Podcast: On Loving and Leaving New York
You’re listening to the Uptown Bourgeois podcast.
I’m your host, Jefferey Spivey.
Let’s be weird, snobby, and intellectual together.
This week, I want to talk about places.
I don’t need to tell you the source of that clip. But in case you’ve spent your life avoiding cultural juggernauts, that was Carrie Bradshaw, from a season 4 episode of Sex and the City that paid tribute to New York.
That last line is especially poignant for me. That the things I love will only be a plane ride away. Soon, that observation will be very relevant. Yes, I’m leaving New York City.
I’ve lived here for 11 years. And it has been as glorious and awful as anyone could expect. I think true New Yorkers—true meaning you’ve lived here for a decade or longer, not that you’re a native—are all bonded by a series of similar life experiences.
-We’ve all had a rat or roach, or both, try to set up shop in our apartments.
-We’ve all made a mad dash for the train just as the doors were closing.
-We’ve all mistakenly walked into that empty train car on a hot summer day, only to find that it either smelled like shit and vomit, or it had no AC.
-We’ve all emptied our bank accounts drinking vodka red bulls at some awful club in The Meatpacking District.
-We’ve all paid far too much for tiny plates of food in overrated expensive restaurants.
-We’ve all argued with friends about whose turn it was to head east or west for a night out.
-We’ve all wondered why the hell we keep living here.
-And we’ve all been reminded time and time again why we stay.
Except now, I’m leaving. Not because I’m so frustrated with city life that I have to exit, but because my husband has been promoted to a position in Arkansas. Yes, Arkansas. Home of the…well, I’m not sure Arkansas is really known for anything outside of Arkansas. But soon, I guess I’ll find out.
It may not sound riveting to other New Yorkers—the thought of trading in an 18th floor apartment in the Financial District for the home of Wal-Mart. But New Yorkers see all other cities as inadequate.
I recently wrote an essay about loving and leaving the city, titled “So Long, New York, It’s Been Real”. I ran a Facebook ad for it, and one of my quote-unquote friends left a snide comment. It was a GIF of NeNe Leakes, saying “Bye”. And this quote-unquote friend attempted to be snarky and funny in a follow up comment, but the joke didn’t land. Because one, I’ve had maybe two interactions with this person in the time that I’ve known him. Thus, we’re not exactly chummy, and any nastiness from him is rooted in an unsavory place. I immediately deleted him. But two, people who love New York are evangelists for the city. The same way a preacher chides you for missing church on Sunday or for living a life of sin, a New Yorker nearly loses it when you talk about going somewhere else.
In some instances, a New Yorker’s pride and joy is complaining about the city. But on the other hand, that’s only okay if you plan on staying forever. The minute you try to leave, you become a traitor.
That was a clip from a video by Ian Stroud, touting some of the harsh realities of living in this city. Sex and the City painted a wonderful picture of living here. It was all $500 designer shoes, penthouse parties, attractive bankers, and celebrities. All you had to worry about was who you were fucking or why you weren’t fucking. But in reality, you have to worry about a lot more. Like your $4,000 rent for your 700 square foot apartment or the homeless dude on the train who keeps giving you the eye, or the bar tab that may or may not have four digits.
This is not a city for the weak…or the old or the broke or the lazy or the people with common sense and reasonable expectations of quality living. When you’re 22, like I was when I first moved here, this city is EVERYTHING. You could care less about having 4 roommates or that some mysterious liquid just dripped down your face while you were walking to work or that you have to sacrifice your groceries just to pay your rent. Those things aren’t normal but neither is New York.
But at some point, you grow up, and New York doesn’t. It keeps tugging at your shirttails, demanding more money, more time, more energy. And you run out of all those things to give. And then, you just leave.
I may not have initiated my exit, but it’s coming right on time.
After a short break, I’ll read my New York essay in full, and make my addition to the canon of essays from writers who love, loathe, and leave New York.
