Dispatches from New York


I moved away from New York City six years ago. When I left, practically ran away, I felt a sense of failure. Not that I had failed exactly, but that the city had failed me. I was so eager then, so full of want. I came here for graduate school, or at least that’s what I said when people asked. It was much more than that. There were specific things I wanted to do; a mental list had formed. I wanted to work in publishing. I wanted to become a designer. I wanted to write a book. And on and on. And I checked various things off my list, one by one, as the years went by. What I didn’t get, after all that checking, was the sense that I got what I wanted. I wonder if this is common for people in their early twenties who throw it all in and, more or less, succeed. Perhaps there was something faulty with my measure of success. Or maybe it had more to do with joy. Or happiness.

The coffee in New York has improved immensely in six years. That much is instantly observable. I am writing from a coffee shop across the street from Cooper Union, where all the tables are made of smooth, rounded wood and the lights are cream globes of glass. White tile along the hardwood floor and marble counters. There is a hipster snobbery here, to be sure. But it is a kind of snobbery that gives me comfort. I have spent my life in coffee shops like this. The northwest is built on them. It is about making something that is good. That is better, yes objectively, than mass-produced coffee experiences. About locality. And specificity. And taste. And aesthetics. And wanting more than the status quo.

Then there is the mythology of New York. Skyscrapers seeped in the sense that you can make it big here. Whatever that means. That your work will be noticed. That it will be understood. Not that you will be understood, but your work, you see, which is more important than you. Especially as an outsider. I was a displaced northwesterner who had grown to love mountains and rain and moss and had something to prove. There is this idea that in New York you can be someone else and that someone might turn out to be a more authentic version of yourself. Or a better version. Or at least one that you can live with.

In New York there is always the sense that you might meet the love of your life every time you turn the corner. The pervasive sense of hope. That things will be alright. Or at least not terrible. Or more precisely, that there are people out there who are like you, and who, like you, want to create things. This is a city of makers. A city that embraces those who make. And not just in the commercial sense, though it is an industry. It’s not all art and soul, even if we dream it to be. There is a commodification of all things. Just like everything else, art is bought and sold, no matter how beloved. I don’t think commodification ruins us, or our work, but there is a sense of compromise when a price tag is attached.  

The city is saturated. Filled to the top with hope, yes, but I mean with the physicality of fullness. The movement of people, night and day, humming, and the need to get somewhere. The ever-present need to move. I walk faster here, and with more purpose. There is no meandering in this city. No strolling. No shuffling. What would be the point? We aren’t here to relax. I wouldn’t know how to relax in this city, which might be why I find it so reassuring. Coming here wasn’t a vacation exactly, more like a remedy. A respite from the quietness of Bloomington. I haven’t yet figured out how to live in a college town. I haven’t figured out how to define myself there. I feel adrift in the stillness.  

I get bored so easily. This has always come as a surprise to me. I am a professional thinker; one might assume that those of us who live in our heads would never get bored. This has never been true for me. I was an anxious, restless kid who has turned into an anxious, restless adult. Maybe I don’t try hard enough. It is easy for me to get by without much effort. This bothers me; I hope I have not become one of those people with a constant need to be entertained.

And what of the past six years? Who have I become since I fled this busy island? More school. More design jobs. More writing. More editing. Less love. More sun. California, as much a surprise to me as anyone, swept me up. Technology, and such, became my world and what I plan to study for the rest of my life. In short, I grew up. 30 came, and there was urgency again. Books that suddenly needed to be written. There was more to do certainly, but it could be said that I had everything I wanted in San Francisco, and I could feel it this time. As close to happy as I will ever likely be.

Now, I am displaced again. A temporary stint in the Midwest. Surprising. To me, and everyone, that I would head inland and for so long. But there is work to be done. PhD-bound and it’s all reading and writing and trying to say something new. It is clear that I left my heart in San Francisco and I will probably return for it someday. But there is an ill-defined piece of me that clings to New York as a sort of home. My most formative years were spent here; it was where I was broken and learned to break. New York, that colossus that I once rejected has retained its mythology. I can’t seem to shake it, even though I walked away clear-headed. And today, I am filled with a deep adoration for this place, one that I was never able to maintain when I lived here. Maybe it was here all the time and I just couldn’t grasp it. Maybe it was just the wrong time. Maybe I didn’t know what I wanted then. Probably there are many reasons. But l suspect it has less to do with knowing what I want, and more to do with knowing who I am.

It is bitter cold and I have been uncomfortably bundled for the past few days. I wonder if New York wants it this way. Wants you to feel uncomfortable. To make things harder and more worthwhile. To give your life some struggle, and thereby purpose. A light snow is beginning to fall from the white sky and the view from this coffee shop window is lovely as the people rush by in their hats and scarves. Even as I settle back into Bloomington tomorrow, I am sure this impression of the city—this bright moment of rushed everydayness—will stay in my mind forever.