I’ve reached a milestone this year: I have now lived in New York for as long as I’ve lived in rural Pennsylvania, a few years short of 25 years in each case. A long time!
What have I learned in all this time? That unequivocally, without a shadow of a doubt, I am not, nor have ever been, nor will ever be, a New Yorker. How does that work, you might ask? I’d say it’s simply a recognition of what one’s nature is as related to where he was born and raised. From what I’ve seen, at least as it applies to my life, that never changes. Many things have changed about me over the years. Developing different interests. Losing others. Having a different range of people influence me and how I see the world. All sorts of intricate and detailed elements leading into who I am.
But at the end of the day, how I see the world, how I feel comfortable in it, is still based on being from a small town in Pennsylvania. And I like that. Some things are permanent, no matter how much you think you’ve changed, no matter how far away you think you move from certain things. A thought like that would have terrified me in my mid-20s. In my mid-40s, it comforts me.
I remember once at a local bar back in PA in the early 90s, I was talking to a guy who had moved into my hometown about 20 years earlier when he and his young wife had bought a small house down the block as they planned on starting a family (which they did, two daughters). He said something to the effect of, “You know, I’ve lived in this town for two decades, and I still feel like I just moved here yesterday and am not really on the inside of anything.”
It took me by surprise, but now that I’ve spent about the same amount of time in New York, I know what he’s saying. His kids surely felt differently, as they were born and raised in our town. But he wasn’t and still felt that sense of being an outsider all those years later. We’re talking a very small town, too, less than 500 people, so it makes sense that this feeling would be even stronger in a place that changes so slowly over the years. The odd part was I’m sure he could go back to his hometown a few miles away, go to a local bar, hang out with guys there who never left town, and in his own way, reclaim that feeling of being rooted and from somewhere.
He was stating this to me as if I had the answer. At that point, I’d lived in New York close to a decade, and he chose to approach me to say this, despite the fact that there were a half dozen guys in the bar who were born, raised and still in our hometown. I had no answer, just a shrug, and said, “Don’t sweat it. No one really cares.” I know I didn’t. But it was odd that he thought I held the secret to that sense of belonging when I hadn’t live there in so long.
I’d say that’s the bond of childhood friendships more than anything. Kids think they own a town … they don’t. I’ve lived in my neighborhood 13 years now. A 13-year-old isn’t going to tell me a god-damned thing about living here, save how he sees it from a child’s point of view, which is going to be vastly different from mine. I came here with a wealth of life experience, knowledge of other places, the strength to support myself, the ability to compare/contrast the neighborhood with other urban neighborhoods and places. But in that kid’s mind, it’s HIS neighborhood and I’m the outsider. Not just his mind, probably his parents’ minds, too. They’re gauging life with the only reference point they understand.
To which I say I can respect the sense of territoriality, but sooner or later, you’d do yourself a favor to stop being such an asshole. I don’t mind that attitude from kids, but when I get it from adults, forget it. If all you cling to in this world for identity is one place you never ventured from, you got very little to show. (There’s a huge difference between understanding your nature and lording it over someone else as some type of trump card that only you get.) I get dog tired of that attitude in Queens: smugness does not go well with working-class humility. These people think they’re living in a humble fortress, but it’s more like a very elaborate cardboard box that will turn to mush next time it rains. It’s as if they’ve sensed that comfort of never growing up or old through their teenage years, a well-meaning lie, is something they want to hold on to the rest of their lives. If the place they’re from is godforsaken enough, no one’s ever going to challenge that false sense of ownership. But New York City has long been a transient place, whether people want it to be that way or not, the place just rolls over every few decades and becomes something else. If money takes root and becomes the sole entry point to a neighborhood, it may take decades or longer to change. But it will.
The blessing of New York is that it constantly underlines one’s powerlessness. Even if you have money, you see that it gets you only so far. There are so many great equalizers here (the subway, the street, the supermarket, the laundromat) that if you use them, you sense you don’t have this whole thing cornered, that you’re just another person living here, and the best you can do is bob along like a corked bottle on the ocean, hopefully catching some nice breaks along the way. You carve out a little place for yourself, the same way any settler would in the wilderness of days gone by, and make the best of it.
