My aunt gave me this book for Christmas. It’s a collection of personal essays by female writers who’ve loved and left New York. The collection is inspired by Joan Didion’s 1967 essay called ‘Goodbye to All That’, which I have not read yet but plan to.
As much about what brought them to the city as what made them leave, each author brings the reader into her experience of the allure and the heartbreak the city. In turn inspired by these stories, also by the need to cope with my own recent departure from the metropolis, I’m recounting my New York story, part therapy, part homage to a decade in New York.
In the summer of 2007, I was a year into my career in the wine business. I’d shed the drug and booze addled life of a line cook, given up the dream of getting a Masters then Phd in either English or Philosophy, found a tall handsome boyfriend who was a good guy, though his ernest-ness and that dumb Whinny the Pooh tattoo on his back had begun to wear on me. Things were coming together … kind of. My mom had cancer, but she seemed relatively stable. I could not yet discern the writing on the wall, but in retrospect that was willful denial as much as anything.
In the summer of 2007, there was one blemish on the smooth facade of my life and it was my ex-boyfriend R, whom I could not get over. He was wretchedly angry at me for dumping him several months previously for Pooh Bear, and was liberally dousing his anger at our hometown’s various watering holes. I found out that he was moving to New York during a drunken fight we had outside a bar in Chapel Hill. He’d always wanted to go to the city, and had planned out our life there together. This fantasy involved a one bedroom in Dumbo (ha! we’d never have been able to afford that), him working at the travel agency during the day, playing music at night, me learning the wine trade. It was a nice picture, save for the fact that I had no desire to live in New York. I’d been visiting the city since I was an early teenager, and recognized it as a cramped and expensive life that I wanted no part of.
The mind is a funny thing. In spite of my ambivalence toward New York, when I found out R was moving, I became intensely jealous of his upcoming adventure, and regretful of our breakup. My heartache over this matter was insoluble in a way I’ve never quite grasped, and I talked about it with my mom, who with one odd gesture (not so odd if you knew her) set in motion the next ten years of my life. She went to the travel agency where R worked, askew sunglasses on top of her head, eye makeup running a little bit, weakened from chemotherapy, and she asked him to do her a personal favor: “say something nice to Sophie before you go.”
The rest is history. In the winter of 2007 I came to New York to make a career for myself in wine, and to see what destiny held in store for R and myself.
Things went swimmingly for the first seven years or so. I easily found interesting work. (If you are willing to work hard and are relatively intelligent, New York will suck you dry.) My knowledge of wine continued to deepen. I met the movers and shakers, and eventually became a known entity in the industry. While I never loved the city, I made peace with the crowded subway, the throngs of people, the terrible weather, the high cost of living, etc … While it’s expensive in New York, there are seemingly endless jobs and opportunity, and so I found myself less broke than I’d been in North Carolina.
Navigating New York is like this: if you learn to stroke with the current, it’s just fine. If you brace yourself against the flow, you become like an ineffective butterfly-er flailing away tons of energy to advance barely at all.
During those years I lived in North Brooklyn, having moved to Bushwick when the neighborhood was on the brink of becoming the stylish and affluent hipster paradise it now is. After the financial crisis of 2008, it was easy to find relatively inexpensive housing closer to Williamsburg, so my roommate and I did that … and then finally circa 2013, I found my dream Brooklyn apartment. On the border between Green Point, Williamsburg, and Bushwick, this place was far from all the trains, but miraculously close to everything, tucked away in an industrial wasteland by the BQE. Owned by an older Polish couple, the building had a charmingly european feel that I was drawn to instantly. There was a spacious deck that proved ideal for warm weather entertaining. The neighborhood was full of the things I like: third wave coffee, over priced sundries, local bakery sourdough. It was my only New York apartment that felt like home, and it took over half a decade to find.
The hardest thing about New York (if you don’t have a lot of money) is housing, which is of course why so many of the contributors to ‘Goodbye to All That’ tell their real estate journeys, which parallel their psychological journeys. When I lived in Bushwick, R and I still knew each other. We knew each other for many years in one way or another, until finally the differences were too great, and our grievances against one another too numerous to remain friends. Our parting coincided with my move to Green Point, with growing up in general. I could say with finality that my life was no longer the dive bar and the struggling musician. My life was wine geekery, trips to France to meet growers, clients and sales and dining in restaurants that provoked jealousy in my hometown friends. I’d arrived.
