On what was probably the last real warm day of the summer I took a train east through Brooklyn toward the beach. I had gone out to the beach several times that summer on the A train to Far Rockaway—this would be the last time. There were two weeks of “lasts”: the last time I went to this place, the last time I drank in this bar, the last time I saw this person. How did I know this would be the last time? I didn’t, but I have left America twice before and been naive enough to think I would see people again, that I would go back to places. Aside from a few exceptions I never did. I learned that life doesn’t stop its momentum for you, that you don’t get to do a lot of things twice. I looked out the window at Queens, the neighborhoods, the tagged warehouses, the smokestacks and rooftop fans painted in graffiti. I was told that Houdini was buried in one of the graveyards I passed on the way. I didn’t know if that was really true and I never found out.
At the time I hadn’t bought my plane ticket for Seoul, but it was going to happen soon. I felt at once both blasé and anticipatory about moving to Asia again. Leaving a place, and I had done it by then nine times (all but two of the moves happened on my own) could be pleasurable. You felt the time running out so you made plans to see all the people you wanted to see and visited the places to which you had grown attached. I usually tried to quit my job at least two weeks ahead of time so I could enjoy the city.
By now I was well practiced in all of this. You move around enough you get to be anything you want. In a way we are the places we have lived. The city names carry weight. Scottsbluff. Lincoln. San Diego. Jeonju. Seoul. Portland. Omaha. Brooklyn. We put a lot of importance on them, but in time you come to learn that places don’t mean that much—they’re just cities and towns filled with people. And the people matter more. When I decided to leave I found out how many hooks the city already had in me. The friends I was going to miss, the culture I identified with, the possibilities I still believed in—they stung when I pulled them out.
All told I lived in Brooklyn for five months, almost all of it summer, and as fun as it was, I think New York let me off easy. I could only imagine how much farther the barbs would have burrowed if I’d stayed longer.
In “Goodbye to All That” Joan Didion wrote:
“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”
I am the kind that learns from the experience of others, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I made a point to learn the names of the bridges right away.
The longer I lived there the harder it became to work. When I first came to the city I wrote about all the failed artists I had met, and then it started to happen to me. I made friends quickly and they were fun, interesting. Nearly every night I wasn’t working I was asked to meet for drinks or dinner or some other amusement. I talked a lot about saying no, but ended up saying yes far more.
That was no one’s fault but my own. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I never thought of New York as a place to mine for material anyway. I wasn’t from there. I didn’t understand the city or the people in an intricate enough way to ever get it right. And the story of the young writer who moved to New York and became disillusioned was one of those clichés that was so trite trying to reinvent it didn’t interest me. I didn’t want to become one of the Stranded.
I left for a lot of reasons. The practical side of me told people I wanted to give America a chance to sort out the journalism market while I went to Asia, where newspapers were still essential to the public. Give the U.S. time to figure out how to make money on the internet. America was still my people, my country, and I wanted to come back and work for it, but not until it got its house in order. But there were other reasons, too.
New York wasn’t going anywhere. I thought I might live there at another time, but I wouldn’t move there again without having a job first. It’s possible to just show up in a city and make it work—it just takes a lot of time, years, usually, until you get where you want to be. I’m not that patient and there aren’t any guarantees. I met more than one writer who had quit writing completely after moving to the city and not being able to get anything done for years. When you’re 40, married, and working nine-hour shifts in a high-volume restaurant there isn’t enough energy to sit down and work. And nothing makes you tired like getting up at four in the morning to write. We need experiences, but we also need time. New Yorkers never have enough time.
Still, I never felt too alone there; my experience was good. Maybe I just met some good people. Maybe I got out before it could get to me. Maybe I was smart enough to not stay too long at the Fair.