By Nicholas Byrne
Recently I started reading Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, which is a collection of Joan Didion inspired personal essays written by writers who came to New York for great opportunities, fell in love with the city and found success within it, but soon found that the city’s exceptional effulgence couldn’t make up for the pressure and despair that goes along with trying to survive in it. Then they moved to some obscurely located environment like Oregon. As a New York writer this theme was bound to resonate within me and at first I came to find that the book was a bit of a creative deterrent, because even though the writers do find success in New York, their success can’t sustain their struggle for survival. Each anecdote is like a New York writer’s worst nightmare: Struggling creative soul comes to the big city to chase their dream, and even after becoming an accomplished writer and obtaining that dream, they still find an inevitability in having to leave the city they’ve grown to feel so passionately about because not even an accomplished writer can make it in this city – that’s just how tough it is. I just think the message is so dangerous, and makes me wonder about all of the writers who aren’t even accomplished? Where do we move? Or do we just kill ourselves? Sure, it’s refreshing to hear the truth; that not everyone makes it here, and even the ones that do make it here still struggle and so sometimes the inevitable answer is to pack up and leave. But to hear it 28 times in a row, recycled and reused, and to hear little remorse from each writer, well that can just be very discouraging to a twenty-something writer, exhausting even.
The more I read though, the more difficult it became to relate to the contributing writers, or even identify with them, and the creative deterrent seemed to dissipate – thankfully! Even though they’re writers, and at some point were New Yorkers, our commonalities stop there. For the most part, they all miss New York on some level, have some degree of yearning for it, but few actually regret leaving New York permanently. The overall theme of the book tends to be that New York is fun in your 20s but get out while you still have some type of lingering love for it, otherwise you will resent it and be stuck there for the rest of your life, miserable and exhausted. I feel like each story, a reincarnation of its predecessor, is completely situational. I can understand reading about one individuals conflict of trying to make it by in New York through an unconventional career such as writing, like Joan Didion’s experience, but to compile 28 writers and their 28 isolated incidents in order to manifest some type of theme against New York just seems useless. Because even if one day I do decide to leave New York, whether it is a personal or financial reason, I know that I would be completely remorseful about it.
I can now read the book as a spectator, rather than a fearful participant. I read it at face value as a bystander, because even though those 28 writers felt that New York and writing did not create a beneficial symbiotic relationship, I know that New York is one of the only places to write. Despite its exorbitant costs and aggressive nature, New York supplies something that money can’t buy, it gives you something for free: material. Aside from the big publishers and the networking opportunities, there are few other places that can conjure such creative inspiration, imagination and genuine artistry. It’s in the subway system, its on the east side, its on the west side, downtown, uptown, it’s out east on the beaches, it’s omnipresent throughout all four seasons, and it’s infinite because it changes each year, along with your perspective on it. How those other 28 writers didn’t see that is beyond my comprehension.
That being said, today I went out to see my father on Long Island, with this book in hand. Visits, whether good or bad, always leave me with a slight feeling of despair due to the nature of his disease and the basis of my visit. However, today turned into one of those days where I had the opportunity to alter my routine. Usually I would take the Long Island Rail Road from my parent’s house and head West towards Sutphin Blvd – JFK. There, I would normally take the J train back into Brooklyn and then lament alone in my apartment about just how shitty life can be. However, today I decided to take the E train into Manhattan to get my mind off of things. I ran down the stairs at Sutphin Boulevard, and there the E train was, waiting for me with open doors and with that same bright, cool, inviting nature of a Duane Reade. Usually in New York, just catching a train can be taken as a presentiment for a good commute… usually.
I sat down in a far corner by myself and opened up Goodbye to All That. I soon discovered that my presentiment turned out to be fallacious. By the time we hit Kew Gardens we had been underground for a total of 15 minutes, due to signal malfunctions. At this time, I began to regret my decision to alter my routine and I couldn’t help but to realize that if I had taken the J back to Brooklyn I would had almost been home at that point. The train then began to participate in that shaky and uncomfortable jolt-like movement, when it starts to move ever so slowly, and then immediately stops, like the conductor is giving you the tiniest flicker of hope of movement, just so you can maintain your sanity for a few more minutes.
Moving and stopping, moving and stopping, making my heart lighten up each time and I began to think: this is it, this is when we’re going to get out of here. But then a person outside of my eyesight began to clip their nails. And then that unmistakable sound of a clipper snapping through hard protein sent the biggest chill down my spine, but I knew it would be over soon. Except after another 10 minutes we were was still stuck due to signal malfunctions, and we were still stuck due to train traffic ahead of us and we were still stuck because the train’s dispatcher decided that we needed to be. The conductor was still giving out false gesticulations that we would be moving soon by inching us ahead little by little for no apparent reason except to just be an asshole at this point and to get our pathetic hopes up and then squander them immediately. And then the air clicked off and I began to feel moldy. And then the nail clipping reignited and I wondered if the person had begun to clip their toe nails because one person only has 10 finger nails, at most, and I had already accounted for 27 fingernails and how else could I explain the long break in between the clicking sessions unless they switched to their toes?
