On December 29, 2012, when I told her that I had left New York for Detroit and I had mixed feelings about it, Victoria Redel, author of Loverboy, told me not to worry about needing to come back to New York until I had a book ready — and that I should spend the rest of the interim writing, writing, and writing.
I have tried to write the definitive essay about leaving New York at least a million times already. In my head, it would be a layered, rich prose piece that would allude to other such works in the genre of Leaving New York that writers before me had put out into the world—most famously, Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and even Cord Jefferson’s “I Used to Love Her, But I Had to Flee Her: On Leaving New York”; it would be a lyrical map of all the streets throughout the boroughs of New York City—I’d be able to convey with bated breath how streets like Broome, Havemeyer, and Astoria Boulevard represented capillaries through which anecdotes my life were transported. It’s a rambling, overcooked metaphor for the MTA, I suppose. I’d tell you about the horrible quality of life I maintained because a dollar does not go so far in that city.
I’d be able to catalog the men I dated, those many times I grew tired of running the marathon and my knees buckled and I fell flat on my face. I’d catalog how, almost like clockwork, I had watched colleagues and would-be mentors disappoint me. I had seen people salivate upon seeing me as The Next Big Thing and then summarily discard me when they realized my own ambitions were not parallel to that vision, or worse, when they realized they couldn’t ride my coattails to a grander life themselves. Everyone who moves to New York can tell you different versions of this same experience.
Each time I tried to write that definitive essay about New York, I failed. Because my story about leaving New York is not about the streets or the men or the social posturing; it’s about trying to find lightness and reconnect with the person I was when I entered that world in 2006.
On Independence Day in 2011, I was down in Austin visiting a college friend; only recently has he come clean with me saying that he noticed that New York had transformed me, it had sharpened me — perhaps too well.
What I had fooled myself into thinking was witty, stylish New York cattiness had become a hideous drag outfit—an external embodiment of the frustration I was feeling daily, hourly, even minutely. I think a more common term for it might be “snark.”
This friend is right. I had become vicious, mean, and cold-hearted—all out of necessity. I had gravitated away from the very core of who I always was. Leaving the city allowed me a chance to get back into the orbit of who I was.
In the Faustian pact most of us make to move to the New York City area, we complacently forgo the quality of life that we would never sacrifice in any other city. But, I think, in this desperation, we don’t understand that forgoing quality of life means that we end up selling ourselves out on a lark. We’re desperate to make it; we’re desperate to be at the life of the party; we don’t want to toil away in the Districts, but want to live it up at the Capitol.
But what we don’t realize is that we end up having to toil away—if not much harder—in order to afford a proximity to the life of the party. The smallest tasks—going to the doctor, buying groceries, cleaning your clothes, going to the post office, doing the dishes, a day out at the movies—add up to become a giant bundle of crippling inconveniences so frustrating that it is a wonder that most New Yorkers can leave their apartments on the days when it might be easier just to stay cocooned in bed.
I think many of us living in New York — but originating from other parts of America — are always one crisis away from being homeless and broke on our asses in such an expensive city. I don’t think that is a sustainable way to live. I think the anxiety from that reality can cause people to behave in ways that they don’t mean to, that are inorganic to who they are fundamentally.
If baring your teeth becomes your default response to most situations, because self-preservation is such a survival skill in New York, then you soon forget how else to behave. You forget how to be nice. Lightness becomes hard to attain.
At the least, I finally learned how to forgive the people in my life who no longer made sense to me and released them into the universe—and thanked the universe when it allowed me to hold onto the people who militantly stuck by my side as I tried to find this lightness.
Even bigger: I had to relearn how to forgive myself. In such a cutthroat culture of allegedly, the best and brilliant in the world, it’s easy to forget your merits. Before I could find lightness again and be of service to the people in my life, I had to learn to forgive myself. New York is not a city you go to if you’re genuinely interested in trying to do just that. On one hand it’s a wonderful town for the most ambitious: You literally cannot afford to settle or coast—you have to be pushing yourself, but on the other hand, the lack of forgiveness and stillness means there’s never a time for reflection. Without reflection, lightness is always elusive.
You do not need to live in New York to be a writer, though New York is great (dirty bathrooms aside) and it might be better if you live elsewhere and visit New York for a few days at at time. – Roxane Gay
You do worry about what people might say when you tell them, “I’m going back to my hometown.” The thought is in their heads—“Was he not able to hack it in New York? Was it too much? Does he not have ‘the right stuff’?” When you put in a handful of years—six, in my case—you want to tell people not to worry about why you’re going back because you came, you did alright for yourself, but you no longer want to have to sweat the small stuff the way the city makes you do so. But in leaving New York, I began feeling light suddenly. I didn’t need to correct people or make a grand statement. My goto became, “It’s just time for me to leave New York.” That, surprisingly, makes a ton of sense to most.
When I moved back to the Metro Detroit area, I felt immensely lighter. I no longer felt the violent pangs of such an extreme culture of one upmanship. There weren’t parties I had to go to to “be seen”; there weren’t pointless dates I had to entertain in the off chance that he “may be the one”; there weren’t happy hours I had to go to because I needed the cheap booze to soften the blow of city life.
Leave the world of New York and enter the rest of America and suddenly you realize existence is actually much more forgiving. You can buy a frozen pizza and spend the rest of the evening watching TV and maybe trying to write a few words.
The pressure to be cool, in any sense, evaporates.
I laugh to myself when I tell people around here about the Detroit suburb I live in; it’s decidedly unhip. There is no nightlife. It’s families, schools, and a mall. There’s a cry of, “Rohin, it’s so lame out there!” and I want to tell them, “Dude, I have been at the epicenter of ultimate cool for years and years; I don’t mind the lameness.”
It is hard to communicate to people who aren’t Recovering New Yorkers why you need the stillness of a lame place—because you want to figure out who you are now that the dust is settling.
When the stupid New York dream failed me, I knew I had to take some time out to determine what I seriously wanted out of life. In ways, the Metro Detroit area is a brilliant city because beneath the heavily-reported decay, there are always signs of rebirth.
This year, has then, gone from finding me staring down a dead end in New York to seeing a whole new world open up in the backyard of my childhood. When that happens, when you are able to start anew poetically, you relearn lightness. You’re suddenly filled with gratitude.
I learned just how incredible the people I surrounded myself for the past couple years, especially, were. That is the singular talent New York has above other cities right now. What New York does well—and what I am hopeful other cities will learn to do well in time—is to draw some of the fiercely, most passionate artists and thinkers into one place, so they have the opportunity to collaborate and learn how to take care of one another. As New York continues to become more unaffordable, I think these people will form oases in other parts of America.
I am hoping this diaspora brings them to my backyard in droves.
I have recently thought about what the city of New York would have to offer me in order for me to consider ever moving back.
The cost may be astronomical.