Monday, July 19, 2004

NYC Transplantation Essay

i am entering this essay contest with the essay below. i posted the last draft, but this is the final final that i just emailed. i totally forgot to put my name & info in the body with the essay, so i assume if they want to contact me they will just email me. i'm too neurotic about these things.



An Open Letter to New York City:

I wanted to tell you that I didn't intend to walk out on you so abruptly. I have always believed that saying goodbye is important. If nothing else, it offers a rudimentary sense of closure. I never said goodbye properly, and I've longingly avoided you ever since. My hurried exit in a rented silver mini-van with a feeble wave to the skyline from Hoboken as we headed toward my parents' house in Pennsylvania with everything from my last New York City apartment was by no means a proper goodbye. I think now is the perfect time to finally say what I should have said when I left over a year ago.

I lived my life on the island of Manhattan for four years. It takes a while to warm up to you, but staying with you despite the awful experiences (they probably wouldn't have happened anywhere else) has made me stronger than I ever imagined I'd be at 22. I arrived armed with a craving for discovery and departed knowing that while I was experiencing life, life had experienced me. I experienced things that taught me more than any education at any university in the world possibly could endeavor to teach. It is horribly unfair that people discount the New York experience for students at the city's universities. Yes, the stacks of books in our libraries buffer us from much of the coldness of reality. College certainly does give us a clear purpose - paths mapped out in curricula that lead to jobs, to Master's Degrees, to the sweet life.

It is hard to understand how you can become a New Yorker while going to college unless you have done it. Becoming a New Yorker has nothing to do with whether you live in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens or Bronx or Staten Island. Whether we live in the projects, a penthouse on Central Park West, or in an NYU dorm, the city is still on the other side of our front doors. We can make decisions that are rash and stupid or be cautious and calculating. It is about how we interact with you, the city, that makes us New Yorkers. It's about being ready to play any hand you deal us, good or bad. It's life in a pressure cooker and life lessons come that much faster, and often harder.

Somehow I feel like I gave up, like I tried to escape a closet full of demons instead of opening the door and forcing them to stop interfering with my life. That is a sign of weakness. Perhaps this letter is only my wounded pride speaking, a final bark before it descends into the abyss of un-self, lost. Yet, logically my decision to leave New York City after graduation and move to Washington, DC was sound. Politics is what I love, and DC is a whole city devoted to politics. I wanted to explore somewhere new and different and, most importantly, I needed to start over. I comforted myself with the fact that you would still be there when I was ready to come back, knowing I would be a stronger woman for having taken risks and learned the consequences.

I didn't like it there, though, and I left after only six months. This time I wasn't running away from something, I was running to it. I was lured by new love and the magnificent Bay, forever embracing the incoming Pacific tides, surrounded by a beautiful city and even more beautiful mountains. I know that you are still there, and will be there when I return from San Francisco, a destination I reached under the false pretense of an ephemeral love. San Francisco is spectacular, and I am certain that within a month or two of moving out of Oakland and into the city proper, I'll feel comfortable calling it my home. Yet you will still be waiting.

Every day I walk in the shadows of the sub-par skyscrapers in San Francisco's Financial District on my way to and from work, and every day I think about how your buildings would scoff at them. I am an expatriate New Yorker, and miss you, so I try to think of the New York qualities that made life hell. The apartment on 142nd Street, the L train rides to Canarsie at 3:30am and E train rides from Jamaica at 7am. Visiting my criminal ex-boyfriend at Riker's Island after class for four months on every "last names starting with A-K" visiting day. Riding the subway, buses, and even Metro North into the depths of the outer boroughs to sell party cruise tickets at area hospitals. I summon these awful memories but I still can't hate you. Instead I am left with the dull ache of regret.

I often wonder if I left only because all I could do to extricate myself from damaging personal relationships, including the one with myself, was to escape. I was caught up in a wave of anxiety and doubt that I sometimes still revisit. Was it really time to go? Should I really have left? Was I just running away from something? In many ways, I think no, but in hindsight I probably was just running away. I still believe that to a large extent only my heart wanted me to remain there. I fell in love with the city, I was caught in its bizarre spell, and I was jaded, afraid to move like a shadow among the fantasy world outside of New York. After a year away, I sometimes feel like everywhere else, even San Francisco, is false, as if the people live in denial of the reality of life in other parts of the world.

I miss you. I miss your hum, your glow, and your unrivaled ability to comfort and entertain. It was as if I left a lover on false pretenses, because of an irreconcilable situation. It was like something out of Wharton's The Age of Innocence, my favorite New York story. As the mini-van plunged into New Jersey's industrial wasteland on the Hudson, you may as well have darkened your lights and ruined my view as I, my neck straining, looked out through the back window. You know I hate goodbyes.

It was a wild ride, old friend. I learned more about you by being there than I could from any documentary or book. You are a living, breathing entity, drawing all of us in with your every breath. Every second can be nerve-wracking, or exciting-or both. The term "New Yorker" offers the best example of the cosmopolitan ideal that exists. We truly believe we are citizens of the world, and in many ways we are. Natives are natives and they pride themselves on being such. Everyone else comes to realize dreams, and pride themselves on achievement. What an amazing city.

I'm not sure that I can return to you. I am young and I have a lot to do. I will be fine. Your patience is the only thing in life of which I am certain. But you taught me never to make promises that I can't keep, so I won't promise a triumphant return any time soon. I need to find my dreams, and I'm not going to find them with you, at least not yet. The city is changing and the world moves forward. The New York I experienced was not like the New York of the 80s, the city I return to will not be the city I left. The landscape changes but the heart remains the same. I will change, and I will grow, and maybe I will come back with a companion or maybe I will come back alone. I wish I could see the future and be able to tell you when I'll be ready, but you know I can't do that. You, New
York, unlike any human companion, will wait patiently. Your life carries on, and our paths will meet again when I'm ready. If only my life was like that. If only it was like you, unconcerned with ultimatums, unable to be forced into impractical and unreasonable decisions. New York, if only I were more like you.

By leaving the city, I attempted to end one chapter and start another on a fresh page with some new characters and a much happier plot. Nobody likes a story mired with tragedy and a depressed protagonist. I really believed that changing the setting could be a positive thing for me. I am doing the right thing.

I am sitting on a hill in San Francisco's Alamo Square with the wind whipping at my back, waiting for a prospective roommate to return my call. The sky is unnaturally clear and I am enjoying the view of the city as the tourists, camera bags dangling from their necks, pause in the grass to take pictures of the six famous Victorians near the square. The downtown skyline is framed by their angular rooftops and the sun reflects off of the skyscrapers and the bay behind them. The panoramic view from this hilltop park is breathtaking. Surrounded by all of this, I feel a connection to San Francisco that I have only felt with one place before: you. And I feel that, with this letter, I am finally giving myself the closure I need to enjoy and grow up in the world outside of New York.

We'll catch up some other time, I'm sure. Maybe not for long. Maybe for a chance meeting or a temporary stay. Or maybe you will figure back into the logical realization of a dream. I am no seer of futures, sadly not even of my own. Regardless of what happens, I will continue to see the world through the eyes of a New Yorker. My senses will continue to penetrate through what is false and beyond the scope of the deniers of the reality in my company.

I must admit that I compare the features of other cities to your own very often. I think of your sidewalks packed with hurried people, your avenues stretching endlessly into the horizon, the fluorescent light of the subway cars piercing the blackness of the tunnels, your blocks crowded with skyscrapers, tenements, and high-rise buildings, and I think of my former home.

Yours,
Jess

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