Having a dorky, good time at Sesame Place just outside Philadelphia.
Dear New York,
It’s going to be that kind of letter. The Dear John, it’s not you, it’s me, chockfull of BS, passive-aggressive kind of letter. The kind of letter where, with hope, we both find closure.
Okay, maybe you don’t need any closure. You’re used to those who love you, leaving you, moving on, unable to swing the ups and downs of life with you anymore.
But I need to write this letter for me. I need get over you. I need to move on.
I’ve already literally moved on, too. To Philadelphia a few weeks ago. It’s a new city in a way you’ve never been new to me, figuring, as you do, in my very first memories: that winter day my dad took me into the city, for example. I was five or six, watching businessmen hurrying past the homeless on the sidewalk, stuffed like frozen meat in their sleeping bags. Juxtaposed with the luxury of the hotel my father ran near Times Square, you jarred me online. That was the essential Peter Pan moment that crystallized my whole life. Who wants to be a proper grownup if it means being so entirely without a heart?
Actually, all my family's lore originates in you. My French father came to New York, fleeing political persecution, the same as my mother’s Russian grandparents did a century before, although he drove a cab, learning English on the job, folding and unfolding a giant street map (which I would give anything to go back in time and witness), while they never learned English but still lived the American dream, building a millinery factory in Brooklyn, and goddammit, I wish our family had kept their mitts on that property.
But Philly? That's a city I’ve previously had no connection to other than a morbid enjoyment of The Sixth Sense and that time you got snowed in, New York, all the way up to your Broadway hoo-ha, until the cabs were slipping and sliding and stopped dead, and my husband and I concocted the most top-heavy Bloody Marys ever and watched all of Season 1 and 2 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which really could be set in any bar anywhere and doesn’t count for much.
Still, I need to give Philly a chance beyond devoting the occasional binge-watching session to it. I know none of the most important events of my adult life happened here—I didn’t meet my husband here or become pregnant with my first child here, have my first story published here, or even almost deliver a fifth-generation New Yorker in the back of a taxi racing up the FDR to Mount Sinai.
And, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe all that drama has been a touch co-dependent. Sure, our relationship was exciting. I made a lot of friends and learned a lot about life, know for a fact that shows like Sex and the City and Girls are almost unbelievably racist, because you have to GO OUT OF YOUR WAY not to have a multicultural cast of friends in a city like New York.
We had some of the best times of my life. Even had some of the worst ones, too. The night my grandfather died in that hospital in Queens comes to mind. Another race to get there in time, only that one didn’t work out so well. And mostly just because, it's a little known fact Queens is almost as impenetrable as big, bad Brooklyn—as in this Thomas Wolfe short story, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”.
But my grandfather did know all those streets-- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens. All of 'em, like the back of his veiny, crabbed, craps-playing hands. He was like me. He never wanted to leave New York, ever. I felt him lingering there that night. Maybe it was my imagination as I walked beside the Hudson, frozen into jigsaw pack ice, mourning my grandfather more than I feared muggers at midnight. There was a vastness I'd never perceived before over the moonlit, ice-white bay and sky, a vastness that could encompass all souls. Maybe that was just hopeful thinking. Maybe it was a stage of grief. Maybe that was just an example of how hopelessly in love I am with you, New York, that I imagine you could be... well, not heaven, but maybe another ring of eternity for lost souls like my grandfather and me, like purgatory.
Anyway, speaking of Thomas Wolfe, that's what woke me up to the truth of the situation, how bad I've got it, this thing for you. I was unpacking my books today, and I realized I’ve assembled a small library devoted to you.
There’s Elizabeth Hardwick and Henry James’ The New York Stories. E. B. White’s Here is New York. Ian Frazier’s Goodbye New York. (Although the title is a misnomer. He doesn’t appear to actually leave. Thank goodness.) Teju Cole's luminescent Open City and Jamaica Kincaid’s crystal-hard shard of a book Lucy about an immigrant’s experience. There's Hana Yanigihara’s A Little Life, which is technically only half New York, but what a half. There’s The Goldfinch, of course, and Jan Morris’s Manhattan ’45 and most of Salinger. There’s Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland about New York bankers and on and on.
