May 13, 2016
Hello to All of This: On Staying in New York
I moved to New York City on June 1, 2008; I was 24. Early that morning, my friend and I packed a Penske truck with all our possessions. Dad brought us a tupperware container of peanut butter sandwiches and a giant mug of coffee, and then we drove away. In a 30-foot long vehicle we chugged up the West Side Highway, made our way to Harlem, and unpacked our boxes on 113th Street while our neighbors watched. The apartment was long and the living room didn’t fit a couch that well. Just like that, I lived in New York.
Joan Didion famously wrote that living in New York is like falling in love for the first time; you won’t love anyone afterward in quite the same way. That is what the beginning, at least, of New York felt like for me. (Spoiler: It changed for me, and Didion too.) Its bigness, its movements, the subway, everyone walking around looking so good, doing unknown but probably fascinating things—all while appearing to not be impressed by any of it—was intoxicating. New York swept me up and took me over and I wanted it to. Nowhere else even existed.
I had a job and made a little money. But what I was doing didn’t matter that much; the bigger purpose was just to be here. I didn’t think specifically about the future, it wasn’t the point. I got up and put on outfits and rode the 2 train downtown, and spent eight hours under fluorescent lights working my way through a big slush pile, very inefficiently, of children’s book proposals, but mostly Gchatting with a boy who would not be with me. I did bad work—but look where I worked: a pretty office in New York.
Outside the office is where I really lived, especially a year later, when I moved to Brooklyn. Brooklyn. I moved into a boxy apartment above a storage unit that held hot dog vendor carts in Boerum Hill with my best friend from high school. Our living room became the Brooklyn Inn. We spent zillions of nights there. We talked to men in their 30s who worked at the UN or acted on TV; the bartenders liked us. The monotony of the work day was relieved by the bar’s dark wood and dim lights and Jameson on the rocks and David Bowie on the juke box. Those two years were a good run, a time when a bar was the center of all existence.
In fact, for all my 20s, everything centered around a place; life—feelings, actions, people—was secondary to a place: New York. I knew that if I was able to just keep waking up here, eventually a lot of things would happen. And they did. But, as per that patron saint of young women who find themselves living in New York, one day you wake up and realize all those things have consequences, and you have to deal with them.
Here are some of those things: I left* (*was fired) from my job in publishing because I didn’t care much about publishing. I left the boy who wouldn’t be with me and found one who would, so much so that we got engaged. He gave me happiness after heartbreak, and while my dad was very sick. I nannied and carried babies around on my chest through Prospect Park for hours. I went to graduate school after my publishing job and studied the thing I thought I wanted to do. I went to seven weddings in one summer with my fiancé and realized I didn’t want to get married. I moved out of our apartment and ended up in a giant loft in Greenpoint with five Europeans in their 20s as I was about to turn 30, out of graduate school, and jobless.
This was a low point. But it didn’t occur to me I could leave and see if I’d have better luck elsewhere. People I knew had started to trickle to LA, but it held no specific appeal for me. Then I visited a friend who had lived here but moved to LA when she got a job at LACMA. It was March; I hadn’t felt the sun on my face in New York in months. I landed in Los Angeles at night; the next morning I woke up and we drove together to her office. I opened the car door and stepped out onto a barren parking lot and craned my face toward the sun. It was like drinking a giant glass of water after a long night of drinking alcohol and then crawling into my bed, only better. It was so restorative that I cried.
I flew back to New York. But instead of thinking about moving to LA, I started to run. I mean that literally. It was the only thing I could think of that might help me take control of my life (short of finding a job I liked, which wasn’t happening). Every morning I got up and ran a couple of miles and eventually got in shape. By the end of the summer I decided to run a marathon. I learned I could keep on doing something way longer than I ever wanted to, even when it felt terrible, and still survive. This, of course, (as Haruki Murakami says in What I Talk about When I Talk about Running) is a metaphor for living. It’s also one for living in New York.
So I stayed. but New York, the place, moved to the periphery; my life—feelings, actions, people—became central. The place where I did those things happened to be New York. I got jobs at restaurants and started, painfully, to freelance. I say painfully because I’d work late and drink too much, try to start my day by going to the gym, and then attempt to write before going back to work. But that system felt stacked against me. I was so tired and New York took on all the attributes of its ever-present concrete; it was dirty and it smelled bad; it was gray and flat and made me feel the same. I started telling my friends I was moving to LA.
And then, I met an editor who wanted to publish a story I really wanted to write, not one that I thought an editor wanted me to write. It was the first time I experienced what it was to work on something that was hard and took a long time, but to have that not matter because the work was more rewarding than any way it inconvenienced me personally. It was caring about something bigger than my limited self, and it felt good. But I was still moving to LA. When I walked outside, I no longer even saw New York City. It had disappeared.
And then came the day that same editor told me there was a position that she wanted me to interview for at the magazine where I had by then contributed to for several months. In other words, one day the possibility of a full-time writing job became a reality and, for the first time in the seven years I’d lived in New York, I could have the job I’d always wanted. It was the worst-timed best news I’d ever gotten because I was moving to LA where it was sunny and I could sleep more.
But instead I took the job because you can’t turn down a miracle. The job felt good; New York, I was still less sure about. That was about eight months ago and here is what has happened since then: I’ve worked every day at something I care about. By doing that, I’ve met loads of people who also live in New York specifically because they are also working at something they really care about. Work should not be life, but if it is important to you and you’re doing an ok job, making sacrifices in other parts of your life can make sense for a while. Because I’m doing this and interacting with this new subset of people while I do my work—even though I’m looking at the same buildings and streets as I have for the past eight years—the city has been made deeper. New York has been made new again.
Because even in a city as physically pronounced as New York, it is the people who make a place. Now I am not choosing to stay in New York because it is so alluring and filled with great bars and well-dressed people who all ride a subway and go to shows in Midtown and Bushwick with relative ease and no cars. I am staying here because I have stayed here just long enough—longer than I wanted to, and beyond the point where it felt good to do so—to build an actual life. I’m staying in New York because, finally, I really live here.
Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus
Follow Natalie Rinn on twitter @natalierinn
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