In the end, the NYPL host quoted Milan Kundera as saying, “A European is someone who longs for Europe.” To which I will add the implied: A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York.
“Nostalgia” is made of two Greek words: Nostos, to return home, and algos, which means pain or suffering. It is literally homesickness. Maybe this is how you know if you’re a New Yorker or not. It’s not where you were born, or how many generations precede you, or how you make a living, but do you long painfully for New York? Are you homesick for this vanishing city?
In just under three weeks, the movers will arrive at our storage space in Woodside. Lloyd and I will pack the truck—we’re moving on the cheap—and the movers will begin their 8-to-15-day trip across the country with nearly everything we own. On Monday, August 4, we will fly out of JFK. From that moment, we will resume our Just Visiting status in New York for the first time since January 1993. At one time, the thought that we would leave was as remote as Omicron Persei 8; the idea that we would move 3,100 miles away to a place where neither of us had ever lived was beyond consideration. Now we are here, packing boxes every night, sorting what comes with us and what gets tossed or donated or given away, living on the verge of the next moment.
We have been asked often if we’re excited about relocating, and while the answer is still an unequivocal “yes,” right now we are in a place where contemplating the future brings not excitement, but trepidation, if not outright fear. We don’t have a new apartment yet; my student loan money has not yet been disbursed (although I’ve been told by heads cooler and wiser than mine that the money is on the way); my unemployment benefits end next week (although apparently the feds have extended benefits for 13 more weeks, but I’m not sure of my eligibility) and my savings are running out; and, most troubling, Lloyd’s company may not approve a transfer for him after all—which means that he may have to take an unpaid leave and temp for a while until they figure out whether there is still a place for him in the organization after all. Through all this uncertainty, he has been a rock, an optimist and a dreamboat, but this kind of uncertainty takes its toll, and this week it’s taking its toll on both of us. We know that this is a temporary state, and once we’re all settled in, optimism and good cheer will rule the day. Right now, though, contemplating our future is nervewracking business, so I am turning away from the future for a few hours to consider the past, and to think about what brought us to this point, the point where we decided to leave New York.
I could say that the decision to leave came with the decision to attend law school, but that isn’t really true. The school shortlist included two New York City schools, Cardozo and Brooklyn Law, both of which waitlisted me. Or I could say that the decision came on the day I was laid off from LuthorCorp. Even as I’d said that I had no idea what the future held, I knew exactly what a future in New York would hold: either I could maintain our tenuous standard of living by taking another hideous cubicle-farm job, or else I could try to find more creative, satisfying work that wouldn’t begin to cover my half of the rent, to say nothing of groceries or health insurance deductibles. (This is one reason why, to use a vile old phrase, I’ve never “done anything” with my culinary school diploma. I just couldn’t afford it, especially after Lloyd was laid off from his job with a now-defunct DSL provider. Even after he found another job, we just couldn’t afford to live on one full salary plus one entry-level pastry monkey salary.) I do remember thinking “it’s not a question of if, but when” on the day that I yelled at a Republican for hassling a mentally-ill woman on an escalator at Grand Central Station. Ultimately, though, I knew long ago that our time was up. I knew it five years ago, the first time I saw the DeBeers Christmas ads at Grand Central. I knew it then; I knew it every Christmas after that, every time I saw the new set of ads; I knew it, and continue to know it, every time I walk by a construction site for a new luxury apartment building. I know it every time a specialty bookshop closes and a Banana Republic opens up in its place—or when a 30-year-old bakery closes and an Ann Taylor store becomes a bigger Ann Taylor store. I know it every time a supermarket turns into a drugstore, or a bank branch. (There was a time when I considered it a point of pride to not have to rely on supermarkets, and, in truth, I still prefer to buy my fruit and vegetables and poultry and eggs at the farmer’s markets, and restrict my supermarket usage for cleaning and paper products. But I also know that my experience is not universal, and that supermarket access is critical for people on fixed incomes and for the working poor, and that the loss of a supermarket can have a devastating impact on a neighborhood.)
Of course, every time someone mentions that the city is changing, and that little treasures of the city are being replaced with charmless alternatives, there is always a chorus close at hand to remind us that everything changes, that nothing remains static, and do we really want to live in the bad old days of fiscal crisis and escalating crime rates and grafittied subways and crack and AIDS and Gerald Ford inviting us to drop dead? Of course I know that nothing remains static, and it shouldn’t. The problem I have is not with change per se, but rather the nature of it. I could just be projecting a romantic view of the past, but I don’t think I am. Businesses have fallen and risen, neighborhoods have shifted and changed, for as long as this city has existed, but at least in the past it felt as if there were a place for all of us, not just the richest or luckiest of us. There were places for the very wealthy, both of the old money and self-made varieties; for the middle class; for service workers and artists and public safety workers; for grocers and milliners and clerk-typists and photographers. Now Manhattan and Brooklyn are being gobbled up by one luxury building after another and one high-end retailer after another, and Queens isn’t far behind. I think of a story I’ve told here before, probably once too often, about the time Lloyd worked as a temp for a nonprofit that aimed to bring business investment into Lower Manhattan after the 9/11/2001 attacks, and how the head of the organization told a journalist that she was after serious money, and didn’t have time to talk to locksmiths. I think of a conversation I’ve had with Julie more than once: Is it really a sign of progress that hedge fund managers and designers and real estate moguls can live here, but their support staff can’t?
I am aware that I haven’t even begun to discuss the effect of this sort of hypertactic money-chasing on the arts-and-letters community in New York. Of course high rents and lack of amenities are perilous for artists, musicians, photographers and writers, and New York certainly isn’t doing itself any favors by pricing them out of the area, but from where I sit, I can see the disappearance of more than artists. One of my favorite short stories is Patricia Highsmith’s “Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out” (anthologized in both a Highsmith collection, Nothing That Meets the Eye, and an anthology edited by David Sedaris, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules), about a middle-aged secretary who spends a strained evening hosting her sister from Cleveland. Mildred Stratton lives on Third Avenue in the 20s and rides the bus to her job in a small office; she keeps a small, neat apartment, shops regularly at the delicatessen below her apartment, loves her quiet life in a noisy city and feels bound to protect it from her sister’s unsympathetic scrutiny. It is a funny, quiet story about a hardworking, kind woman who doesn’t necessarily want to set the world on fire. In the coming New York, there is no room for people like Millie Stratton, and, I fear, no room for people like me and Lloyd, either.
(Dear friends, I am aware that this is a scattershot, disorganized, unfinished essay, what my teachers used to call “not your best effort, Jen,” but I felt keenly that I needed to write this. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what I could say here, but I do need to take a break for some exercise and some lunch, and maybe a little packing. By all means, though, this will be continued. Thank you in advance for your patience.)