On Leaving New York

I’ve been putting off writing about it because it seems like too much to cover, but then that’s probably the whole point. We make obstacles of things by building them up in our minds, when they were never really that big a deal to begin with. And no attempt at writing ever got easier through procrastination.
I’m home in San Francisco now. It’s been a week since our stuff was packed into the truck, and 6 days since we hopped on a plane here and 4 days since I’ve really felt at all settled in. It’ll be another two or three weeks until I have little niceties like my CDs or books or, well, a real bed.
In some ways, nothing changes. I’m still a New Yorker, even here, but I don’t hate San Francisco and I think I’ll grow to like it. The interesting thing, to me, is how much it still matters to me to assert that I’m New Yorker. It’s like all things we pick up as part of our identity when we’re young: arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and impossible to let go of.
My fascination with New York City started early, as I’m sure most of you can guess. Reading Superfudge and trying to imagine a place where there was a Chinatown that sold little turtles to little boys. (And still does!) The novelty of the then-new pooper scooper law. All the other trappings of something very different than the place I grew up.
It stuck with me on my first "real" trip to the city when I was fifteen. I’d been there countless times before, mostly on trips where we’d take whatever distant relative was visiting from India to see the Statue of Liberty and a couple other checklist tourist traps before heading back home to Pennsylvania. Rote, uninspiring, and tiring.
But at fifteen, I went as part of a school trip and that meant independence, of a sort. I spent most of the day trying unsuccessfully to impress the girl I had a crush on, naturally, but in between I saw a show on Broadway and really looked at the tall buildings for the first time. I walked around Battery Park before the jaunt to Liberty Island and really understood for the first time that all this water meant that Manhattan really was an island, despite its absence of beaches and palm trees. I went to the top of the World Trade Center.
That’s where it all circles back, of course. Those towers. The day we lost them was the day I realized I had an obligation to the city. But it took some time to develop. Fast forwarding a few years from when I was fifteen, I’d just arrived in Manhattan, having packed all my belongings into the trunk of my car and being fortunate enough to have no idea what I was getting into. On my second night in the city, I finally ventured out, terrified at what I’d done and not really sure what to do next.
I walked down the block at about three in the morning, when it was too late at night for me to call anybody who would reassure me, and having far too much pride to actually break down and start crying. At the end of my block was a pretty standard bodega, with the usual mishmash of newspapers and fresh flowers and other essentials, and next to it was a man opening up a packing box. The box was filled with fresh mangos, mangos that had probably been on a tree in Mexico 48 hours before. And now, for less than a buck, just a block from where I lived, I could have a mango.
In the little town where I’d grown up, mangos had only shown up in the local grocery store a few years earlier, being considered an ethnic food. My mother had brought them home for us regularly, partially in celebration of their availability, but mostly because they were delicious. And here, now, was this fruit in my hand, in the middle of the night. I’d always been a night owl, but this somehow seemed like a sign, that this crate was being unpacked at three in the morning. This city was about exactly that kind of potential.
A few years later, after I’d been in New York City long enough to feel like I knew my way around, I found myself broke, out of work, recently split up from a not particularly pleasant relationship, and living next door to my ex. Not living in the building next door, mind you. The apartment next door. I was still struggling with my depression, I’d recently dealt with some serious illness in the family, and everyone was telling me that the Internet as a career path was dead. I had hit rock bottom, and I was pretty sure I never wanted to go outside ever again.
But over the course of a few months, it all came back. I spent my time off work exploring the city, meeting new people and figuring out as much of the history of New York City as could be teased from searching out abandoned subway stations or by striking up random conversations with people in Central Park. Through luck and opportunity and sheer neccessity, I got a great job and I started making real friends and finally felt like things were clicking. Nearly every step of rebuilding my life had been made possible just through the opportunities that arise by being in New York City, being smart, and having some bills to pay.
It was around that time that, instead of saying "I’m from Pennsylvania but I live in New York City." I started simply saying "I’m a New Yorker." Even after four years of being in Manhattan, it felt a little false, a little disingenuous, but as with most parts of my identity that I’ve appropriated from my surroundings, I grew into it pretty quickly. And it seemed the most appropriate way to acknowledge a city that had gotten me back on my feet, by identifying myself as part of that city. Later that year, a friend had called me on my birthday and given me the "If you can make it there…" line and I’d said "After this past year, I think I can get through just about anything."
Six days later was September 11, and it turns out, unfortunately, that I was probably right.
A lot of people made a lot of promises that day, and in the days afterward. I was, and in some ways still am, just unbelievably sad about it. I talked a lot about the attacks and their aftermath, both for the relief of telling my story, as trivial as it may have been, but also to help people understand that this was something real that happened, not just something on TV or something used as a slogan on t-shirts. This was something that happened to my city. And I made a smaller promise to myself.
What I wanted to do was honor my obligation to the city that I felt had sustained me. A lot of people have asked why I dwell so much on promoting New York City, and why I make such a big deal about something that’s just, well, a place. "Sure, it’s great," they say. "But there are lots of great places in the world. And most of them are cheaper!"
