10.23.13

Writers on Their Difficult—And Not So Difficult—Break-Ups with New York City

New York is a beautiful, demanding city. It pulls you in, makes you fall madly in love, and then, as in all affairs, the honeymoon period ends. In a new book, 28 writers tell their stories of how they fell in love—and came to leave—New York.

In her now iconic essay “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion wrote about her early love-struck days in New York City, and how it all came to an end. After living in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for eight years, she realized “that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” Her love affair with the city had ended, and she fled with her husband back to the West Coast.

Didion’s searingly personal words have touchéd many who’ve moved to the city of bright lights. In a new book of essays, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, author Sari Botton asked 28 of her fellow female writers to tell their own stories of falling in and out of love with the city. Some left for practical reasons—money, other loves, a job—others truly fell out of love with the Manhattan and couldn’t leave fast enough. Some pine for it and sneak back for rambles around the city streets, while others have said sayonara and haven’t looked back since.

Here, four of the authors share a piece of their stories with The Daily Beast:

‘Real Estate,’ Sari Botton

I probably would never have left New York City if, in 2005, my husband and I hadn’t lost our large, under-market-value apartment at the corner of Eighth Street and Avenue B.  I suppose we could have looked for another city apartment. But with our meager incomes, that would have entailed seriously downsizing and/or staking out one of the city’s farther-flung frontiers, a move that would have shifted the trade-off for us—that delicate balance of what you give up and what you get for it.

Everyone in the city has their own unique threshold for how much they’ll put up with—how much noise, how many long hours at work, how few romantic prospects—before they’ll go. We’d already begun to feel as if living there was taking more out of us than it was giving in return. Sometimes just affording your life there can feel like a perpetual grind.

Still, I would have stayed! New York City felt more like home than anywhere else. Like so many before me who went to New York to reinvent themselves, I felt I became “me” there. I thought I’d live there forever.

But when our building was granted landmark status, our landlord tripled the rents. He also nearly killed us by renovating the building’s façade in unsound ways.

“But if I win the lottery, you can bet the first thing I’ll do is buy an apartment in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan.”

Our tenants association spent a miserable, expensive year fighting our landlord in housing court. We won the case, but lost our apartments. Brian and I moved upstate to Rosendale, a funky little river town that we love. But if I win the lottery, you can bet the first thing I’ll do is buy an apartment in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan.

‘Homecoming,’ Mira Ptacin

One day, about four months ago, after the air conditioner in our fourth-floor Brooklyn walk-up broke yet again, after our dogs had met the police twice (once for nipping at a Hasidic man’s tzitzit and once more for attacking a soda can collector’s garbage bags), after we’d drained our bank accounts and accumulated a severe amount of debt, spent more time with strangers on the subway than we did together at our own kitchen table, and finally had enough of New York, my husband Andrew and I quit our day jobs, gathered the dogs and our belongings, rented a U-Haul, and said goodbye to all that and hello to more peace, more quiet, and less distraction.

We live in Maine now, the Pine Tree State. The only state in the country with just one syllable. The state whose motto is Dirigo (“I lead”) and slogan “The Way Life Should Be,” which, to me, after living in New York City for just over half a decade, Maine is.

When I was a city girl, my spirit was comatose because my life revolved around my career; even my marriage felt like a business arrangement. The day our dog bit that soda can collector (who eventually sued us) and a policeman came to our apartment to file a report—the day we had to defend our pet—was the first time my husband and I had worked as a team in months. That’s when we realized it was time to leave New York and save our marriage. We kept driving. We passed a public supper, a scarecrow contest, some steeples, and sailboats until we crossed Commercial Street and drove our car onto Casco Bay Lines ferry and drifted along Portland Harbor until we reached our little sanctuary on Peaks Island, Maine. Population: 800.

‘Crash and Burn,’ Eva Tenuto

I got high off my first hit of New York City as a high school senior in 1990. A year later I moved there to pursue my first love, acting, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

But life in the city was hard. I juggled constant competition at school with waitressing in one greasy spoon after another, which led me to my second love: drinking.

In 1999, I graduated from diners to Rose Marie’s in Tribeca.  It’s there I found myself waiting on Robert DeNiro. He ordered a Cosmopolitan, but sent it back because it had a bug in it. “Would you like me to scrape it off the top,” I joked, “or make you a new one?”  He laughed! It would have been a great scene if I’d been playing a waitress in a movie opposite Robert DeNiro playing a customer. But there were no cameras, no crew.  I was just a waitress, waiting on Robert DeNiro. Unable to stand the thought of being a waitress another day, I decided to go to Hunter for my MA in Elementary Education.

goodbye-all-that-cover
‘Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York’ by Sari Botton. 288 p. Seal Press. $13.25 ()

But the further I moved from my acting dreams, the more depressed I became, and the more I drank. Finally, in 2005, I hit my bottom in a fourth-story atrocity I shared with friends under the BQE between Williamsburg and Dumbo—Dumbsburg.  I woke up one morning hung over, crying, and unable to stop.  This wasn’t unusual; I cried everywhere, even more than the preschoolers I taught.  On this particular morning, though, I knew it wouldn’t stop unless I did something drastic.

I quit my job, sold my belongings, and moved back to the Hudson Valley.  I planned on regrouping and returning to the city, but eight months later I got sober and haven’t looked back since.

‘Strange Lands,’ Roxane Gay

I emerged from my agent’s office flush with having had a real New York experience, the kind I had dreamed, always on the outside, looking in on the glamour of New York CityThe street was mostly empty, no cabs ambling by. It began to rain. It was warm, late May. My jeans immediately clung to my thighs. I wasn’t sure which way to go, though intellectually, I knew I was between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Because I understood Fifth Avenue to be fancy, I headed in that direction. The avenue was teeming with people—mostly thin, attractive, wearing skinny pants, unconstructed blazers, pointy shoes and expensive eyewear. They walked unbearably fast. I wasn’t sure where to position myself to be as little of a nuisance as possible. I trudged in some direction, uptown I hoped, toward my hotel, which was not really near Fifth Avenue and probably not uptown. New York’s geography confounds me even though it is simply a grid. I kept my arm high in the air as I tried to pace the real New Yorkers who moved along the sidewalk sleekly, as if their chic demeanors protected them from the elements. No cabs stopped. I kept walking. The sidewalks continued to swell with busy people, hell bent on getting to important places. With each step, my thighs ached more. New York became rapidly less glamorous. By the time a cab finally stopped, I had walked a mile or two, if I am to understand a city block to measure a tenth of a mile. As I sank into the leather, I sighed. I wanted to go home, to be home, away from New York, far away. The idea of the city was much more alluring than the city itself on a rainy, unmoored day.