My Own “Goodbye to All That”

I copied this post from my lit blog, Literary Aperitif (hence the mention of the Sweet Melissa :)). I decided to copy it here to explain (kind of) my decision to leave New York this fall. More on that later. I still plan to cover the dance scene, just the L.A. one!

Not that Joan Didion’s writing could ever really be characterized as “sweet” but Pier 1 Cafe on the Upper West Side, at the Hudson River, is one of my favorite places in NYC (or at least it used to be), and thus seemed to be the perfect place for me to go when I wanted to re-read her 1968 essay “Goodbye to All That,” about her decision to leave New York. I needed to contemplate my own reasons for wanting to leave this city, that I once found so electrifying. The Sweet Melissa (prosecco, peach schnapps, and a splash of orange stoli) is simply what I always have there (though the bartenders seem always to forget how to make it).

When I first read “Goodbye” (which is in her essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem), I was new here, and very in love with New York. I really couldn’t understand a word of that essay – emotionally, I mean. It’s funny, but re-reading it, I still don’t understand her exact reasons for becoming so disenchanted. Nor do I understand my own. She opens with the words:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

She goes on to talk about that exact moment when NY began for her. I remember my moment with clarity too. It was May 1993. I’d just received my masters from a school in New England and I’d decided not to continue on with the PhD. But I didn’t really want to go back to Phoenix, where I’m from. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, just knew that academia was not for me. A friend of mine from grad school had a summer job on Wall Street and invited me to stay with him. We sublet his friend’s East Village railroad-style apartment.

We drove down from Providence, Rhode Island. My belongings consisted of two suitcases of clothes and a backpack of books. After we unpacked the car, we walked around the corner of Avenue A to St. Marks Place, the busiest street in the hood, in search of food. We ended up at a cozy-looking fifties-style diner called Stingy Lulus, with shiny red glitter-covered seats and the most beautiful entertainer I’d ever seen – a statuesque black drag queen with sky-high cheekbones and a gorgeously rich, deep voice. And he wore bright red pumps that reminded me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And, cliche as it is, I did have a little laugh to myself: you’re not in Kansas anymore! My New York began with that drag queen.

Nowadays, you might, might find such a thing in a tourist spot. Probably not. But this was not a tourist spot. The park at the end of the block – Tompkins Square – was gated shut at night and surrounded by police in riot gear. There’d recently been a squatter’s riot in the area. People sold crack on our doorstep. My friend suggested we abide by Abbie Hoffman’s dictum and be polite and say “no thank you” to them. He also gave me strict warnings not to walk any direction but west – we were surrounded by very bad neighborhoods: Alphabet City, the Lower East Side, and Kips Bay. Only the west village was safe to venture into. I was simultaneously terrified and thrilled.

Eighteen years and eight apartments later, both of those feelings are gone. My only real fear is that I’ll get hit by a car. Seriously. It seems there are more drivers in Manhattan than ever before and they have no respect for the law – not to mention human life – whatsoever. I subscribe to the Gothamist daily and it seems that every other day there is a report of a pedestrian death due to a vehicular assault. In doing research on NYPD for an upcoming book, I read Paul Bacon’s memoir, Bad Cop, and he said something like 75 percent of all drivers he stopped as a traffic cop turned out to be driving with suspended licenses. I dunno, to my mind that’s pretty astounding.

But the bigger problem is there is no thrill for me anymore. Haven’t seen any theater, any dance, been to any restaurants – haven’t really experienced anything for the better part of a decade that really made me feel the way that drag queen did. Which leaves me complaining ad nauseam about things that bother me – noisy neighbors, lack of space, lack of peace and quiet, year-round unpleasant weather (freezing all winter, rainy and humid all summer), exorbitant rents that skyrocket even during a serious recession, once New York phenomena – like the Halloween parade – overtaken by tourists and thus beyond borified. (I don’t know if it’s a word but if it isn’t, I just made it up.)

A friend recently asked me whether I think it’s more me or the city that’s changed. I’m not sure. Probably both. I don’t remember drivers being so horrible for one thing. This is, of course, the most pedestrian-friendly city in the U.S. I also don’t remember neighbors being so noisy. Everyone in my building used to abide by the 85 percent carpet rule (or, if they didn’t, they at least didn’t stomp around in hard-soled shoes all night) and no one blasted music after 11:00 on week nights. Of course this building used to be filled with young professionals who worked 14 hours a day and then partied outside at bars in their free time. Our shoe box apartments were just for sleeping. Now it seems all the studios in my building are inhabited by couples – and even one by a family with two children (which makes no sense to me at all) – instead of single people. Because there are so many more people here, it’s all the noisier. But a lot of the things – like noise and lack of space – probably didn’t bother me as much at the beginning because I was just so excited to be a New Yorker. They came with the package. The fascination far outweighed the annoyances.