It’s not that way for me, of course. Some people have religion, and some people have politics, and some people have art. And it makes sense to me to find salvation in any of those things, to find comfort in singing their praises. For me, finding a city I love was comfort. It was a place I belonged after spending my entire childhood in a place where nobody else looked like me, nobody else was raised in the religion I was, nobody else spoke the same language I did at home, and nobody else seemed to care about the things I cared about. In New York, everybody was just as weird as me, and it didn’t stop them from inventing and being creative and changing the world.
And that’s why it mattered to me that other people know about it. Though I can’t take any of the credit for their moves to New York, I’d promoted the city like crazy to people whom I knew were considering a move, regaling Alaina and Jason and Meg and Kathryn and Lia with stories of how much they’d love it. And that’s just the people whom I talk to on a weekly basis. There are dozens more, people whom I knew were probably looking for a place where they belonged, too, even if they didn’t phrase it that way.
All of these friends arrived after the towers fell. I promised I’d return the favor to a city that had picked me up and dusted me off, and the engine that’s always kept New York City moving was new people, new ideas, new energy. And having extraordinary people adding their energy to the city seemed like the most that could be done to honor its spirit. All I was trying to give back was people I cared about, who I knew would love the city the way I do.
New York will always be a center of art, of culture, of architecture and music and any other kind of expression. But it mattered to me that there be something new as well, something created in honor of everything we lost. Others are far better than me at the more literal acts of creation, so I tried to rebuild by encouraging new people to become New Yorkers and by nurturing the medium that I know best.
Being the geek that I am, part of that naturally meant making New York a world-class city for blogging. When I’d started out, there were precious few people with weblogs in the city. I went to Cam‘s dinner in late 1999 and all of the known New York City bloggers could fit around a two tables, with room for guests from San Francisco.
Now, though certainly through no actions of mine, there are thousands of people inventing and expanding weblogs in New York. From the various Gawker Media blogs (which are collectively probably the most famous blogs in the world) to the hundreds of regular sites by individuals with something to say, there’s certainly no better-represented city in the blogosphere. I’m in there somewhere, too, and it’s good company to be in. It feels like I’m contributing to something significant.
And that’s why I had so much trouble letting go of living in New York. I’d built up my own sense of obligation to the city, as if I were failing by leaving, as if I were failing the city by leaving. Even if only for a while. But I’m realizing that what seemed to me at first like a high-minded sense of obligation is really just hubris. New York City doesn’t need my help. You don’t need to help someone back onto their feet if they were always standing. And the city isn’t going anywhere.
That’s the part I struggle to remember, that I’ll be glad to see how the city’s evolved in my absence, and that I’ve already had a wealth of experiences that would last me a lifetime even if I could never return. This is closing a chapter, certainly, but not closing a book, and in the meantime I have what I’ve had. I worked at the top of the Empire State Building. I got to shake Rudy Giuliani’s hand and say thanks. I got to buy the last mango I bought in Manhattan, and all that it entails. I got to watch the hot dog contest and the fireworks on the Fourth of July. I got stuck on the wrong side of the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving. I walked through a silent Times Square in the middle of a snowstorm and pushed my way past the crowds in the Square on New Year’s Eve. I stayed at home a hundred Saturday nights, knowing that there were tons of people having the time of their life out on the town, and didn’t regret it for a minute.
So for now I’m a New Yorker who doesn’t live in New York. For those of you who email me every time I post about the city, writing to complain about my choice of subject matter, you’ll be glad to know that the love letters are likely to be less frequent. For those of you still in New York City, please don’t stop sending the invitations to whatever cool little thing you’re doing this weekend. I’ll just pretend I can’t make it due to time constraints.
While hunting for apartments in San Francisco, I was struck how ubiquitous New York City is. I walked by ads for To The 5 Boroughs, which pushed the amazing "An Open Letter To NYC" and showed the Manhattan skyline plastered on walls a continent away. I walked down the street and saw a poster for Spiderman, with the hero crouched atop the Chrylser Building. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d never noticed superheros swinging from the Bay Bridge when I was walking around Manhattan. Seems to me like my city is following me home.
Leaving New York, we flew out of JFK. That’s the same airport my father flew into almost 41 years ago, when he arrived from India. Though I doubt he (or any man of his generation) would phrase it this way, I suspect he was looking for the same thing I was looking for when I arrived in New York. A place to be, a place to belong, and a chance to take some chances. He’d headed west leaving behind everything and everyone he’d ever known, and all I’m losing is the chance to have a good bagel as often as I’d like. But I like to think I’ve got some of the same spirit my father does, and that part of honoring my love for both him and New York is to chase adventure wherever it takes me.
So for now, it’s California. There’s no shortage of mythology about the American West, about people travelling to California to seek opportunity or riches. I hope I’ll partake in that, though I’m certain I’ll be less taken in by the romance of it than I am by the romance of New York City. That’s a fair trade, though. The first city I ever loved can get by without me for a while, and I can certainly do with less fawning over my place of residence and more nuts-and-bolts living of life. My obligation to New York won’t ever go away, I’ll just honor it differently now, and in the meantime I have some quieter but even more important obligations to fulfill.
See you soon, New York.