In the years between 2013 and the present, I should have known I was falling out of — if not love — at least like — with the city. When I left on my various trips, I felt better; when I returned I felt worse. Circling the runway at JFK or LaGuardia, I’d start to feel the anxiety coming back, I’d dread the taxi line and the rush of people, the brusk, all-business attitude of New Yorkers, readily construed as assholes. There were many tearful cab rides home from the airport, staring out the window at the ugliness.
For a number of those years, I was in a relationship with J, a guy who had a child for whom he’d have lost custody if he’d left the city. Part of the reason I didn’t think about leaving was that I hoped he and I would work things out, which would mean staying until his daughter was in college.
The other reason I didn’t start leaving sooner was that I didn’t know where to go. Phrased like this to myself: “In 2007 God came down and told me to go to New York. I’m waiting for God to come down again. I want to have the same certainly in my gut that I had when I arrived.” I’ve never been particularly concerned with where I live as long as I like what I’m doing there, but I’m a snob. Experience and expertise have set me up for particular types of jobs, which don’t exist everywhere. It doesn’t have to be a blue state, but it does have to be a liberal bubble.
It was an on-again-off-again type of romance with J because we didn’t fit even though we loved each other, and during an off-again period, the first half of 2014, I had several other casual relationships, and with them came revelations about dating as a woman in my mid-30s in New York City. Single men in New York in their mid-30s are the worst. If a man in New York in the mid-30s is single, it’s probably because either consciously or sub, he likes to play the field, and the field is endless strewn with attractive women who enable the play. None of these guys were bad people, but when I scratched the surface of our interactions, I found a void of both intimacy and integrity for which I was equally responsible. Not wanting to consign myself to these childish dating rituals, I went back to my imperfect relationship with J, hoping against hope that we could make it work.
J dumped me via email while I was on a work trip to Champagne in the spring of 2016.
A few months later, in the summer of 2016, I was in North Carolina working on my parents’ house, now my house. N, a man from my childhood came back into my life after a seven year hiatus. In spite of his youth (he’s not yet 30), he seemed to behave with more integrity and to possess more emotional intelligence than any man I’d met in New York in years. N’s impact on my life was as follows: he made me yearn for something different, for space and trees, for a life less hard.
Then in the winter of 2017, the elderly Polish couple who owned my building in Brooklyn decided to sell. The new buyer more than doubled the rent, and my roommate and I were extruded onto the New York real estate market, grappling with the stark reality of what our salaries got us as in this rapidly gentrifying corner of the world.
A big part of the motivation to be in New York is ambition. Ambition brings us there, and ambition makes us feel like failures if and when we leave. Leaving New York could only ever be a lateral move because all the good jobs are in New York, the wine luminaries; the prestige and the fame swish and buzz around you and you feel constantly like you’re on the verge of a Big Break. Ambition makes us tolerate the harsh and stressful conditions of our daily lives. For years I carried around — along with my knee-breaking bag of wine samples through Union Square of 42nd Street at rush hour — the sensation that I wasn’t quite done with New York, that there was still some ephemeral thing I needed to accomplish.
In her essay “My City” Dani Shapiro writes “The city … made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of building, a hydrant, a tree.”
In order to leave, I had to relinquish some of my ambition. Or rather, I traded it in for a slightly easier life. My priorities have changed a lot over the past couple of years. I no longer need to taste every wine, to dine at every fashionable restaurant, to rub elbows with celebrity sommeliers and importers and writers. Now I’m looking for something else: calm, peace of mind, a healthy life. I no longer have something to prove to my industry. I do, however, have something to prove to myself: that I can take my dissatisfaction, my agency over my future, and create change, that I can be happy somewhere else.
I’m as yet not quite done with the book, but so far the sentiment that’s resonated with me most comes from Liza Monroy in her essay ‘A War Zone For Anyone Looking For Love.’ “I wonder, if you come from somewhere else and stay long enough, whether New York is a place you inevitably outgrow, whether you take from it what you can, then go. If that was the case, I didn’t realize it until I had a reason to leave — not because I failed, but because I found something worth leaving for, the kind of love I thought I was only imagining existed.”
I moved to Colorado just after Christmas. In a month I’m starting a job for Division Winemaking Company, an Oregon winery. They offered me an amazing gig helping them grow, traveling the country selling their wines, which I happen to really like. They offered me the opportunity to learn more about winemaking by working the harvest with them in the fall. I’ll be spending lots of time in Portland, which is a pretty great town. In my dotage I’ve become extremely interested in winemaking, and this gig gets me closer to the press, the fermenter, and the barrel than any job in New York could.
But I’m not going to lie: it feels weird. I miss my friends, and I have no idea who I am or who I’ll become in this strange, frigid, snowy land with the huge sky and the weirdly friendly people.