How do you come to love the place you call home?
The last place in the world that I wanted to live was New York City.
My brother had just plagiarized me—my poorly masked ripoff of Batman in short story form had gotten his copycat juices flowing—and so I was combative and contrary. We were talking lifestyle choices and knew everything about the world. I was 16, he 13, and we were sitting before our shared Commodore 64 computer. We were at that age where interests are lifestyles and you can write your future easily, as if simply breathing makes a grand statement about intention. I own a soccer ball and so I am a soccer player. I listen to Zepplin and so am a rebel.
“Well, I’d like to live in a big city, like New York.” My brother said this with a certitude that spoke of either thorough or nonexistent deliberation. I had given no thought to where I might live. The suburbs of Rochester, New York were no better or worse than any other place, and I’d wound up there the usual way: via my parents’ choices. Jobs decided location.
“Not me,” I countered. “Too big. Boston is more my size.” What we knew of these cities is unclear to me now. A family visit to Boston, a one day sojourn to Manhattan. Little to work with, everything we needed.
“No, New York City is much better.” I envied his certitude, wondered at its origin.
Nine years later I was following a woman I would have followed anywhere, even if she chose the last place I wanted to live. She did. My brother wasn’t yet out of Rochester but I was in Boston. The Commodore 64 was in a past as distant as the Bush the Elder presidency, I was now saving my stories on something called a “hard drive,” and AOL ruled the world. It was 1996, and I was in bed with the woman I’d eventually marry when she casually mentioned that upon graduating from college she’d have to follow her passion for modern dance to New York City. I was shocked as much by the fact that there was a “future” as i was about what she planned to do in it. I had given no thought to where I might live after completing graduate school. At the time I shared a 400 square foot apartment with two other graduate students. We had mice and suffered from cage behavior. My closet door was a blanket handed down to me from my mother or grandmother (white cotton, blue flowers, threadbare as a respected flag). We were in Boston. This was not a product of my following a dream as much as irony that the program I chose for my MFA was located there. Academic pursuits chose location. And after? I hadn’t given it any thought.
“I’ll go to New York,” she said. I marveled at her certitude, wondered at its origin.
“It’s a bigger dance community. More chances to find work.” Then she twisted the knife. “What will you do after graduating?”
My words were out before any thought had formed. “I’ll move there with you.”
Fifteen years later, when things hit the point of “thanks for coming, but can you go,” my soon-to-be ex-wife asked where we would end up. Our condo was being shown and as soon as it was sold we would find separate spots. We were looking for new places, and like all real estate hunts in the city it felt like looking for hay in a needlestack. I’d already been turned down by two landlords because I had a kid (illegal, I believe; immoral, I am certain), and that was for places I could barely stand, places that would only work if the mice and the cage behavior were placed just so between the Ikea sofa and lamp. We hadn’t really been able to afford the condo, and now we had to replace it with two places. And we wanted to be near each other—for our son, for ourselves.
“Why can’t we just get over Brooklyn and leave the city?” she asked.
“Because its like that first terrible crush, the one who you need more than she needs you.” I knew how that felt too well. That’s how the city felt. How it feels.
“Maybe we should just get out.”
We were walking in Brooklyn, on or near 9th Street . It was spring, and the air was cool and calm and clear. It was hard to see the sidewalk ahead, and our voices and footsteps carried in the dark.
“No,” I said. I gave reasons that included my job and our son’s school but which culminated in the one real reason that shook my knees. “I love it here. I don’t want to leave. I’m not done letting the city kick me around.”
I’ve walked over the Brooklyn Bridge non-recreationally. Blackouts and MTA strikes. I rode on a subway car travelling at five miles per hour as it went past the Wall Street area, days after 9/11. (A woman complained the speed was due to incompetence; mourning in America.) I’ve learned that all the best New Yorkers aren’t from here, especially the ones who were born here. We’re from different countries and different eras and different hearts. We’re imprinted with our families histories and we carry them on the subway, into the bodegas, out onto fire escapes for fresh air and scaffolded gardening. We scream to our friends a block away and hold up traffic with stroller-loaded, double-parked cars that will never know the glory of garage living. We hate each others’ guts for standing too damn close on the subway and then offer a seat to the elderly, the babbling child, the about-to-burst pregnant mami who is angrily grateful, and when we hear someone who should know better moan why, why, why does the city have to be so crowded, so expensive, so hard, we defend it. It’s New York: it’s supposed to be. Get over it. Or get out. And let your landlord know I’m looking for a place. Does it have outdoor space, an eat-in kitchen, hardwood floors?
I’ve seen Paul Auster mull weather on his front steps. I’ve seen Chuck Schumer walk with his daughter near Prospect Park. I’ve seen Marty Markowitz, a character in search of a novel, dancing at the tail end of the gay pride parade. I’m proud to be here. Prouder that my son is from here. And they can try to kick me out with expense and minuscule spaces and “we may or may not be making express stops” subway announcements, but when those roots get in there they are hard to pull up. And I am aware of my certitude, and I know exactly where it’s from.