I used to write about turtles.
It was a long time ago.
Back when I thought absence
really did make the heart grow fonder.
Then I saw a dead turtle on the road in Alabama.
I’m not a believer in signs, but I got the hint.
The next time we met it was over.
When, a decade later, you asked
if I remembered your partner’s name,
I realized it had never begun.
Something unexpected happened to me today, just over three years after I moved out of Brooklyn. I said goodbye to New York.
It’s been happening slowly over the past three years. Little by little, the pieces of my heart that I left there have been traveling around North America trying to find me. First they followed me up and down the continent during my I’m-Homeless-But-I’m-Calling-It-Something-Else Tour in 2012. Then they lurked around Auburn, Alabama in 2013. And for the past year and a half, those heart fragments have been reassembling themselves during their slow march to this most unlikely of places — State College, Pennsylvania.
I finally realized it today while listening to Benjamin Walker’s excellent three-part series on post-gentrification New York City, “New York After Rent.” As I listened to the stories of people pushed further and further into Brooklyn by gentrification and its rapidly increasing rents, I could feel in my stomach and chest that tightening I’ve now begun to associate with living in New York City. A physical sensation that means, “Nope.”
Certainly a big part of this feeling is that I’ve never lived in New York as anything other than a poor person. The first time I lived there, I worked for a Japanese news agency. The second time, I was a combination of unemployed and running a podcast, which are essentially the same thing.
That meant that living in New York was a constant struggle to pay rent, buy food, have enough for the train, keep the lights on, and on and on. Now don’t get me wrong, I make even less here in State College than I made at least part of the time in New York. But it’s easier to be poor here, even with the inflated rents of this wealthy college town.
Another big difference: I live alone. In New York, I had between one and four other roommates. Even when some of these people were people I loved, it still left me with no private space. Nowhere I could go and be truly by myself. That’s very important to my mental health, and if I were living in New York now, I certainly wouldn’t be able to afford to have my own place. I doubt I could even find a job.
For several years I used to say that “New York is where I understand how I work. Where I feel like I fit in.” And yes, there’s some truth to that. I love the big city and all its crazy adventures. But mostly it’s a slog when you’re poor, and it’s not a particularly healthy place to live if you have mental health issues but no money. Or even if you have no mental health issues but no money.
Maybe I’m starting to figure out how I work, period. Regardless of place. Maybe I’m aging and don’t have the energy for the million-miles-an-hour pace of New York life. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve crossed a threshhold to a place where I no longer feel an ache for a city I once couldn’t imagine leaving. It’s a nice place to visit, but, at least for now, I wouldn’t want to live there.
“From Jen-ghis Can to the Fuller Brush man, they’re just a bunch of losers like me.” That’s the last line of the first song on this world-weary and wonderful record, as least as well as I can render it phonetically. And today, I’m really feeling the title of the album.
in New York, even the crappy restaurants play Talking Heads
how many thousands of words
have I scratched into notebooks
trying to capture the exhalations of eight million souls?
here I am again:
Upper West Side, two blocks
from the luxury high-rise
where I squatted with nothing
but a blow-up bed and a kitchen island
a compact bald man in a suit
that looks nice from here
patrols the glass gates of Juilliard
while a service dog with Lon Chaney’s underbite
scans the sidewalk for danger
black-shirted workers unload buckets and buckets
of fresh flowers
across the street a man and a woman
sleep on adjacent benches
Beyonce’s saxophonist is on her way to meet me
the Lord moves in mysterious ways
This weekend I stayed with my friends Daryl and Deborah in Brooklyn. On Saturday night they gave me the gift of a meal. And believe me, when Daryl and Deborah cook for you, it’s a gift.
Watching them work together in the kitchen was beautiful. First, it’s obvious how much they love one another and how much joy they take in preparing meals together. The whole process of cooking was like a partly choreographed, partly improvised dance. One person moving to the island in the middle of the kitchen to chop or read a recipe as the other moves to the stove to stir or add a bit of spice. One getting a bowl from the cabinet as the other pulls leaves off a stem. It was like watching a ballet where the story was being written by the dancers right there in the moment.
But what struck me even more was their attention to detail. Every part of the cooking process – deciding what to make and which dishes would go together, preparing the ingredients, cooking those ingredients, choosing the right serving containers and utensils – was carefully thought out, discussed, and agreed upon. There was a moment when Daryl and Deborah were picking exactly the right spoon for serving the chana dal, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of the love and joy and care that they put into meals and into taking care of their guests.
I’ve always appreciated people who care about the tiny details. Knowing the names of all the parts of a machine or the parts of speech or the intricacies of a piece of music. I once dated someone who said she only dated nerds, in other words, people who had at least one thing in which they were deeply interested. I still think that’s sound advice. Watching my friends cook brought that home. (Of course, the beautiful thing about D&D is that they bring that same level of passion and attention to many other things in addition to cooking.)
Being with Daryl and Deborah is inspiring in many ways. They’re a living lesson in mindfulness. I’m going to pay more attention to what they’re teaching.
sidelong glances from
at the man scratching
passing over the Manhattan Bridge
through sudden sunshine
startled, he catches himself
soon enough the pull of fortune
draws his gaze again
narrowed eyes, furrowed brow
winning or losing by proxy
until at the next stop
the man rises
says two words to the woman
across the aisle
takes his maybe fortune with him
out the door
they didn’t even mind that their skinny jeans got damp
instead they ran through the streets of the West Village
laughing as they hadn’t since they were children
jumping in puddles (first he, then she, then he again)
as the sound of a jazz combo lurched up the stairs from the 55 Bar
following them down the street like a beatnik mendicant
on the corner of Greenwich Avenue, across from
Jefferson Market Garden, she grabbed his arm, pulled him close
they kissed in front of Village 1, parting the shoppers like a boulder in a river
then, laughing, they danced out of sight down the avenue
17 December 2013
State College, PA
/ / /
The title of this poem comes from something written by Avital N. Nathman, whom you should be following on Twitter and at her website.