All I know is that I need a break. At least for a while. I have two months before I leave and I’m already having bouts of sadness. New York will always be the place where I first felt inspired and then compelled to write. I’ll continue to write about this city, just from L.A. As one friend said, “perspective.”

17 Comments

  1. I think LA will be good for you. Traffic is just as bad (any big city has bad traffic), and you can have noise problems anywhere but I think you’ll like the feeling out west.

    • Thanks Katrina! I know people complain about the freeways and I’ll definitely have to get used to driving again. At least I know I’ll like the weather better than here, and there’s more space and the apartments generally are cheaper. That’s all I know. The rest I’ll have to figure out :)

      I’m getting excited about a new dance culture too!

  2. I’m sorry to hear that you’re going. I know that the city can get to be too much sometimes–I left for a couple of years in 2000–and only distance can give you a sense of whether the pros outweigh the cons. I hope LA is everything you hope!

    • Thanks Marina. That’s exactly what I’m hoping to find – a sense of whether the pros outweigh the cons of living here. I’ve loved NY for a long time. But I really need a change. And some distance. I feel like I’ll be able to write about NY so much better from LA. Like an expat I guess :)

  3. How can you leave Marcelo and David??? Just kidding – I will miss seeing you at the Met and on the plaza at L. Center. Cait has thought of going back to LA but it’s scary to go without a job. In the meantime she moved to Brooklyn where she has a little more breathing room. The best of luck to you out west. Check out Topanga Canyon – my last home base before heading east. Will look forward to your dance posts.

    • Thanks Barbara – I will miss you too! I’ll still be back, though! I’m really going to look forward now to the end of the summer when ABT tours California. I will definitely keep writing about dance. It seems many companies tour the Orange County Performing Arts Center and I already have a couple of contacts in the LA Ballet! I’ll definitely be writing about them. And I love to drive, and so will probably be taking not infrequent trips up the coast to see the San Fransisco Ballet. I will definitely look for Topanga Canyon. I can’t wait to explore!

      This is so sad; I’m starting to feel like I’m going to cry! I will definitely be back for visits, and then we will have to meet up :)

  4. Have you thought about San Francisco instead of LA. Wide variety of people, cultures, etc. Caucasians are now a minority in SF, by the way. Lots of activities. Great Ballet Company. Not too much fog if you are NOT living west of Twin Peaks. Adequate public transportation, but pedestrians and bicyclists are still at risk from autos. Expensive, yes, but look around. Weather not humid, not too hot, snow is a front page story. Earthquakes, yes, but there is always something. Huge variety of neighborhoods, but need to be selective, just like any city. SF is just more compact than LA, although the Bay Area is quite big. You can always entertain yourself with the real estate ads. BART is pretty good if you want to live in the East Bay and just visit. I grew up in SF, but now live one hour south near my job. Parents still in SF, but live west of Twin Peaks and get fogged in a lot.

    • Hi Janet – Yes, I did consider San Fransisco! In fact, that was my first choice. But the kind of legal work I’m doing right now, which is what pays the bills, really only exists in LA (outside of NY and DC). So, it’s basically a matter of being able to support myself. Of course, I’d love to be able to support myself on my writing, and then San Fransisco would be a serious option. I love to drive though (have missed that living in NY) and definitely plan to take trips up the coast, especially to see San Francisco Ballet!

  5. Tonya, I had no idea that you lived in N.Y. for so long! I can tell you exactly when I left N.Y. I auditioned for Misha when he was director at A.B.T., and he told me to go back to Europe ( I danced for Mr. B. there). I was done. Done trying to prove myself and get into that little New York Club.
    By the way, tell Colleen Neary that Jeff Nelson says hello, then tell me her reaction!
    And, I’m excited to see someone with your background comment on the “scene” in L.A.
    Cheers,

    Jeff

    • Thank you, Jeff! I will definitely tell Colleen Neary you said hello (if I meet her)! I’ve become friends with an LA Ballet dancer on Twitter, and he’s already got me comp tickets set up :) I will enjoy covering them, as well as SF Ballet up the coast. I’ll miss NY but I definitely plan to come back regularly 😀

      Yeah, NY does kind of seem like one big clique, no matter what industry you’re in. Publishing feels that way to me. That’s one reason I’m leaving. But that’s a story for another day…

      Anyway, thank you so much for the support. I’m glad people will continue to read my blog!

