Thursday, October 14, 2010

Remembrances of an Ex-Pat Transplant New Yorker

New York, New York, a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, it's a helluva town!

New York City is a helluva town.  When I moved there in 1989, it was an answer to my prayer.  When I finally left in 2005, it had become a nightmare.  Looking back now (thanks to an article in The New York Observer and a comment I made which really deserves to be a post here), I don't miss it at all.  But I loved it once, and I'll certainly never forget it.

Erika and I drove onto West 106th Street in the (Upper) Upper West Side the day after my graduation from college in my home-state of Maine.  She was a new best friend from our shared junior year abroad, and I had cajoled her into making this leap with me. Fortunately, she had graduated from college the week before in her home-state of Ohio, so she came East to help me wrap things up and then off we went.  We were both kindred spirits, who, having lived in Munich for a year and experienced a goodly chunk of Europe and even points farther afield, couldn't conceive of any other place to go next.

NYC also seemed like an appropriate place to strap on my newly-purchased gay training wheels and roll around a bit.  I had come out to myself while on my year abroad -- in China of all places, 'cause, you know, life is strange -- but, until the day before the day before graduation, a romantic life had all been depressingly theoretical.  Not any more....

The tiny sublet at the back of the 2nd floor with a lovely view of an airshaft was soon traded in at the end of that summer for a funky, rooftop playhouse kind of a place in the West Village.  As the years and relationships passed, this would be followed by stints in the East Village, back to the West, down to the Financial District (with one foot in New Haven for graduate school), across the East River to Park Slope, then finally back across the river to Chelsea.  During that time, the subways went from red to silver and the MetroCard replaced the token; the mayoralty passed from Koch to Dinkins to Giuliani to Bloomberg; Chuck Schumer bounced Al D'Amato out of the Senate; some baseball was apparently played; the fourth Gay Games were hosted; the Christopher Street piers were rehabilitated; the Gays migrated just north to Chelsea;  Alphabet City and Times Square got hosed down; the hipsters started wearing trucker hats and moved to Williamsburg; Battery Park City grew up and the World Trade Center fell down.

For me, it was that last experience that triggered the beginning of the end of my time in New York.  Like so many others, particularly New Yorkers, I'll never forget that day which started so gorgeously and ended with my neighborhood covered in debris and death and still on fire.  My first job in the city had been at a white-shoe law firm in the north tower.  I had even evacuated down those fire stairs once during my time there when a transformer fire had broken out in the neighborhood.  We legal assistants often used the fire stairs as a faster way than the elevators of getting between floors.  The WTC was one of my favorite places to bring out-of-town visitors, culminating in a trip to the rooftop for a spectacular view of the harbor and the rest of the city and beyond.  When my then boyfriend and I moved a short four blocks away, following a wave of commercial-to-residential conversions in the neighborhood, the fact that The Twins were there helped soften the blow of having to leave the West Village.

The seismic shift that day and in the days that followed irrecoverably cracked the lens through which I experienced the only place I had really lived as an adult.  Suddenly, it was dirtier, noisier, more expensive, more exhausting and anxiety-producing. It certainly didn't help that the fires at Ground Zero smoldered until Thanksgiving or that, thereafter, one had to walk next to the wrecking ball and recovery workers on the way to and from the subway, the gym, the park...anywhere.  Xanax helped smooth the more jagged parts of my mental state, but nothing could prepare me for the changes that would come.  The period that followed -- just over four years -- was bookended by my ending a twelve-year relationship and my next boyfriend ending what was then a three-and-a-half-year relationship for me.  I lived in three separate neighborhoods; had three separate jobs; and many panic attacks in a subway car stuck in a tunnel or a crowded bus or elevator.  At the end, perhaps most emblematic of what was wrong with this picture was the studio apartment (my nicest yet) my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend and I shared that, had it been for sale, would have cost us well over $400,000 -- all 600 square feet of it.

For years, I wore it as a badge of honor that my family thought me quite insane for living in New York City.  In sixteen years, my mother visited me once.  People forget (or simply don't know) that NYC is actually an archipelago; only the Bronx is attached to the mainland.  In Manhattan, non-residents are labeled B&Ts -- the bridge and tunnel folks who come to visit but could never take living there.  There's an esprit-de-corps that comes with living on an island that so many either fight to avoid or fight to get to.  Being separate is fun until you feel trapped.  By 2005, I was taking a good, long look at the graph in my head that showed my current and future salary, my current and future debt, and what it would take to live the kind of life I hoped one day I would live.  Nothing added up, and it never would.  Finally, within six months, my father died and the boyfriend called it quits.

It was time to go.

I actually feel a huge gratitude to that last New York boyfriend for providing the catalyst I needed to knock me out of orbit.  Leaving New York has turned out to be as important an act as coming to New York had been more than a decade-and-a-half earlier.  If nothing else, the last five years have taught me that you really never know.  Relocating to suburban South Florida wasn't such a stretch for me as it was a frequent destination for family and fun. But, if anyone had told me I'd find myself in Chicago less than two years later with the man I've waited my entire life to meet -- let alone have -- with an apartment and car we own (and this despite the fact that I've been involuntarily retired as an architect for coming up on two years), know.

New York is a great place, and life is always a fight; but my particular fight there finally wore me out.  Others fight on, and I wish them the best.  Who knows, NYC may yet have a place in my future; but, for now, I'm happy to cease playing the part of refugee and take on the mantle of ex-pat.

[Image and quoted lyrics from MGM's 1949 musical On The Town.]