The point is: set a book in New York, and like a sucker I’ll buy it.
But I get how fangirly I sound, too. I'm a savvy city-dweller, after all, and I cringe for how hollow, avowing love for New York has become like all those partiers living it up, thinking that's why New York is the tits. Not getting it at all. Thinking it's all about what New York can do for them and never about what they can do for the city, for the people struggling to live there, for the generations who have made up its history, given it its texture, lured the artists struggling to create there as they've always struggled. No, it's not the center of the world, and it's silly to say it is, but it’s been the center of my world my whole life, my own little life.
My Brooklynese mother tried to take the New York out of me; she moved me South at eight, but by then it was too late. I could never be convinced to call sneakers "tennis shoes", and every time my mouth formed the diphthong in "y’all" I felt another New York angel die.
But I’m not convinced anymore either that New York is still the place for me. I have two children now, and New York is a hard place to be a tender thing. As much as I love you, New York, I didn't enjoy being pregnant in you. I did not enjoy feeling vulnerable or weak on your tough streets. It's gotta be asked; what is making you so Tiffany diamond-hard that the old, the weak, the sick, the very young get broken against you?
Is New York becoming a gated community? Is Sex and the City becoming a prophesy rather than a somewhat trashy, escapist fantasy? Is Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens for that matter) becoming a city only the rich are welcome in?
So, word on the street is Philadelphia is a diverse family-friendly city, or, in your provincial parlance, "like a sixth borough of New York". That might not sound glamorous or exciting, but I’m not exactly glamorous or exciting anymore myself. With two young kids hanging off me like little koala bears, I’m an entity not an individual ego out to get what it can get. I don’t mean to be snide, but perhaps you could take a page from my book, New York.
(Hey, I’m a woman, New York, you knew I’d have to get the last word.)
No man is an island, New York, not even you. (Cause let’s not forget the boroughs. Although Staten Island is technically an island like Manhattan. So that does make you at least 2/5 island. Ach, whatever.)
So it’s not me, then. Let's agree to agree on that: it is you.
I’m leaving you, New York.
But maybe I’ll come back someday.
What I’m saying is; I hope we can be friends.
For another story featuring another homesick New Yorker, please check out my Danahy Fiction Prize-winning story in Tampa Reivew's 50th anniversary edition, available for sale here.
The Voices of Women, my first chapbook available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press here, began as an experiment, almost an acting exercise. Last year, for the third time in my life, I’d gone back to acting after a crucial life change. The first time I experimented with acting-- and not simply with those community plays where they had to cast every one who auditioned-- I’d just graduated from college and moved to New York City.
First, I was not supposed to move to New York and be an artist. I was supposed to be an academic like my older sister before me (French) and my younger sister after me (geology). School was what I was good at. (Or, as every grammar geek will tell you: at school was what I was good.) Actually, school, as various odd jobs had proven, was about all I was good at. If Winston's greatest, most soul-crushing fear in 1984 is rats, mine would have to be trying, and failing, to open a bottle of cabernet in front of snooty customers.
However, after graduating (but before moving to New York) and after another year in the schoolroom-- this time teaching high school-- I did not apply for graduate school. All I knew was I wanted to be as far from a classroom as possible. I wanted to know the things you couldn't learn in a book. That's not to say I was a know-at-all who thought she knew everything already. (Okay, I sorta was, but I was 21! You're supposed to be.) I did know I didn't know a single thing firsthand about life. The theater with its frank and taboo explorations of the human condition seemed to offer an alternate education. As if to confirm my faith, in one of the first theater festivals I performed in off Bleecker Street, another actress couldn't find her costume, so she resolved this difficulty by coming onto stage naked-- i.e. sans costume 'cause we weren't performing Hair-- EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF THE FESTIVAL. And no one batted an eyelash.
All those old musicals seemed to have told the truth: theater people WERE the greatest (and perhaps the craziest) people you'd ever meet.
