Below is an excerpt from Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, a new collection of essays edited by Sari Botton. We’d like to thank Seal Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.
I left New York, my twenties, and the 1980s behind at the same time. I was perfectly glad to do so since I had never wanted to be provincial, living my whole life in the same place I was born. New York City was the only thing I had ever felt excitement or affection for, but I refused to believe that the world ended at the Hudson River to the west and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to the east. The famous Saul Steinberg cartoon in which the world did just that was only funny because it was accurate. In my eyes, this view was not much different from the village idiot’s in Mayberry RFD who, when asked what lay to the east, replied, “Old Man Johnson’s woods, then Kelly’s Gas and Go, then … th’Atlantic Ocean.” I knew that New York, specifically the New York of my family, was in many ways a fine and interesting place, but it was not the only place. Added to this was the fact that in New York there was no place for me, and to continue to throw the jagged shape of myself into a three-generation-deep round hole would only result in the kind of splintering that would leave me yelling tired homilies about yuppies and space aliens outside whatever outerborough group home next to a parking garage I’d be lucky enough to find myself in. I wouldn’t miss the culture; New York winnows out a lot of mediocrity, but I was only interested in heroin at that moment in time, of which, I admit, New York did have the very best, and it was cheap, too, its price being only ten dollars a unit and my integrity. It probably cost quite a bit of my future as well, but that was something I was clearly not constitutionally capable of taking into consideration. I did not, however, want to be associated with the horrid troops of well-off Caucasian poseurs who were using heroin as an expression of fashionable, expensive anomie while thousands of hardworking people had to deal with it as a blight on their neighborhoods and families. I didn’t particularly care if I died at that point since I was clinically depressed, but the thought of being associated with the whole heroin-chic thing made me wish I had never existed in the first place. That being the case, I got my wealthy Caucasian family to send me to a fashionable, expensive treatment center in Minnesota. The only thing I would miss, and I missed it for twenty years and still do every day, was the New York City subway system. Keep your dawn-splashed canyons and soaring cathedrals; keep your pyramids, your temples, your gold-domed pagodas rising above ancient capitals. The Metro Underground Transit system is the wonder of the world and I was in love with it and still am, even though it’s going through a “respectable” phase.
I knew right away that I was going to have to deal with transit nostalgia when I was picked up at the Minneapolis airport by a friendly young man who looked like the guitar player at the church I’d gone to once when I was ten, with my friend Eleanor out in Scarsdale. He played Cat Stevens songs and invited us to a “rap group” after the service. The Minnesota counselor sported the same dark blond receding hair pulled back in a ponytail, the same wide-wale, dune-colored corduroys, the same aviator-frame glasses. The guitar player had been transferred for what Eleanor said her parents called “overly fluid boundaries,” which meant—she told me in the objective tone kids adopt when trying to scare another kid with a piece of evil news—that the stories of his putting his finger into Nancy Spencer’s vagina were true. In New York, when I grew up, there were mashers and molesters all over the 6 train I took to school. You could be assured of running into one at least three or four times a year. They were no threat, however.You learned how to dodge them in a moment, and if it was crowded and you were smushed up against one, you could loudly declare, “Take your hand off my leg” and watch their faces crumple in terror. It’s true I was frozen with fear the one time during a morning crush that I felt someone’s hand scrabbling around my underpants. This was nothing, though, compared to the thrilling infusion of self-reliance I got from discovering he was more frightened of what I could say than I was of what he could do; one word from me and he’d be assaulted by a hailstorm of name calling:
“Swear to God …”
“Quit touching the little kids, douche-wad!”
The Upper East Side professionals in the car would remain silent, not willing to abandon their class status to become involved in public theater, but they would look at us. Meanwhile, somebody would use the distraction to pick someone’s pocket and he’d be likely to get accused of that as well. It happened faster than calling 911 on a cell phone, the current method of citizen action.
If I didn’t feel like making a scene I just moved and they disappeared back into the cluttered background of human flesh and faces that every subway rider learns to take for granted and ignore, like a dirty but comfortable blanket.
But in Minneapolis, in the car with this odd man, whose strange pre-sexual aura reminded me of Mr. Rogers—who had always looked to me like a gentle, delicate cloud of pedophilia—there were no witnesses. Later I learned he was quite a decent sort, but I actually thought, after we headed north on I-35 and turned down a wooded road, of jumping out of the car. Even though it was January, I considered running across the flat white expanse to one of the little homeless encampments dotting what appeared to be a snowcovered field just behind the ragged black tree line. It took me a while to discover that it was not the wind-blasted prairie but one of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes, and what I assumed were squatters’ shacks were ice-fishing huts, which is only one example of how growing up in New York makes you ridiculous everywhere else.
