At some point, every writer who lives or who has ever lived in New York City writes something like this. Sometimes it’s a love letter, full of possibilities and a past that, like a shadow, can never really be left behind, but can at least be ignored while you walk towards the sun or a nest of streetlights. Sometimes it’s an elegy, full of city lights that glow a little brighter through the lens of nostalgia and cramped, cold apartments that are remembered as quaint as often as they are miserable. Most often though, it’s a little bit of both, as when Joan Didion writes in “Goodbye To All That,” her essay about her 8 years here that,
“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young” before confessing that she too “was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”
Some people spend their entire lives imagining a life in New York City. I was never one of them. I plainly hated it the first time I visited in the summer of 2004. It was like San Francisco on steroids, but much hotter, far more crowded, and possessed of an entirely overwhelming ambient stress. I didn’t visit again until the summer of 2010 when I spent a month in New Haven and came to visit friends one weekend: I hated it then, too.
I didn’t really start to love New York until I came to visit later that year to take some kind of absurd placement test for Columbia and was struck, all at once, by the beauty of the city in the fall. When I moved to Manhattan that winter — after being delayed by a blizzard and having to sleep on the bare floor of my old apartment until I could get a flight out — the first thing I saw as my cab cut through Queens was the immense quantity of snow-covered trash that walled off the sidewalks from the streets. As we made our way through Harlem and Morningside Heights, “Empire State of Mind” came on the radio: a slickly ironic anthem given the fact that none of glamour promised by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys seemed to be present anywhere in salt and snow-scraped Gotham. I spent that first winter and spring semester buried in city snow and Morningside misery, exacerbated by the fact that my Monday and Wednesday mornings demanded that I trudge through slush and ice-slick streets at 0900 to take University Writing, which, incidentally, is where I first encountered Didion’s essay. Suffice it to say, the romance was short-lived.
All romances are short-lived, save the romance of romance.
Time passed. I suffered. I endured. I drank. I suffered and endured and drank some more. Finally, I graduated. I left the city abruptly in late May of 2013 to serve out what would be a two-year sentence in Hollywood, California. The story of why I left is well-known enough. No place in New York would hire me. I got an offer in California that I could’ve refused, but to do so would have meant drowning both myself and my significant other in the sharp realities of unemployment — or worse, misemployment — and as much as it pained me, I left. It meant losing her for good, but fuck it: she was better off without me as I always knew she would be and I, for better or worse, was temporary.
I hated Hollywood: it felt provincial, vulgar; far too obvious in the ambitions that flourished or died there. Its sole charm was that it was cheaper to live in than New York and that once I moved out of my first “celebrity” (a wrestler’s Reality TV daughter, a well-known rapper’s grow room) apartment complex and into an ancient 1928 building with a courtyard that cost half as much, easy enough to write in. I was immensely unhappy in Hollywood. The only thing I really enjoyed was my job, but by the time the start-up I was working for suffered its first major stall, I was done with the place.
So I traveled. Few people know that I traveled: the only people I told were the ones that I knew wouldn’t think of it as out of character. I spent quite a bit of time abroad with a girl that almost no one knew I was dating. I’d like to say that the reason for that are complicated, but they’re not and at this point, they “why” of the story isn’t important. It seldom is. What’s important is the story itself: who we tell it to, how it varies, what meaning we derive from it.
Life is always a series of reinventions. We find out who we are by finding out who and what we are not. We discover what home is by searching for it, by looking for the places that resonate with us, by returning to the places that call us back.
For me, those places have always been oases and islands, as unstable and adrift as I am. I am fond of telling people that I grew up and got my first education in an Irish bar and, to some degree, that is true. That bar, now gone, was one of those early tastes of home for me. So was the next bar. And some job. And some apartment. And of course, some girl and then some other girl. It was — and is — a matter of temperament. But the movement was always forward. Leave everything behind. Forge a new skin. Take a new name (Carl, Black Jimmy, Kalae, Kal, K.S. Anthony… have we met? I don’t think we have). Adopt a new proxy family: cops, drinkers, students, writers, kind people. Move on. Never turn around. Never go back. Never look behind.
No past to speak of. I’m not from anywhere, really…so tell me more about yourself.
I broke that rule for New York because I felt like I had a past to speak of in New York.
I came back to New York for a girl and for a job, but mostly for a girl. I came back to her too: she was part of the world I left behind when I moved, but I found that, like New York, there was something about her that I could not — and perhaps still cannot — leave behind.
That story isn’t well-known and I don’t really care to tell it. Life happened. Jobs disappear. Friends fuck off. People leave. It’s not an interesting tale. At this point, it’s less a trauma than a tedious detail that serves no narrative purpose other than to offer some scant wisdom about things that I already knew, not through nostalgia, but through the bitter and foggy lens of hindsight.
New York City is the only city I’ve ever moved back to. The girl, though it puzzles and pains me to admit it, is the only girl I would ever go back to.
There may very well be other cities. There will certainly be other girls. I will stay or move for other reasons. I will find other homes so long as there are places and people who will take me in.
That’s fine. Life is always a series of reinventions.
I will never love anyone quite that way again.
(This originally appeared on www.ksanthony.com)