But to live here, you also get that a lot of people here have the exact opposite misbelief: they think they’re gods who rule the universe. Generally, any time you try to get a handful of people on the same page to hang out, it’s like negotiating with warring tribes, each of which is convinced it’s the most powerful. Jockeying for power. Bluffing. Intimidation. False indignation. Each assumes its time is more important than the others. And I’ve learned my time is unimportant. Sure, it’s important to me, but not to you. So why offend you by pretending that there’s some type of premium on it, that when not trying to find a cure for AIDS, or hanging out with David Bowie, or sailing on a yacht in the Hudson, or dining at a four-star restaurant that requires reservations months in advance … I might be able to pencil you in, but I might not. (I’ll often catch the attitude from non-native New Yorkers like myself who came here after I did. The worst thing I’ve seen with non-natives is their adoption of a crass, pushy attitude because they think this stereotype is “how people are” here. It’s a major city. You’re going to find all kinds of people from all over the world. People act like rude pigs everywhere. It’s not a “New York” thing.)
You can guess how I feel about the attitude. Most nights, I make myself free, because I like being free. Felt that way long before coming to New York. The best part about being single, anywhere, is the sense of freedom you carry with you. Believe me, married people with kids envy it, they’ve told me as much. The concept of presenting a façade of importance to anyone, much less a friend, is just something I’ve never humored. People in my life who make themselves hard to reach, sooner or later, I stop reaching. Once upon time, that was cause for great concern and perhaps wondering what I was doing wrong. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong – nor where they. People just fade out sometimes, inexplicably. Imagine the hundreds of people you’d have in your life if everyone you knew from childhood on stayed in the picture … and how little real time you’d have to spend with any of them. (I think I just described why I think Facebook is a pile of insincere bullshit.)
I do know city life is nothing like I expected it to be before I moved here. I had that “Dylan” sense of expectation about moving to New York, that it would change me irreversibly, and I’d become someone else, shedding old identities, creating new ones. Well, to a small extent, that has happened. But to a much larger one, I got through that first decade where you try to shed your skin, then settled back into who I really am, with revisions, as most people do. To this day, I’ll try different things, but I fail to see how that’s any different from me doing the same thing at eight, or 14, or 27. In our early 20s we attach that weight to our ability to try different things, that doing so will present these life altering situations that propel us into different realities.
And I guess that’s true in some respects, but the ultimate reality is every night, you put your head on your pillow the same way you always do, and probably think and feel the same way you have your entire life, whether you’ve lived in dozens of places or only one. I tried to break the straight line of my life by moving here, realized there was no breaking it, accepted it, and saw that no matter how much crazy shit you pull, or where you go, life is a straight line from Point A (birth) to Point B (death), with whatever detours you want to throw in the mix (travel, different lifestyles, marriage, children, divorce, work, etc.). It’s not prison. It’s not a race. It’s gradual movement, unnoticeable most of the time, from Point A to Point B. I look back on any conversations (more like unwelcome monologues) regarding “personal growth” with old girlfriends, and have to wonder how that factors into maggots eating our bodies one day in the ground. Not a morbid thought. Just an after thought. And wonderment over the stilted self-help vernacular people wrap their emotions in to claim victory in mutual failure.
It occurs to me when I write things like this, that some people might see it as negativity. It’s not. The second half of your life, more of the changes that come your way are going to be hard, in the form of illness, loss, death, unforeseen personal problems and disasters. I’m just trying to figure out ways to deal with these things realistically, as opposed to treating them like total destruction that beats you down permanently. If there’s one thing I like about most religions, it’s how they underline that life will beat the shit out of you, and you need something not so much to protect yourself (because you ultimately can’t), but to help you reason out the big picture, that good things that happen to you will always have a bad side, and vice versa. It’s the vice versa that becomes the shit you deal with post-30 in life that requires a different take than “smiley faces all the time.” Sooner or later, you need more than good looks, a nice smile, and a care-free attitude to get by in the world.
So, if you ask me what I’ve learned after all these years in New York as compared to coming from a small town. I’d say be true to yourself, understand whoever you really are, and never become too attached to identifying yourself with a physical place. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re in a small village somewhere or a major city here. You leave one place and never truly arrive in another. We’re all just renting space here, and most likely paying way too much for it, too.