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