“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.”
So begins Joan Didion’s now famous 1967 essay, Goodbye to All That, a story that details how the writer fell out of love with her once beloved city, and so came the inspiration for the brilliant essay collection Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. The collection is edited by Sari Botton (herself a writer who contributes a heartbreaking essay to the book) and features an all female cast of twenty-eight writers from Emma Straub and Cheryl Strayed to Roxane Gay and Elisa Albert.
The essays each tell variations on the story of falling in love with New York, hating New York, needing New York, leaving New York, and for some, returning again, each with her own individual reasons and surrounding life circumstances. Many essays detail a thrilling time during the late eighties and early nineties, before the city became too ungodly expensive to live and when being a writer meant you could still afford to feed yourself and pay the rent. Some tell of the tragedy of 9/11. Some discuss a New York that seems to exist only in the memories of those who lived there in a better era, or in the romanticized view of those who do not live there now. One particular essay called “My Misspent Youth” by Meghan Daum exposes a type of truth of how one is meant to live in New York, and how this belief carried her through years of living there, remaining blind to an accrual of substantial debt. The essay was first published in The New Yorker in 1999 and has since been rediscovered and held up as essential advice among many people who identify closely with her experience.
It is easy to assume the subject matter in an essay devoted to one singular topic may become repetitive, and fast. This assumption would be incorrect. Each essay is its own individual gem. While some follow similar narrative lines, each writer shares a history and relationship with the city that is uniquely hers, from the claustrophobia of being there to the desperation of not. Each writer has her own reasons for leaving, and for staying. What is true about all of the essays: New York City is not just a place, it’s an identity. It’s a presence unto itself. Because of this, you needn’t be a current/former/soon-to-be New Yorker to love the essays. If you have ever in your life identified with a place so much that it becomes not just who you are but who you will become, you can relate to the stories by these women. We watch as they discover a type of happiness in the west coast, the midwest, upstate, that they once believed only belonged to living in New York City.
It should be noted that it was incredible to read an essay collection written solely by women. This isn’t to say that their experiences are not shared by men, but there is something distinctly feminine and powerful about finding one’s way in a city that can easily chew you up if you let it, and having the voice to share it with the world.
Botton does a fantastic job of bringing a brilliant cache of writers together in one gorgeous, heartfelt compilation. It’s absolutely worth the read for all writers, for all New Yorkers, and for anyone who has ever had that kind of impassioned love-hate relationship with the place in which they live.
Maybe you’ll be an actress. Maybe you’ll do stand-up. Maybe you’ll suck dick for money. Maybe you’ll wear intense glasses and make dramatic proclamations into a swank office telephone. Maybe you’ll meet your married lover for a drink on a rainy night somewhere dark wearing nothing but lingerie under a coat. Maybe you’ll make art in an airy loft in a deserted part of town. Surely there’ll be long ruminative walks through the park. The voice-over will be witty as hell.
Spend a summer stoned, Dean Wareham flooding the headphones. Cry constantly. Become a student of yoga. Lose friends. Write your way out. Write your way in. Filthy cliche. Fall in love and out and back in. Let a love or two pass you by, so you have something to think about wistfully in old age. Stop drinking, mostly. Have a baby in the bathtub of a condo on the fourth floor of the old Board of Education building on Livingston. Gather up your fledgling family and flee.
– From Currency by Elisa Albert
Leaving things you love is easier when you’re younger. You make stupid decisions about the wrong people. You slam the apartment door, throw your lover’s clothes out the window onto the sidewalk. Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as strong as your reasons for going.
– From Home by Melissa Febos
I fell in love with New York City one day in 1971, when I saw dozens of people blithely stepping over a dead body on a sidewalk. I was seven years old, walking in Midtown with my grandfather. It was summer. The air smelled like rotting fruit. Steam rose from food vendor carts. There were snarls of traffic, bleating horns, women in cheap knee-length skirts. And that dead body. On the sidewalk. It was probably a drunk, very much alive, just unconscious, but I didn’t know that then. I thought that this city was a place where people lay rotting in the street and no one noticed.
– From Think of This as a Window by Maggie Estep
It’s now difficult to imagine a time when I didn’t walk into someone’s apartment and immediately start the income-to-rent ratio calculations. But on that summer night, standing in the living room of this apartment, looking down on the streets whose voluptuous, stony buildings formed the short to the river that so famously keeps here safely away from there, my life was changed forever. I mean no melodrama in this. From that moment on, everything I did, every decision I made, every college applied to or not applied to, every job taken or not taken, was based on an unwavering determination to live in a prewar, oak-floored apartment, on or at least in the immediate vicinity of 104th Street and West End Avenue.
– From My Misspent Youth by Megham Daum
There were other apartments, other men. Chance encounters, coincidence, desires, and invitations. Another brief, failed marriage. All before I was thirty. I was trying, flailing, failing, in an attempt to chisel myself into a woman who existed only as a fantasy, airbrushed, photoshopped, as lost as that high school sophomore who wandered in a fugue state past the strip joints of Times Square. I was a girl who hadn’t gotten the memo about not taking candy from strangers — and New York was full of those strangers. A girl who was playing a part she was wrong for, whose own gifts were elusive and strange to her, contraband, brought home from a foreign country and best stored out of reach.
– From My City by Dani Shapiro