Thus buoyed by my Busby Berkeley vision of life in New York, I went to my first professional acting class on nearby Sullivan Street full of hope and technicolor dreams. Of course nothing bad was bound to happen to someone as naive and dreamy as that. (That was sarcasm.)
Of course something bad did.
The teacher, a white-bearded old Russian fellow, who literally resembled an order-by-catalogue artistic mentor, promptly felt my 21-year-old ass up.
“You really have…vision,” he told me, one arm sweeping outwards, the other around my shoulders, making another kind of scooping motion downwards.
I’d paid for three sessions, but not only did I not go back to the class, when one of the theater’s administrative assistants left a message, I was so horrified, broke as I was I didn't even take up his offer to refund my money. Soon afterwards I moved away from New York, but I kept performing in community theater, and I grew up a little. A few years later my orgasm in The Vagina Monologues so offended three theatergoers they abruptly stood up and left the theater, telling the ticket-taker, apocryphally I think, that up until that point they'd thought it was The Virginia Monologues.
I knew then all I wanted to do was go back to New York and act my...er... heart out. I'd grown up, grown out of my virgin state of mind. I wasn't going to let any grizzled, handsy fellows stand in my way this time, no sir-ee.
No, this time I was going to be a bohemian artist like in Jules et Jim-- it seemed more worldly to base my ideas about life on French cinema instead of old Hollywood musicals-- and my then-boyfriend, who had hated his experience in law school and wanted to be a painter instead, joined in the crusade. We made the decision together to move back to New York. On our way out of town, in one last act of defiance, we returned my engagement ring at the jewelry store on Main Street in the small town where we’d bought it. The jewelers didn’t give us the full price back, but, either puzzled or saddened by our request, they did give us something, which we split in half, because l'égalité.
I used my half to pay for acting classes-- this-time with a very female teacher, who turned out to be more like a cast member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey than an archetype of European genius. At least while I was there I encountered another acting teacher who changed my life, and more positively this time. Her name was Mala Powers and she’d studied with Michael Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s nephew. She was kind and gentle and almost completely unknown at that point, although once upon a time she'd been a movie star of sorts.
Famous or not, she made a huge impression on me. I just loved her. I thought she was brilliant and sad somehow with her silver hair and her silver dreams, and, better yet, she was a gifted teacher, my first teacher to teach me how the body has its own language of expression.
“If you want to cry,” Mala said, keeping it simple, not pretending to be deep and philosophical (or something of a pederast-- I was 21 to that Russian's 65, sheesh!), “Bow your head. The downward energy will help the tears come.”
Too cool for school though I, a wanna-be Jeanne Moreau-in-training, was, I tried out her tip, walking around in circles with the other students, our heads bowed, no doubt resembling a milling pack of lunatics. Still, for the first time ever, I was able to accomplish that neat actor’s trick: crying on command. Ridiculous as it sounds, just like that I felt empowered to become a “real” actor.
(Backing up, at my very first headshot session before I’d left New York the first time, the makeup artist told me that was the litmus test for “real” vs. “amateur” actors.
"But can you cry on cue?"He'd asked me skeptically when I'd told him my plans to become a "real" actress.
No, no, I could not I was forced to admit.
Later, my frequent and enthusiastic practicing of this skill chagrined more than one boyfriend.)
Eventually, that second time around in NYC, I did become a "real" actor, according to my own small metrics: I had a legit agent and a commercial agent, got myself listed on the IMDB, acted with some other "real" actors, and obtained my SAG card.
“You’re always different,” my agent would complain. This time after an audition for a USA program about a sexy French girl. I hadn’t been “sexy” enough (Sacré bleu!), and that was what they’d wanted. I hadn't grasped that as, puzzlingly, the scene had involved having coffee with another girl and discussing our imminent deaths. I hadn't really seen the sex in that, but what I was grasping was that was what they always wanted, mind you. Sexy. It was living that horrible Justin Timberlake song on repeat. 'Cause it wasn't Jeanne Moreau sexy either. It wasn't anything as empowered as that. This version of "sexy" didn't go after her man or strum guitar. It just sat there, or stood there, being...you got it... sexy. Oh, and it pouted.