Then the clicking surpassed any reasonable number, even if toes were included, and I tried so hard to find this infinite nailed animal amongst the squalor and the crowd, but I couldn’t and the train gave out a quick jolt again, but it was only a tease because just as quickly as it started, it stopped and it seemed even the conductor had given up hope at that point because I hadn’t heard from him in 15 minutes and with no way to gauge just how long we were going to be down there I began to go a little insane.
My only vice was to continue to distract myself by reading the book I so harshly mocked and criticized, and that seemed to work until the lights flickered off, and then that was fruitless as well. And as I sat in the now crowded, hot, dormant, dark, fingernail polluted subway car I couldn’t help but to begin to identify with those jaded ex-New Yorkers. And although I had been mocking the book and it’s writers, its message began to register with me, despite my promise to myself that it wouldn’t, so during this desperate and trying time I had to continuously feed myself questionable affirmations: I’m different from them. They’re all old and boring now. I am a true New Yorker. But even despite my affirmations, just for a moment I acquiesced halfheartedly to their frame of mind.
Just when I thought I was about to pop a vein in the side of my temple the air came back on and the nail clipping subsided and the train began to run smoothly and consistently and the lights in the tunnel began to resemble shooting stars through the window as the train sped passed them and I continued to read my book, but this time I was a spectator again. I was back to judging those feeble writers who gave this all up so prematurely, and I could no longer relate to them, New York was back to being a wonderful place.
I got out at Lexington Avenue to transfer to the downtown 6 and I realized I hadn’t taken the 6 since my sophomoric days at Hunter College and I remembered that 42-year-old I dated that spring of my senior year and how perfect it seemed and I briefly reveled in that euphoric feeling I got when he first gave me the keys to his 3rd Avenue apartment and the devastation I endured when I gave them back to him later that summer. And then I realized I hadn’t been to the UES in almost three and a half years and I wondered where else besides New York can one have a college experience like that, and that reaffirmed all of my faith into the city even more.
Except then a woman cut me off in rush hour, but she appeared to be in no rush herself because she in fact walked twice as slow as me, but for some bizarre reason she felt the uncontrollable urge to be in front of me during this slow saunter. It felt like even though I was driving in the fast lane some ugly minivan still decided to cut in front of me just to do 45 in the 65. But I didn’t let myself get flustered this time because fuck her, she was probably one of those feeble people I had been reading about, who will give up on NY one day, because she wont be able to handle it.
And then I got on the downtown 6 train platform and even though I was now completely submerged in rush hour human traffic, the teeming rush hour traffic I sought so desperately to avoid but couldn’t due to my 45 minute E train delay, I still felt like I made the right decision to go into Manhattan rather than back to Brooklyn. And as I waited for two 6 trains to pass before I could actually squeeze myself onto one I began to feel beads of sweat develop and drip down my spine. I then realized that the amount of effort and tenacity put into a seemingly simple New York commute is comparable to that of marathon running, but I didn’t let that bother me either.
Finally, I reached my Astor place destination and I reemerged from the underground and was met with a summer thunderstorm. Humid and wet and this was probably one of the first times in forever that the meteorologists were actually right, however this was also the first time in forever that I didn’t bring my umbrella and I thought: this only happens in the movies, terrible cliché after terrible cliché. But that’s when I realized that they weren’t clichés, they were just everyday NYC obstacles. And sure, it felt like I was in a shitty movie, but who wouldn’t want their normal commute from point A to point B to have some movie-like qualities associated with it, whether they be shitty or not?
Even though a commute home from work, or to the grocery store, or to the gym, can result is some of the most unbecoming and biazzare situations, at least there’s never a dull moment. Even though some days you might feel like you’re stuck in a shitty movie, you have to realize that’s just life in New York, because New York is one of the only cities that evoke such a strong movie-like atmosphere. And sometimes you’re at a part of the movie where it sucks, but sometimes its magical. In, Goodbye to All That, a majority of the writers use the incessant and unoriginal concept of “breaking up with New York” by personifying the city into a lover or a boyfriend. But I don’t see myself in a “relationship” with New York City; maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to distant myself from these writers and their frames of mind. Because the city isn’t my boyfriend, or my friend, it’s my home. Therefore, I can only view it as my home, and if and when I do depart from it, it would be labeled just as that, as a move, not as a “break-up” or the “end to a relationship.” I wouldn’t harbor or manifest any negative feelings towards my home; I would only thank it for it’s bountiful and copious amount of opportunities, inspirations and memories. But until then I don’t see myself going anywhere, I just see myself saying hello to all that… and then writing about it.
Read more of Nick's writing on his blog WhyCantGodJustTweetMe