  6. Also, be VERY wary of any so called “opportunities” that movie people approach you with, especially if you don’t have any representation when they make their “offer”. They make theater people look like boy scouts.

    Other than that, enjoy the great weather!

    Jeff

  7. I just moved out of LA after 26 years (and before that, two decades on the east coast). As a friend warned me when I arrived in LA: everybody hates California their first year, but if you’re still there 5 years later, you’ll never want to leave. Yes, the climate is glorious (stay close to the coast), but the smog, the freeways, the sprawl, the nonexistent public transportation, the constant threat of major earthquakes (and little ones all the time in case you forget) — the place does wear you down. I can’t imagine every moving back.

    The ballet scene is pretty disappointing. Yes, a lot of major companies do tour to the LA Music Center and OCPAC, but they tend to bring boring rep that they seem to think the ignorant locals would appreciate. You’ll want to fly to San Francisco as much as possible to see the San Francisco Ballet and New York will beckon whenever you can manage a visit. The LA Ballet is struggling and performs infrequently in small venues to recorded music, but they’ll be worth seeing. LA does have great museums (Getty, LACMA, etc.), although the logistics of getting to them in traffic are wearing.

    Live close to work if you can — westside is best (Santa Monica, Westwood). Miserable commutes of 2-4 hous a day are not at all unusual, so a short commute is one of life’s greatest luxuries there. Don’t rush to buy anything until you get a good sense of neighborhoods and maybe not even then. Prices are expected to drop another 8-10% in the next year and who knows after that.

    (I retired last year and moved to Denver as soon as I was able to sell my house. Lots of close family here and it will be just as easy to fly to San Francisco and New York from here as it was from LA.)

    • Thank you for the advice! Yes, I definitely don’t plan to buy, for a while at least. I’m going to figure out first where I like living. I hope to do some sublets first so I’m not even committed to a year-long lease, but we’ll see. Yeah, I know LA Ballet will probably not be what I’m used to, but I’m still excited to watch, as I have a few acquaintances in the company. I definitely plan to be traveling up the coast to see SF Ballet. They’re on par with ABT in my opinion.

      Yeah, I noticed ABT and other companies always seem to bring their classical repertoire when they tour Orange County. They’ll do more contemporary when they go to San Fran though. Hopefully the companies will realize LA really does have sophisticated audiences.

      Yes, everyone is telling me to live close to work because of the traffic and that west is best. So, I guess it’s true! I don’t know if I can afford Santa Monica but I’ve found some nice-looking buildings in Westwood.

      Thank you for your support and advice, Ballet Lover!

  8. I noted some comments on your Twitter feed. Before you buy a Mini-Cooper, you might try renting one for a few days and then drive around on busy freeways like the 405 and the 10. (Californians always refer to freeways as “the” …) With all the trucks, lane-changers, and monster SUVs you might not feel very safe. Indeed, you might worry that they wouldn’t even see you.

    Prius is a good option, but (alas!) California just ended its program to let hybrid drivers drive in the carpool lane:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/16/business/la-fi-hybrid-stickers-20110517

    I’ve been stunned at how much cheaper gas is here in Denver from what I had gotten used to in California, so Prius is good from that vantage point. And California is very pro-environment, so you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people. Another surprise: I had been under the impression that California’s car insurance was among the highest in the country, but I’m paying virtually the same in Denver (same coverage, same company).

    • Thank you for the advice, Ballet Lover! I took it and did not get the Mini Cooper, especially after seeing how small they actually were in comparison to other cars on the road out here. I’m happy with my Prius so far. It’s certainly gotten good mileage with all the driving I’ve been doing between LA and Phoenix lately :) And yeah, I’m noticing that there are a lot of environmentally-conscious people in LA – I’ve seen so many Priuses, so feel like I’m going to fit right in :) Thank you again for your advice. I’m glad you like Denver. I haven’t yet gotten my LA car insurance yet (Phoenix isn’t too bad) but will soon…

  9. Hi Tonya – just want to wish you all the best in La La Land. I hope you’ll feel at home there and enjoy all that it has to offer. best regards, Audrey

    • Thank you so much, Audrey. Please continue to send me press releases so I can keep in touch. I definitely plan to return to NY as often as possible to see friends, and of course as many dance performances as I can fit in!

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