It takes true grit, says Matthew Bryan Beck, to stick with a city like this
Image: Michele Piacquadio via Depositphotos
In Joan Didion’s brilliant and seminal 1967 essay ‘Goodbye to All That’, the then-Vogue junior staffer bade a forlorn adieu to New York City and headed back to her native California. ‘Goodbye to All That’ spawned a much imitated sub-genre within the 20-something personal essay: the writer leaving New York.
In his excellent piece for The New York Times, ‘The Long Goodbye‘, Alex Williams describes a revival of the form, as a new generation of pseudo-struggling young writers try to make it in the Big Apple, fail, then get out of town for good – but not before delivering their parting shot:
“The literature may be thin when it comes to ‘See ya, Chicago’ or ‘Later, Los Angeles’ odes, but ever since Ms. Didion set the standard 46 years ago, the ‘Goodbye New York’ essay has become a de rigueur career move for aspiring belle-lettrists, On first glance, contemporary entries to the genre tend to follow the same arc as Ms. Didion’s essay. Basically, it is a classic femme (or homme) fatale story, with New York as siren, New York as lover-substitute, an eight-million-headed stand-in for those sexy bad-news types we all fall for, to our peril, when we are young.”
And here’s where Williams hits the nail on the battered head: “By framing the relationship as a love affair, it makes the inevitable breakup with the literary capital seem less like a career failure than a coming to the senses after a youthful infatuation.”
He tallies the recent rash of treatises slavishly repeating that same single note: Ann Friedman’s ‘Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24‘ in New York Magazine, Cord Jefferson’s ‘I Used to Love Her, But I Had to Flee Her: On Leaving New York‘ in Gawker, Christopher Soloman’s ‘Goodbye, New York. Thanks For Breaking My Heart‘ in The New York Times, Andrew Sullivan’s ‘So long, New York, my suffocating, selfish mistress, I’m going home‘ for The Sunday Times.
These farewell missives are, quite frankly, reliably self-serving and sophomoric. Do these would-be writers and winsome bloggers come to New York to truly live here, to try to belong – or simply to collect fodder for their own grandiose, and inevitable, Didion-esque exit essay?
Not long ago, I might have written my own ‘Goodbye New York’ essay. My career had hit a wall. I was broke, restless, bitter, discontented. I looked around for other gigs in other cities: LA, San Francisco, Austin, Nashville, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, even London or Sydney; a new life, a new start, an easier road to carve out than Broadway. But something kept me here. If you can make it in New York, they say, you can make it anywhere. But if you can’t make it in New York, don’t cry about it. So I didn’t leave. I’m glad I didn’t quit New York at 24. I adore Joan Didion, but her New York isn’t mine.
Far from the starry-eyed puppy-love of these urban transplants, I have no expectations for New York. When I write about being in love with New York, I see her as she is: old, tired, saggy, unwashed, and foul-mouthed. I am in love with that city, not the fluffy, glamorous, glittery, impossibly sexy creature wrapped in mink and stardust that this new wave of navel-gazing tragedians thought they’d find. They came looking for the New York they saw in fashion glossies and Hollywood rom-coms, then recoiled and retreated when they found a pockmarked face. They simply didn’t have what it takes, and what it takes to truly survive in New York City is a sort of innate blood-and-guts –– not everyone is born this way.
Ed Koch once said if you can make it to 10 years, you’re a real New Yorker. I’m going on 12. Here lie my roots. My father was born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents were also Brooklyn born and raised, and lived their entire lives in the borough. Neither ever got a driver’s license. My bombastic German grandfather was an uneducated street kid from Bushwick, an old-school tough guy who worked hard, drank hard, gambled hard, and hardly did much else. He managed a supermarket, and even when a blizzard hit and the buses were down, he would get up at dawn and walk on the snow-topped roofs of frozen cars to get to work on time. He was that type of New Yorker.
Perhaps I’m trying to establish a reverse literary trope, of running head-long into a factual New York instead of running away from a fictional one – and not trying to romanticize and rationalize an escape. I’ll call it ‘The Long Hello’. The Long Hello takes the local line to recognition and success, makes every stop, and feels every exquisite bone-jarring bump along the way. It’s the delayed gratification of a New York minute. Gotham is a gilded cage, and I’m a lifer. The Long Hello takes its sweet time to get to know this city, because it takes years and years to cultivate a meaningful, intimate relationship. I was raised to not give up on someone or something you love so easily. The true test of commitment is whether you stay or bolt when the honeymoon period is over, when everyday living sets in. New York can be mean and thankless and cruel and oh-so-cold, but so what. That’s life. That’s anywhere. New York will just smack your head with it and not apologize.
“In a more innocent era, it seems, writers chose the moment in life that they were ready to serve the city its ‘Dear John’ letter,” concludes Williams. ”These days, New York is likely to dump them first.”
Hey, New York. Let’s stay together.
Words: Matthew Bryan Beck