C'est tout. That's all, folks. Wow.
Mala had taught me that I could use my body as a mask to become anything—old, young, sexy, not sexy, the way Michael Chekhov was rumored to be able to transform his small form into a towering figure on the stage. Through acting, I’d been excited to explore and expand on that sense of power that comes both from within and without—not only from myself but from that febrile, beautiful, flinty connection to an audience, that sense of energy that passes back and forth between people when creative sparks fly thick and fast in the air.
As I digested these life lessons about being a commercial actor in NYC, thoughts of emulating Jules et Jim in life or in art faded. I became more and more despondent. Before every audition, I knew it was almost more important that I wash, blow-dry, and flat-iron my hair than study a scene's possible interpretations.
Of course, none of this was true in the theater world, but I still had this idea that you needed to make a living from your creativity. That it wasn't enough to feel that connection with a fascinated audience. They needed to pay me for that connection, too.
And granted, I didn't have the usual actor's option for a dayjob. As I mentioned before, I am the world's worst waitress. It always puzzles me when critics point out how highly unlikely it is that anyone could be as clumsy as so many rom-com heroines are, because I happen to know how entirely and sadly a likelihood that it actually is.
For example, I once tumbled headfirst down a set of stairs while carrying four entrees on a tray. No one even got mad at me. It was just so pathetic.
Anyway, I was stuck until suddenly everything changed. I became pregnant and with a daughter, and the thought of continuing to provide such a poor example of womanhood "just until I make it" became utterly sickening to me. I hadn't lived on a kibbutz, traveled the Middle East, given up what would probably have been a decent career in academics, or bravely moved to New York City knowing no one and penniless to boot just to stand around pouting and pretending to be as stupid as a stick of furniture, and, worse, sexy furniture at that. Because that is essentially what I was. Furniture. "Sexy" furniture, which is an apt description, because it is as ridiculous a concept to ascribe sensuality to such ridiculously vapid constructs of femininity as it would be to a chaise longue.
But the moral high ground is a lonely place. I missed performing. Once my daughter was old enough for daycare, now a mother, older, slightly grizzled myself and without any pre-conceptions or fantasies about what I was doing for the third time in my life, I began to act again, determined to avoid the pitfalls of the past, which was perhaps a fantasy of its own kind. Isn't insanity simply defined as repeating the same act and hoping for a different outcome? I thought if I changed my own actions, I could change my reality. I wouldn't perform in anything that seemed mindless or demeaning I decided.
Well, that nixed about 95% of all projects. Even the theater with its real-live human (versus chaise longue) drama began to feel constricting. Soon after making my simple, lifelong vow I was cast as the lead in a play about a young girl who comes to New York, and I found her to be an idiot. So much so that playing her nightly was a chore.
She decides to get into a fight with a drunk heckler in the middle of the night, and he nearly beats her to death.
Um. Well, duh.
Even when I was only 21 and about as green and idealistic as a human being could be-- I literally fantasized that the world was a hollywood musical, people-- I knew better than that. I realized it no longer satisfied me, these idiotic roles, playing pouting or mincing idiots. I put down my headshots for the last time and picked up my pen: who were those women "they" hadn't let me explore in lieu of an anodyne product to be sold again and again?
That’s what I began to explore with these poems, and they grew into a chapbook, and are growing into a book even as I write this essay. Poems about real, kickass, fallible human women.
Women I'd been. Women I wasn't but could have been. Women I wanted to be. Women who might come to be. Women I was afraid of being, and women I might be someday.
Anything, anyone really, but a chaise longue.
Anything but a product, a fungible object that someone else had tried to make me be.
Anything but that.
Photo credits: Hadar Pitchon Photography
Hair: Natalie Marie
MUA: Chris Milone
Cover Model: Isabella David McCaffrey
Stylist: Hadar Pitchon
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.