Monday, December 9, 2013

Goodbye to You All: Writers on Using and Leaving New York

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"I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan," Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild, wrote about leaving New York. Her essay is one of twenty eight personal accounts in a collection titled Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. A couple of them talked up their exodus in a recent  Atlantic piece--a warm reminiscence on slim pants, chic coats, West Village, Park Slope, Christmas, and the smell of pizza.

"I kept insisting that I wouldn’t leave until I had made it," said Mira Ptacin, one of the contributors. "The thing is, once I made it to one rung on the ladder of success, there was always another rung above to reach for. And another, and another."

I was raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. And if I ever leave this place, it will be because "New York City is now the city of bankers and brokers," as Jerome Charyn observed in an interview with The New Inquiry. A quintessential New York novelist who was born in the Bronx and now splits his time between New York and Paris, Charyn is convinced that new groundbreaking art will not come from Manhattan, at least not Lower Manhattan.

He is right of course. The Village is still soaked in alcohol. But it's no longer the artist-friendly, low-rent Village of Joan Didion's youth. For all of Strayed's and Ptacin's song of New York and its romantic possibility, this city was in fact founded as and remains a trading colony--a place where money is made and immigrant labor is exploited. And all the books and art and jazz are merely residue left by the city's ruthless rise to success. Even the much talked about Brooklyn literary renaissance is nothing more than a subterfuge by the Oprah Book Club elite to reassert its "brand," as Ptacin herself calls it, in posh neighborhoods like Park Slope and Fort Green.

But it's hard to reflect on that in earnest if one has never been south of Prospect Park or spent a lifetime in places like Coney Island, Flatbush or East New York, where there are no book stores or readings, only decrepit public libraries, where immigrant writers and writers of color --New Yorkers who can't afford Strayed's "exit strategy"--work in hopeless obscurity. It's easier to drown them out with nostalgic prose. Except as talented and fabulous as they are, the authors of this essay collection are not F. Scott Fitzgerald. And no matter how much they binge and purge on romance, New York will never be their Lost City.

In her essay, Cheryl Strayed recalls being deeply wounded because the couple who owned a bodega downstairs weren't appropriately jovial "no matter how many times we came in to buy toilet paper or soup, cat food or pasta." She and Ptacin said they feared loosing their "sensitive nature" about other very unromantic things like noise, stabbings and stepping over the homeless in the street. "I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms," Strayed wrote. "But instead it held me at a cool distance."

Perhaps that's because these writers came to New York City willing to offer nothing in return for all the glamour and opportunity. They took the publishers and readings and book parties and agents, but what have they really given back? New York was their adopted home, but I wonder how often any of them went to their community board meetings, or came to NYPD precinct council meetings, or voted in local primaries.

"New York did have some to do with my career, too, but it had a lot more to do with my self-esteem," Ptacin said. "I wanted to see if I could win over this great city."

Such confessions are a rare feat in narcissism. They tell the story of yuppie manifest destiny and white flight--of people for whom the sight of weary bodega owners "grew to feel like the greatest New York City crime of all." These writers watched Sex and the City and listened to Kander and Ebb. They came here to make it. And some did. But the moment their party was disrupted by the homeless, the poor, the tired, the terse they said "fuck it" and made off with their plunder.

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