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.
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.