The first place I lived when I got out of treatment was a “developing” neighborhood in St. Paul. I shared an apartment right off Selby Avenue in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood and took two buses to my job at an airport gift shop. First I took one bus down the hill past the dome of the Cathedral of Saint Paul and the capitol building and then transferred to another down on Kellogg Avenue in an area we called the flats. I didn’t think about it much on the first day until I got to the transfer spot and wound up waiting twenty minutes on a windswept, vacant street in front of an auto parts distributor, a closed-up body shop, and the empty acre of a construction site. The wind was so strong that it had ripped the green-and-red soot-spattered plastic pennants around the lot into strips of dirty ribbon.When my shift ended, the last number 4 had already left, and I waited forty minutes for the 7, which connected to another bus in Minneapolis that dropped me off in front of a White Castle on Lake Street—empty streets, nail salons, occasional propositions from passing cars, because who else would be standing on a street in public but someone who was “working”—just after the last 21 had left and three-quarters of an hour before the next one. It dropped me off back on Selby and Dale, where I staggered in my first wet, now frozen, work shoes back to my apartment and fell asleep with my coat on as soon as the insistent pain in my feet turned to numbness. Later on the airport employees petitioned the Minneapolis Department of Transportation for an extra number 7, but until they did the manager would say “Must be nice” as I clocked out five minutes early and ran through the terminal to get there before it left. The trip home, if nothing went wrong, would take two hours and fifteen minutes. When I mentioned this, people looked confused. Why didn’t I just drive?
The idea of someone living without a car didn’t come up any more than the idea of someone walking around without a head. If you lived, you drove, was the assumption anywhere but the small island where I was born. The only people who took the bus were disabled, like me: by poor eyesight, by Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, by deafness, by poverty. Those of us who rode the bus didn’t merely look resigned; we looked defiant, staring straight ahead in the kind of square-shouldered so-what attitude most often used to conceal shame about our cheap snow boots and the huge sums of subtraction that showed in our faces.
I hit up my mother for driving lesson money. “Only marginal people take the bus here,” I said.
“Well, Sweetie, you are marginal.”
But she gave me the money, figuring it was but a drop in the bucket of the money I had cost her throughout my life of private schools, privilege, and psychiatrists, all of which had done me no particular good, so much so that it was no longer even a matter of throwing good money after bad but simple harm reduction. The crosstown boulevards and freeway entrances were standing between me and my last chance at a life lived outside an institution.
That being the case, I learned to drive. But I never liked it. Every day for twenty years, I wished that the buses in the Twin Cities would run a little faster.
For green spaces and civic decency, the Twin Cities beat out a great many metropolitan areas on the planet. Like the rest of America, however, they were designed for driving, not walking, and that has made quite a few of its people fatter and more suspicious than they need to be. It was there that I first wondered what really made New York different from the rest of America and why I was finding it hard to navigate. If I hadn’t left the city of my birth, I would never have discovered Jane Jacobs, whose books explained to me exactly what I was missing and what made the good parts of a city good. Neighborhoods one can walk in are important, of course, but you need a way to get from one to the other without putting yourself outside space and time, without detaching yourself completely from the communities through which you move. What makes a city a real city? Number one, in my opinion, is a subway system.
When I returned to New York on family visits, I had the usual sense of melancholy. I felt like a foreigner all the stimuli that had melded into a humming backdrop now distracted and overwhelmed. I had to get my blinders back and build up my audiovisual stamina for a day or so before I could travel reflexively again, but if I took the 2 train out to the Nevins stop to visit my sisters, it would put the spring back into my step twice as fast. It’s not the neighborhoods themselves I crave; it’s the commute: to go into a cool, dark tunnel and emerge twenty minutes later in a different world that is also, in the most fundamental and invisible way—the same.
Today when I walk around my hometown I see the obvious changes that money and power have wrought and I think the obvious sorrowful, angry thoughts of any person made a financial exile from the place of her birth. I’m no longer young, and of course that colors my view of the East Village and Williamsburg, where I lived in 1986, in all the expected ways. If, however, I take the train to any of these neighborhoods, or to Rockaway, or to Dyckman Street in Washington Heights, my heart still starts to beat a little faster. If the train goes elevated I still get a sting of excitement when it bursts out of the tunnel into the air three floors up, girded on either side with millions of windows topped with water towers, the iron lacework of fire escapes, and glimpses of glittering, steel blue river.
I don’t like rush hour any more than anyone else, but sometimes I have to laugh, standing there surrounded by the pressing flesh and odorous breath, at the amazing, manic fact of it all. Look at us, twelve million little corpuscles pulsing at superhuman speed through the circulatory system of this grungy, grandiose giant. Someone told me, “Ah, New York isn’t diverse. People just get thrown together on the subway and at work; then they all scatter home to their separate enclaves.” Maybe so, but there are enough exceptions to that rule that the last time I was on the L, I overheard the conversation of a family whose smallest members, twins, were wearing identical Puerto Rican flag T-shirts. They were on their way to a bris, about which they were unnerved—you could tell by the bad jokes—but were nonetheless attending because their son’s study partner and friend at CUNY was the father and he’d come to the son’s wedding, so they had to reciprocate. Peace on Earth it wasn’t, but you have to start somewhere. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the first time anyone tried to build an underground train in New York, Tammany Hall thugs shut it down for lack of kickbacks. Now look: it was an 85-degree day and I was enjoying an air-conditioned ride, traveling in relative comfort, underground, while people hurtled from one microcosm to another at forty-five miles an hour. It would be something to write home about, if people still wrote home, and if I weren’t, in fact, home already.
From Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Copyright 2013 Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Photo: Vincent Dejardins