I want to extend special thanks to Writer’s Work. Writer’s Work is an all-in-one freelance writing platform, designed to help writers pursue their dreams without using multiple sites and applications. Learn about the industry, manage your projects, track your progress, and search for work all from one site. Writer’s Work. Make the world your office.
In 1967, Joan Didion published an essay titled “Goodbye To All That”, in which she vividly detailed her experience of leaving New York. In the decades since, it has become the gold standard in writing about the city. So much so, that a large group of women writers crafted a collection of essays in the same vein in 2013. I’m not saying I’ve crafted something that’s Joan Didion-worthy, but I feel pretty proud of this piece, and I’m eager to share it with you. So…here it goes.
There were three men smoking crack on the subway platform. The Broad Street station on the J line. It always smells like warm garbage and indigestion farts, even in the dead of winter. It’s dank, drab, and decrepit. But this day, it smelled like toxic fumes and burnt rubber.
I had to Google, “What does crack smell like?” to figure out that these three men, bundled up in heavy parkas like they’d traipsed in from a blizzard, even though it was nearly fifty degrees outside, were indeed smoking crack. In a space where it’s considered rude to smoke a cigarette.
22-year-old me would have been simultaneously appalled and fascinated. 33-year-old me thought, “Fuck this place”. And then I went through a mental list of all the reasons I despise the MTA. These days, I, like many New Yorkers, rarely think of the subway in a positive light. Come to think of it, I rarely think of the city in a positive light.
I was probably jaded long ago, likely before I turned 30, when I was almost a decade into my retail management career, in which I’d worked for a couple bosses who would have made Miranda Priestly blush. But jaded or not, New York is just as much a part of me as my hair, my tattoos, and my bitchy sarcasm. This city has been woven into my DNA, and when I really think about it, I’m not sure how to exist anywhere else. No other city will ever be as blunt and bewildering and optimistic and soul-crushing and electric as New York. So, why leave?
When I first met my husband, he was at the tail end of his work assignment, and there was a high probability he’d be reassigned to a new role in another state, or country, any day. I knew within those first few weeks that this was it, that I shouldn’t allow borders and distance to come between us and ruin what felt like the real deal. After 8 long years of one-night stands, bad first dates, and countless nights scrolling through shirtless torsos on dating apps, I wasn’t about to let something miniscule like total life disruption stop me from finding love. I knew I didn’t want to be apart from him. So, I told him I’d go wherever he was going. It was actually frightening to think about—at any moment, we could receive word that we needed to rip up our roots and go. And then, I’d dive head first into a new life in a new place with a person that I barely knew. But secretly, I was excited by the possibility of such an extreme change. I thought the only way I’d leave the city was if I was forced out.
He got another assignment, but it was in New York. We fell deeper in love, got engaged, and married over the next three years, all still in NYC.
During the first year of our marriage, I told him repeatedly that our New York phase would end soon, that there was no way he’d receive another New York assignment. This belief was partially motivated by my desire to see him succeed and ascend to the next level of his career. But it was also motivated by my rocky relationship with the city. Crowded trains, crowded buses, crowded elevators, crowded stores, and crowded restaurants were starting to wear me down—I wanted out. By December, there was a very real possibility that we’d relocate before the Spring. We enjoyed the holidays, secretly knowing this New York Christmas would be our last, for now. By February, there was an offer, a signature, and a destination—Bentonville, Arkansas.
To say that relocating to Arkansas is a big change is a gross understatement. When I tell other New Yorkers where we’re headed, the look of disgust appears almost immediately, like they’ve just caught a whiff of day-old fish. Here in this liberal paradise that’s New York City, there’s a very narrow view of Southern living—red states, dirt roads, Trump supporters, chewing tobacco, twangy accents, closed minds. I can forgive them; once you’ve lived in a place this progressive, even upstate New York seems like a major downgrade.
