Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The second time I left New York, I left it and who I was in it, with it.
This isn’t to say a city changes you, but you change with the city. Or at least I do. I am adaptable in that way. And as I uncovered strange things to love in the strangeness that is Santa Monica, later Echo Park, I became a stranger to myself, watching new pieces of me unfold that I had not met before.
A year ago I was scared to leave New York, but now I find myself afraid to go back. I like the me that sits in the garden, surrounded by cats, listening to doves cry and flipping through a record collection that isn’t mine. This me is learning patience in the sunshine. Her hair is long now, and she wants to tell you all about the wonderful things she has seen and done, but she won’t. I like secrets now. I like intimacy.
LA is sprawling. Compared to the building blocks of New York, which I’ve decided to no longer compare it to, the city does not seem to cease. Whereas New York does not cease in its restlessness, its movement, here the hills and valleys dip and hide and reveal. In New York, you feel compelled to shout who you are from the rooftops because you know that nobody really cares. Here, where everyone is trying to be someone, I think you feel less inclined. Or at least I do. Call it reverse psychology. Or, call it that I don’t want the magic to escape just yet. LA still feels special in its newness, in a way that New York hasn’t in a while. I am still making it my own, and maybe I don’t know what to make of it yet.
All of this goes to say, as I write about New York and LA and the me I was and the me I became and the one who is coming, is that I am not the first person to love New York and trade it in for something else, and I won’t be the last. I am not the first person to come stumbling to LA, on my knees, grappling for something to hold on to. I am not the first to see something in these cities, to see something in myself there, and romanticize it, only to burn it all down. These are real places with real people, who have spent their entire lives there, or who haven’t, or who will.
All of this goes to say, I am not special, but these places are, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
Brooklyn. Halsey Street. Funnily enough, I had grown up fantasizing about the very place, obsessed with the artist who had taken her name from the red brick, the graffiti, the long, chopped up blocks, laden, yes, with trash bags and rats, but also with stoops where grandmothers sit, smiling, waiting.
I came to New York for the first time unconsciously, brought home by my mother and grandmother from the hospital. I grew up outside the lights the city is famous for, up north, seeing more horses than taxi cabs and spending summers jumping into the reservoirs where they get the water to make their bagels.
I would say I first came to New York on purpose when I was 15, after spending an early childhood lamenting the noise and the smell and the grime of the city made of movie backdrops, comic book settings, the fodder for songs about love and drugs and alcohol, and of course, the rent. I came to New York on purpose when I was 15 because of those very songs, because I couldn’t find one to sing about my hometown, overgrown and underfunded. I wanted to be where the people were.
And so I made it my own. Union Square became my stomping grounds long before I thought about college or the liberal arts. Afternoons at the Strand becoming formative for my bookshelf still filled with volumes I haven’t read. The Lower East Side introduced me to concert venues to sneak into and drinking for the first time at 17 with an ID whose paint you could scratch off.
When college did come, I knew I needed to leave. Yes, New York was big and bold and wonderful, but it was also too close to my big and bold and wonderful family, who drove me absolutely and undoubtedly crazy. The first time I left, I wasn’t leaving New York, but them.
So DC -- a mini, albeit more political New York -- became my home. But returning to Gotham felt as easy as when I was 15 and rebellious, taking the Metro-North in for the day, whenever I felt like it. This isn’t to say I went home often, but I went home easily, enough.
Two years into school, I began to look at things differently. Things being the places in which I lived. The buildings I called home. I knew that after college I would need to go to the west coast. It wasn’t an option, but a resolution.
“If I go home, I’ll never leave.”
But things change, people change. People change you and they change your plans. Graduation had come and I was balking at the idea of Los Angeles. Like a bad romance movie, I had made it a concept -- the city received no nuance. It, like my relationships, was only supposed to make me happy. I put my hands up at the struggle.
I left that city and the people who wanted me there behind because I no longer knew what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t to have to fight.
So I went back to New York. To Brooklyn. Halsey Street. It welcomed me in its strangeness to a railroad-style apartment with beatnik roommates and an angry cat. The home was a microcosm of New York.
Bold, wild, surprising, heartbreaking, loving, and comfortable.
Six months passed there.
I smoked spliffs on fire escapes and escaped raves covered in glitter and lust. I waited on empty subway platforms in the middle of the night, mascara streaked down my face, a baconeggandcheese in my hand. I danced with my roommates to their old tapes, some made and some found in the trash, in our middle room, our art room, covered in half-painted canvas and cowhide rugs. I drank red wine on roofs and looked out at the skyline I had fallen in love with and knew I would love for the rest of my life.
So you can understand why I needed to leave.
I was in Berlin -- a more grandiose, albeit punk New York -- on the phone with an old friend, who had traded Washington marble for the palm trees we had talked about. I had quit my job. I was no longer a girl afraid to fight for what she wanted.
I booked my one-way ticket to LA and when I returned to New York, I couldn’t wait to get back out. It was comfortable but constricting. Like wearing your favorite sweater in summertime. It didn’t make sense anymore. I didn’t make sense there anymore.