of balance and that it was taking far more than it was giving. For lack of a better metaphor, it was becoming a demanding, shrill, petulant, needy child who wanted to eat $15 sandwiches and wash them down with $3 sodas, who wanted to live in nicer and nicer neighborhoods except that those neighborhoods had become utterly overpriced and unaffordable. Children know exactly what they want, but because NYC is a special child with special needs I don’t think it understood what it was doing or has done to those of us who took care of it, who loved and nurtured it while we were living there. I don’t think it understands that the tantrums it threw and continues to throw in the name of progress has made it more or less a city of have-nots. And the terrible thing is, I don’t think the child that is NYC cares anymore. I think it did at one time, but I also think it let capitalism, unchecked and poisonous, get to its pretty head.
I call this the Re-Awning of the City—I first noticed this shift way back in 2007, actually, when businesses all over Red Hook, where I was living at the time, began to put up new awnings. One day, the old, tattered awnings were gone and bright new ones were installed in their places. I should have known that this was the first stage in a massive shift toward gentrification, toward rent hikes the likes of which we’ve never seen, toward an unregulated greed that has forever damaged and changed irrevocably the landscape of the city I loved. There is no going back to the rents of the late 90s, when I was living in a studio apartment in the East Village for $685/month. Now, $685/month might get you a room in Canarsie or Brownsville, though those rooms, cramped, tiny, probably go for $1,200 if I’m being honest.
NYC is still the place I want to live, but it’s also the place, when I visit, that I can’t wait to leave. It’s not that it’s dirty or too loud or the people are rude, it’s simply that the same $15 sandwich tastes just as good for $7.50 elsewhere.
This morning, my mother called to tell me that she had the greatest breakfast ever and to thank me for sending her the chocolate and cinnamon babka from Zabar’s (www.zabars.com). My mother has a chronic lung disease that makes it difficult for her to breathe, for her to do much of anything, and I knew that receiving babka from a Jewish deli in NYC would lift her spirits. She’s from Long Island and probably won’t ever see NYC again, though she talks about going back there. So I brought a little of NYC to her, just as I bring a little of NYC back to me as I write this from a little cottage in San Antonio, Texas, a place, my mother said, when I told her I was looking at houses today, that I disliked. She was surprised to hear that I was actually thinking of buying a house here, and to be honest so am I. I grew up in this city and couldn’t wait to leave. The thing is, the cost of living is extremely low here and houses still go for a song. They won’t always, though, as the housing market in Austin continues to explode, forcing more and more people to rethink their finances, as Californians continue to pour into Austin all the time, jacking up rents by buying multi-million dollar homes and investing in the re-awning of what used to be a small, sleepy town that looks more and more like a smaller version of LA every day. It’s sad. And kind of gross what’s happened to Austin. I doubt very seriously that the same thing will happen in SA, but then I’m no real-estate speculator. But I have heard rumors that those same Californians are buying up properties here in SA sight unseen.
So where to live? In a city I never liked and that holds great trauma or in a city I loved that holds great memories but in which half of my wages would go on paying a rent in a part of Brooklyn or Queens that I would never have thought of ever living in, an ugly, run-down part of a borough where I could conceivably get more bang for my buck but that is full of the same suburban blight I fled—dollar stores and check-cashing places and bail bondsmen and strip malls and fast-food chains. Though I can’t say that’d be any worse than the alternative, a neighborhood like Boerum Hill, in downtown Brooklyn, which has shape-shifted over the years and now comes with artisanal cheese shops and ladies boutiques, where rents are higher than they are in Manhattan because Brooklyn has become mega hip.
Recently, to do some research on another novel, I spent a month on Staten Island, which was both harrowing and amazing. I’d never thought of ever even visiting this forgotten borough, but then it’s where one of my major characters lived, so I thought I should investigate. And I’m more than glad I did, for once there I got a chance to see what it was like not to live in the city but still live in the city. SI proved to be both utterly fascinating and utterly bizarre, with its own culture and eccentricities. Each borough is unique and SI is no different. Some of it looks like the worst parts of Queens and some of it like the best parts of Brooklyn. Rents are still fairly affordable, though I’m sure buying is cost prohibitive as it is all over the east coast. Which is why I keep thinking that NYC, for all it has to offer, will be a place I visit but will never live in again, not full time anyway. And this used to make me incredibly sad until I realized two things—I get a lot more writing done when I’m not in the city with its multitude of distractions and its multitude of headaches and I’m kind of less angry and aggressive because I’m not always having to deal with bumping into bewildered tourists on the sidewalk or having to wait for a subway that never comes or any number of others whimsies NYC threw at me on any given day. That’s not to say I don’t miss it, but that’s also not to say I can’t go back and stay for an extended period of time.
I don’t know what will turn up when I go to look at houses today in San Antonio. I already found one that I really like and that I think would be a perfect fit for me. If I end up making an offer and that offer is accepted, I suppose I’ll own a house, my first. But who knows. I may well just get in my car tomorrow and start driving north.
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