Well, it’s been three months since my last blog post, and a lot has changed in my life. As most of you know, I decided to move back to Southern California, and it hasn’t been the easiest of decisions. When I flew home on Monday, I actually had a mini-breakdown at JFK that involved the airport security guard kindly informing me that I had a wine opener in my carry-on. It had a small knife blade and was therefore considered a weapon. He told me I could either pay thirty dollars to check the bag—“Was the wine opener worth it?”—he asked. Or, I could simply give it up.
That was when I lost it and started crying.
“Maybe I should give you some time to think about it,” he said.
But there wasn’t any thinking about it because I knew I couldn’t justify paying thirty dollars to keep a wine opener that I had gotten for free from the restaurant where I worked.
“But if it has sentimental value,” he continued.
He was quite possibly the nicest security guard I have ever met, and as I walked away from him, rolling my carry-on, tears steadily flowing, it occurred to me that this was not at all about the wine opener. It was about loss. It was about the fact that I was leaving something that I hadn’t realized I valued so intensely.
That something was New York City and all of the amazing experiences I had there. The friendships, the heartache, the struggles, the drama. I was humbled, I was unemployed, I grew spiritually, I was forced outside my comfort zone, I landed a steady writing gig, I found a little romance, I made some amazing friendships. It was sort of like living an entire lifetime in only six months. That’s how jam-packed it was. That’s how full it was. And I am incredibly grateful for all of it, and am mourning the loss.
I didn’t expect that the city and the people I met would get under my skin so much, but I’m really glad that they did. I filled my final days in New York with packing and working and drinking and talking till 4:00a.m. on multiple evenings. As a result, I didn’t have any time to process what I was feeling, or to actually recognize the reality that I was closing this very short chapter of my life.
Many claim that living in New York can be a lonely, isolating experience, but I never found that to be true. On the contrary, I saw it as a city marked with solidarity—with a collective yearning that cries out from its vagabond group of citizens who are all adapting to the weirdness together. The schlepping, the lack of sunshine, the tiny apartments without windows, the exorbitant rent prices, the delayed and re-routed subways, the proverbial light at the end of all our tunnels. The one that flickers and fades with each passing day, as some grow closer to where they wish to be and others remain stagnant, or simply fight just to keep going.
I think of New York City as one great paragon of desire. It’s the starving artist hoping for the success story. The American Dream, sweetly spun. In many ways, this makes it the very opposite of Los Angeles, where people can be rather lazy and blinded by the sunshine. As someone who has spent most of her life in that environment, I developed a strong appreciation for the dedication and determination I saw in most of the New Yorkers I encountered. The fellow writers I met at coffee shops in Brooklyn; the friends who tireless auditioned for plays; the dancers who spent eight hours waiting tables and then went to ballet and tango classes in the evenings.
It's never easy, and the city of Manhattan doesn't make it any easier. Sometimes I think of Manhattan as a great big bully that’s taunting and haughty and unrelenting. It likes to push and prod its inhabitants—especially its newcomers—flexing its muscles and putting them in their place. The city knows it is the possessor of many people’s dreams. It holds them in its hand and often dangles them in their faces.
“You want this?” Manhattan asks. “Then you’re gonna have to sacrifice for it.”
And somehow, we all agree to its terms. At least for a while, anyway. In the process, many get weeded out, or they simply get tired of playing its games. On my good days in Manhattan, I played, and I did so with my head held high, even in spite of what the city was asking of me. When I first moved out from California, I worked a crazy serving job that required me to spend eleven-hour days on my feet, scrape gum off the underside of tables, and get home at two in the morning. All for the glorious sum of five dollars an hour, plus tips.
On other days, I was not so cooperative, and rather than dealing with Manhattan’s crap, I was more likely to give it the middle finger. “You can take your dreams and shove them,” I would say.
Those were the days when I could almost feel the city smiling down on me, saying, “Good. It certainly took you long enough.”
My pastor puts it this way: “When you first come to New York, it will beat you up and kick you down until you feel like you just can’t take it anymore. And then, one day, it will open it’s arms wide and say, ‘Welcome!’”
Then he adds, “But the majority of people leave before that actually happens.”
