Last week I visited New York City for the first time as a temporary guest, a visitor, a tourist. Over the past five months I have deeply missed Manhattan; I longed to be back when the Frida Kahlo exhibit opened at the New York Botanical Garden, when my friend played a show covering only Stevie Nick songs, when friends had major milestones in their careers, moved into new apartments and started dating new people that I would never meet. I skipped every single song about New York on my playlist and blinked back tears every time the skyline appeared in the opening credits of this TV show or that movie. I proudly told everyone in the sleepy beach town in Florida where I was spending the summer that I was a New Yorker. No matter where I call home I will always consider myself a New Yorker.
I had a long list of all the places where I wanted to eat, drink and get cultured. For once, I was going to be able to experience ‘touristy’ things like taking advantage of the free Wednesdays at the Bronx Zoo and neighboring New York Botanical Gardens. My excitement to return to my city was unprecedented, yet when I landed at LaGuardia, the chaos of the city that once drove me, instantly drained me. I caught up with my girlfriends while visiting the museums and cafes I had been daydreaming of all summer. I cherish my friendships in New York; I have incredibly strong, brave, resilient women that I am honored to call my friends. Some friends still ask me for restaurant and bar recommendations to impress dates, bosses or visiting family and friends. They have no idea how relevant it makes me feel that they still see me as an expert on all things NYC.
I had always felt personally offended when people would gripe about how filthy, disgusting and stinky Manhattan was. I had honestly never noticed. But as I left the airport it was suddenly apparent. This was hard for me to compartmentalize as I had felt like my truest self in New York, until this exact moment, when I didn’t. Being back was torture. Every street corner was a landmark of a memory from a life I had already decided to leave behind. What once energized me now enervated me. I confided in a friend who also recently left New York City and he described it perfectly, that it was like visiting an ex-girlfriend. I was not in love with Manhattan anymore. I hadn’t realized this when I left. I thought we were on a break, that I would certainly someday come back for good. But like most relationships that go on a break, the magic was just gone. The enchantment had worn off and all of the insane things I had experienced over the years that I thought made me resilient now seemed detrimental, making this place uninhabitable.
I had been nearly attacked by several berserk taxi drivers. I was visually assaulted by a flasher in the New York public library. One day Law and Order SVU was filming outside my office with fake police tape covering the street shared with The New York Times and Port Authority. The very next day the same street was covered in very real police tape, a homeless man had been stabbed to death in a deli the night before, right around the time I left my office. In that same busy intersection, a bomb had been discovered just months before.
The subway was the location of most of my horrors. I had all the typical experiences that women not only expect but accept as the norm. Men groped my body, poked their boners into my back and shoved themselves into the tiny caged turnstiles with me. I was almost stabbed on the subway by a maniac and I had been chased down a subway platform by a masturbating man. I witnessed a man run onto a subway car and walk right past me to kick a girl in the face for no apparent reason and then run off the train. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people peeing, defecating, puking and quite honestly dying on the subway. I even came across a dead body on the subway twice.
My very first apartment in New York City was a tiny 8 x 8 foot studio where I slept on a pullout couch that had to lay on top of the window sill at a serious slant. Later I lived around the corner from Hells Angels and made it a point to walk by the biker club and look them in the eye letting them know they couldn’t scare me. This apartment was also in front of a cemetery, which did actually scare me. At this same crooked East Village apartment, on the 10 year anniversary of September 11th, I watched for hours as police opened every car door at a security check-point on 1st Avenue directly in front of my apartment. That apartment building ended up being demolished illegally while I was still living there. I then lived alone in a Lower East Side studio; the night I moved in I received phone calls threatening my life and there were countless break-in attempts over the next year. I slept with a knife by my bed and had been assigned my very own NYPD PI. But I was never afraid to live alone because I had my basement protectors – the deli men and the bar bouncers who get rid of anyone who had followed me home or had chosen my stoop as a spot to sleep. When hurricane Sandy hit I handed out supplies to those living in the neighboring housing projects with the army reserves that had swooped in and taken over Houston Street. Next, I moved to Stuytown, where I felt I’d be safer, but one morning a dead body was being covered up just outside my building. Then just days before my departure, a building down the street exploded. I had been standing right across the street the day before and now the entire block was just gone and two young precious lives were lost. I was so in love with New York that I thought I was unscathed from all of this.
I was by no means forced out of New York; I left on my own terms. I had so many temptations in that last month leading up to my departure date, it seemed like every day I was presented with an opportunistic reason to stay. My company was making an irresistible offer, I met an incredible man that I thought I must have dreamed into existence and my friend suddenly had an inexpensive room available in her apartment. But I had made my decision to leave, mostly because those things just didn’t matter to me anymore – the career, the perfect guy, the brownstone apartment. Those were no longer the things I dreamt of.
I should tell you now about the never-ending list of things I love about New York. I have more fond memories than not, but I can’t reminisce about the things that kept me in love with New York for so long. I promised a love letter to New York would be the result of this trip but I can’t deliver it just yet. I’m not ready. I didn’t step one foot into the East Village. Its streets are too sacred to me; they’re where I became me. I’ll always love the wackiness of Washington Square Park. I have many fond memories of passionate kisses on snow-covered street corners with whoever my lover of the moment was. The Chrysler building will always fill me with hope and wonder. I’ll miss October afternoons in Strawberry Field holding vigil for John Lennon on his birthday, just days after mine, with thousands of other Beatles fans. I’ll never forget the psychics I encountered, and often politely ignored, who would eventually get fed up with me and would scream out something so incredibly factual about my life that it stopped in my tracks. Speeding down the FDR always felt like a roller coaster as the bridges whipped by. New York from a distance will always look to me like a fake movie set that could be tipped over with the touch of a tip of a finger. I will always be grateful for the nearly seven years I spent nestled inside those skyscrapers, but the allure left my heart when I did.