In the handful of times I’ve been home over the past year, I seem to have rejected New York like a bad transplant. The streets feel too crowded, the air feels too heavy and the anxiety grates against my skin; I can feel it there, picking away.
Perhaps it is not the city at all. Perhaps I am simply growing out of it in the way we all grow out of our hometowns. Perhaps New York is trying to shake me loose, trying to tell me to go live, that it will still be there when I return.
But my city and my home are rife with reminders. It was the place where I came to the world, but also where my father left it. The week my father died the crude skeleton of the Frank Geary building was just going up, but now it twists, thin and finished, into the sky. Beekman Hospital, grimy and dwarfed, lies at its base and I all I can think is – this is where my father took his last breath.
I was born in a Lower Manhattan neighborhood that was stuck with one foot in the past and one in the present. The skyscrapers of the Financial District swaddled my neighborhood, the Seaport Historic District, where buildings more than eight stories couldn’t be built. I grew up in a loft above the Fulton Fish Market on South Street, and almost two decades after I was born, the neighborhood is nearly unrecognizable. The fish and the fishmongers are gone. I lost the loft and I lost my father but the buildings have stayed, squat brick reminders. This neighborhood is not the same home it used to be, not anymore.
This is the city that changed before I wanted it too — when I was eight years old, in a din of twisting falling bodies and pale grey dust, burned hard against my eyelids, and again when I was 11, with the departure of the fish mongers and their crude laughter and incessant clamor. My neighborhood continues to shed and don shells and the streets, re-cobbled every five years, are both a nuisance and a reassurance of at least one constant. But overall, this is the city of growing pains, where my life moved faster than my mind wanted it to, leaving me with a dull ache that returns every time I come home.
People hurt you when they have changed and you have changed and your lives no longer intersect at complementary angles. You are not guiltless, but you hardly carry all the blame. You can blame faded connections on bad timing, on misunderstandings, the list goes on and on.
But places are different. Stagnant places hurt you with flash floods of memory; places that have changed too much hurt you all the same by reminding you how long you’ve been gone and how much time has passed.
When I was a kid I never thought I would go away to college, let alone spend my first year flush against the other side of the country. I never threatened to run away and I never understood why anyone would. My mother — born in the whitewashed suburbia of 1950s Southern California — fled to the East Coast in 1979 and never looked back. New York has been her home for longer than Los Angeles ever was and besides, she tells me, the latter never really felt like a proper home anyway.
It is much easier for me to grow accustomed to an entirely new place than to accept that a place I know and love is changing around me. But places never truly depart or die: they were here long before you were, and will remain present long, long after you are gone.
They say that grief is complicated, especially when you lose someone for whom your feelings were not so black and white. I have no father left to love, to hate, to adore and to resent. But I have a city. I have landmarks and I have reminders. And in the nearly two years since my dad died, the pace of change in New York feels exponential. Are things truly that much different, or is this just a natural byproduct of getting older – time feels more compressed the farther you hurtle through it, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
Walking down South Street today, I can almost smell fresh crab and cod over ice. I can almost see my father and I, walking a worn path to school, my two steps for his every one. I can almost hear the cacophony of the fishmonger’s swearing, my father is almost here. I am walking on the same ground I stepped on ten years ago, but nothing is the same. I blame New York for taunting me, for the reminders, for wrenching the home out of home, because home should never make you ache so much.