Indeed, it is one of the most transient cities in the nation. People come from all over the United States and all over the world to chase success in New York City. They sleep in bedrooms that aren’t really bedrooms but are more like closets that fit little more than a bed. They pay around $900 a month for these closets—if they’re lucky.
They sacrifice modern conveniences like elevators and dish washers, and basic joys of life that the rest of society likely takes for granted, such as staring at the stars or having a little garden in the backyard.
The pressures of city life, coupled with the less-than-ideal living conditions, are enough to drive some to tears. I spent many a Sunday afternoon with the girls in my Bible study group crying and talking, crying and praying, crying and laughing, and then crying a little more. There were generally around 10-15 of us, and none of us were born in Manhattan. All of us had come here to pursue various things, and all of us had rotating breakdowns.
Some weeks we were confused; some weeks we were jobless; and some weeks we were incredibly excited because one of us had landed a really great role in a play, or met a cute guy, or been published for the first time. And we celebrated those moments just as passionately as we cried.
I loved those afternoons with those women. In a way, I think the backdrop of New York City actually enriched them. It gave them a larger context and allowed them to shine brighter. They were prime examples of beauty and triumph breaking through—in spite of Manhattan being a big old bully.
The more I started to pay attention, the more I began to see that those moments were all around me as I walked through the streets, rode the subway, and went about my day in New York City. They could be found in the random street musicians having a jam session at 1:00a.m. in the middle of the subway platform. Plucking away at their instruments, smiling, tapping their feet, closing their eyes, and harmonizing as their whole bodies started to move and sway to the beats that they were creating. There was so much joy stemming from them that it seemed to multiply and spread throughout the subway platform. It motivated the elderly gentleman with his white hair and glasses to start smiling and quietly singing along. It motivated the hipster girl with the side ponytail and the flashy, 80s-inspired jewelry to open up her wallet and drop a little offering into their guitar case before stepping onto the next train.
Yet, I never expected to be as sad as I am to leave. If someone would have asked me a few weeks ago to describe my attitude toward the city in two words or less, I would have said, “cool” and “unattached.” I found rather quickly that living in Manhattan wasn’t for me. Not that I didn’t love it for what it was and all it had to offer, but I could never quite visualize myself planting roots and building a life there.
Manhattan, to me, is the absolute perfect place to vacation because it is all about indulgence, and because I don’t know that I could have loved it until I knew that I was going to be leaving. Leaving took the pressure off of our relationship.
When I first moved out and was fully dedicated to the idea of living there forever, I became despondent and slightly resentful. I had a hard time enjoying myself because I was too busy squirming and fighting and trying to adapt, while at the same time not really wanting to. I was slightly in denial of my feelings for months. I smothered my desire to leave and hoped it would go away, or at the very least be cajoled into some form of cooperation. But, I believe that trying to convince yourself to love a city is a bit like trying to convince yourself to love a person. It either happens naturally, or not at all.
Ultimately, I am a California girl at heart and it’s nothing personal against Manhattan. Of course, if Manhattan were a human being, I highly doubt it would take this personally. The city is far, far too sure of itself for that.
Its residents, however, are a bit more protective of it, and I don’t blame them for a moment. I get over-protective of Long Beach, and will forever be a faithful advocate of it. I get defensive when people start calling it ghetto and making references to Snoop Dogg. I remind them that it is a city of 500,000 people with poverty and million dollar homes and everything in between. Like a proud parent whose child just took his first step, I brag about Long Beach with all the same ardor. Because of all the cities I have ever been to, I love it the most. It’s comfort; it’s home; it just feels right. In many ways, my decision to move back is a lot more about what Long Beach is, than what New York isn’t.
On that note, I want to close by sharing some photographs I took of New York City in all its uniqueness and grandeur:
Views from the Manhattan Bridge
A little Williamsburg graffiti
My roommate on Halloween
Upper Manhattan, on the way to the Cloisters
Central Park in fall
At the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
a window display at Bergdorf Goodman
Christmas at Rockefeller Center
Commemorating September 11th
Sunset on the Hudson River
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge
Me and my roommate, who I will miss very much :)