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On Loving and Leaving New York

One of the books on my New Year reading list is Sari Botton’s award-winning anthology “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York,” whose contributors include everyone from spoken word legend Maggie Estep, who died this past February, to “Wild” scribe Cheryl Strayed (not to mention my fellow film critic and author friend Marcy Dermansky). Botton’s more recent follow-up “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York” boasts essays from even flashier names, including Whoopi Goldberg and Rosanne Cash. But it’s those who’ve had the guts to give the finger to the Big Apple, the journeywomen writers without the Hollywood bank accounts, who interest me more.

You see, when I was a kid I wanted to live in Disney World, which is as good an explanation as any as to why I fled small town Colorado for NYC 25 years ago. But as a friend sharply pointed out, “Yeah, but now that you’re all grown up you can see the cracks in the amusement park facade.” He was responding to my bitching about the economic apartheid that most New Yorkers just take for granted, which I only became aware of and disturbed me once I left town. I used to make fun of Americans who chanted “we’re number one!” only because they’d never been anywhere else with which to compare the U.S.. Suddenly I realized I’d become one of those New Yorkers who thought the city was the capital of the world only because I was mentally living in my small Big Apple bubble.

So it was good to get out of my element, wander from the Wild West to the cosmopolitan Eurozone, and experience things I never even knew existed. For taking on a nomadic lifestyle had the perverse effect of forcing me to face up to the fact that my relationship with the city of my childhood dreams had become, well, nearly abusive. What was once my safe cocoon now looked more like a prison. The constant bravado, “the greatest city in the world!” and “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere!” (which roughly translates to, “You can’t do any better than me” and “I’m a quitter if I leave”), which I once believed with all my heart and soul sounded merely hollow and desperate the further I drifted from the Hudson.

Sure, I’d grown older and my concrete love wanted a young dreamer, but the city was also changing in a direction I didn’t want to go. In a way I was still that innocent idealist who fell for an anything-can-happen artistic nature that the Big Apple had forced itself to suppress in favor of increasing consumerism. (When none other than urban legend Patti Smith pronounces, “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling,” I take it as a sign to move on.) Our values had simply diverged. The city wanted to settle down in a more responsible suburban existence while I was still on the prowl for philosophical adventures. We’d grown apart, and yet after 20 years together I couldn’t pull up all my deep roots with one yank. Though I no longer reside in NYC I’ll forever be a New Yorker – as the city is not just a state of mind but an intrinsic part of my soul. Strangest of all, however, is that feeling of still being in love with an illusion I can now see right through.

Photo by David Jones, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license