I found myself practically apologizing, attempting to validate Bentonville’s appeal. There’s an international community there, attracted by Wal-Mart’s headquarters. There are recently developed Arts and Market districts. HBO is filming season 3 of True Detective in Fayetteville, just 20 minutes away (I might meet Mahershala Ali or get cast as an extra!). It’s the blue dot in a red state. We’ll save so much money! We won’t have to live in a shoebox anymore! I have a cousin who lives there! We know another interracial, gay couple who lived there and loved it! I don’t think anyone was convinced to book a flight, but these tidbits helped me sell the move as a positive.
Not that I feel I need to impress anyone or justify any of my life decisions. But when I think of New York values, and the way that this city turns you into one of its evangelists, it’s nearly impossible to talk about moving anywhere else in the company of those who see this city as the end all, be all.
Two weeks ago, I had coffee with a young journalist who’d only lived in the city for two months. She was living with a gaggle of roommates out in Bushwick. There was this impenetrable optimism in her eyes. She was hungry for success, taking every meeting, emailing every contact, dreaming of working for a big newspaper or magazine. She saw New York for its unlimited potential, as a place of opportunity. I envied her. She had yet to max out her credit cards, spend every red cent of her savings, or settle for a job that didn’t align with her dreams. I used to be her.
I moved here when I was 22 years old, with an old school dream. I’d snag a coveted job at GQ or some other major publication. I’d rub elbows with editors and find an agent for my book. I’d dine out at fine restaurants, fawn over the country’s most attractive men, and really find myself. New York was the only place where I’d be able to grow into the person I was meant to be. Every day I walked out of my Morningside Heights apartment, there was excitement buzzing all around me. I could be whoever I wanted to be that day. There was always the possibility that I’d be discovered, that I’d catch my big break.
But that’s not what happened. The retail job I took, and only planned to stick with until I found a magazine job, became my calling card. I stopped dreaming of my byline in GQ, and started savoring monthly bonuses for topline sales. I stopped pitching and started contributing to my 401K. Each year, for 11 years, my writing dream died a little more, I made a little more money, and the vision of my ideal life dimmed a little more.
It wasn’t until 2016, just after being let go from a retail job for a small company in Chelsea, that I started writing again. And I did so furiously. Essays for my own website. Blog posts and articles and web copy for clients. I did all this for little to nothing. But a part of me was resurrected. The writer that I dreamed of becoming was still buried inside of me, and with every word that made it to the page, he took another breath. It’s only fitting that now, as I prepare to leave for Arkansas, that I feel I’ve finally started the journey toward becoming the writer I dreamed of at 22 years old.
I wanted to tell this journalist so much. You’ll dream big and you’ll try to get your foot in the door and you’ll be extremely talented, but people may not care. Because all the talented people move here to compete with you. And many of them are more connected or more ruthless, and in this city, that’s the edge you need to get ahead. At some point, you’ll realize it isn’t normal to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a room in an apartment, for a space that you don’t own or fully inhabit. Your bank account will get dangerously close to zero, yet for some reason, you’ll keep going out for cocktails in the Meatpacking District and booking dinners during Restaurant Week. You’ll invest a lot of energy into the job you take when you can’t find a writing job, and you’ll push your writing to the side, only to realize 10 years have passed since you were last published. You’ll have moments when optimism seems like a third cousin, when the city seems cold and dark and unfriendly, and you want nothing more than to pack up your shit and go home.
But you’ll also have days when you’re sipping a Manhattan at a bar on the Lower East Side, and you’re slightly intoxicated, and you’ll feel invincible, like New York is the best city in the world. You’ll idolize some of the people you’ll meet, ogle their possessions, be simultaneously inspired by and jealous of their achievements. You’ll brag about your New York life when you go back to your hometown. You’ll proudly wear that badge of honor that proves you were one of the select few who could make it here. You’ll realize that there’s no other place you’d rather live and suffer.
But I didn’t tell her these things, because no one likes a spoiler alert. She deserves to have her own experience, which may or may not mimic my own. Over the Christmas break, I read Goodbye to All That, a collection of essays about leaving New York, all written in the same vein as Joan Didion’s classic essay of the same name. Though all these writers had different experiences, I found a little bit of my New York life in every single one. There’s an ebb and flow, a yin and yang, a hardship and joy, a sadness and happiness that envelops every moment of life in this city. And regardless of how unique you think you are, this defines your time here.
Even before we got an official offer and started figuring out logistics, I was forced to reckon with my New York life. The barely-there friendships I was sure to lose once I left the Tri-State area. The disconnect from the art films, small concerts, and the other writers that I could only find here. The process of defining success and my way of life in a place that wasn’t New York. How to handle upheaval. Other people will come to pack all our things, and make sure not one wine glass, logo tee, or dining room chair is left behind. It will all get loaded into a truck, and arrive a month later (much to my chagrin). But what about the things that no one can see?
I’m definitely leaving behind unfinished business. Conflicts with friends that have gone unresolved, that I’m not running away from, but am now choosing not to address, because it makes no sense to drum up old feelings or explicitly define the end of the friendship, when really, my exit could be the finite end that it needs. The dreams of living in a black and white Woody Allen film, with nights full of intellectual conversation about art and film and music, and discussion of abstract ideas, that I feel I never had enough of and may not get elsewhere. That energy in the city, that’s so specific to this space, that makes me feel like I can do anything, that turns a night in which I’ve only intended to have a drink or a quick bite into something wild and unpredictable and life-changing. Perhaps that’s all a matter of worldview, and that unpredictability can be unearthed anywhere if I want it to be, but there’s something about this force, this whirlwind, this buzz, that swirls around me and intoxicates me and makes me feel impossibly optimistic even when things are bleaker than bleak.
I feel connected to this city; though I’m not from here, and I fit into that category of people who romanticized Manhattan and moved here in search of a dream that may not have been entirely of my own imagination, I feel I’ve lived here long enough to criticize and loathe it, and to be madly in love with it.
I was on my way to a writing session in Brooklyn, on the J train once again, this seemingly forgotten train line, its subway cars still holding on after some 30-odd years in use. They could be drenched in bleach and never seem clean. I had my headphones on, listening intently to a podcast, my face concentrated on my phone for an intense game of Two Dots. At Essex Street, the last stop before we crossed the bridge to Brooklyn, I smelled a snuffed match. Then I saw him, a homeless man in ratty denim with black knee patches, a curly fro. He smoked his cigarette like he was on his front porch. As people got on at the next stop, they just looked at him and either sat across from him or moved to a part of the subway car where their clothes wouldn’t absorb the smoke. When he finished his cig, he stomped it out and then curled into a ball on the seat for a nap.
The whole scene simultaneously represented everything I love and hate about New York. The fact that I could be forced to inhale carcinogens in tight quarters, that I was riding a rickety train, that I lived in a city with so many homeless people—all things I hated. But I loved how New Yorkers just get on with it. No one yelled at him, or alerted an MTA worker, or pulled the emergency brake. They moved or sat down, but either way, they accepted it. Even I, after my initial annoyance, returned to my podcast and my game. I got on with it. We all did.
New York is about getting on with it. There’s rarely time to stop and pick up the things you’ve dropped. We step over people sleeping on the sidewalk, we close the elevator door even when we see people barreling towards it, we speed past tourists who look lost. We just keep going. And now, that’s the only choice I have—to keep going. Even if it means I’ll keep going until I end up somewhere else.
New on the blog this week, I’m recapping my extended weekend in Tulum. Check it out—it’s definitely worth a read and also expands upon this week’s theme of places. Also, I’ll be on hiatus next week while I travel to Arkansas to find a house. So, look out for my next episode on Mar. 30.
Thanks so much for listening to the Uptown Bourgeois podcast. Check back for new episodes every week, and subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, or PocketCast so you never miss out. If you love it, share it with your friends. If not, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you’d like me to talk about. Until next week…
The Uptown Bourgeois podcast is written, produced, and edited by Jefferey Spivey, and is an official property of Uptown Bourgeois, LLC. All original music is provided courtesy of RMVD.