NOVEMBER 17, 2013
WHEN MY WIFE and I moved from New York City to Los Angeles last August, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Not because I was happy to leave New York or entirely confident that we’d made the right decision, but because I was just so glad not to have to think about it anymore. I had spent the previous year locked in an ongoing internal debate about the merits and drawbacks of living in New York, trying to decide which of our problems would be solved by leaving and which ones would follow us around wherever we went. We constantly discussed moving, and when we saw friends we talked about it with them, too. In the end, we spent so much time thinking about leaving that it seemed like the only way to get on with our lives was to just do it. Which we did.
So I both dreaded and looked forward to reading Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, a collection of 28 essays edited by Sari Botton and published in October by Seal Press. On the one hand, I was eager to hear from other writers who had concluded that New York was just too expensive and too draining, and who found that moving elsewhere had been good for their lives and their careers. At the same time, I was reluctant to revisit the topic so soon after finally laying it to rest.
Happily, my hesitations quickly evaporated as I read these essays, which are full of intelligence, humor, and highly entertaining horror stories. No surprise: writing about loving and leaving New York inevitably means writing about lucky breaks, dashed expectations, youthful fuck-ups, and unbelievable real estate scores and swindles — all excellent fodder for the personal essayist.
There is also quite a bit of New York nostalgia here — more than I expected, given the title, which is, of course, a reference to Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That.” Didion moved to Manhattan in her early 20s, soaked up its magic, and then, when “the golden rhythm was broken,” left with her husband for California. In her telling, New York is a place for the very young, and having realized that she “is not that young anymore,” she has no qualms about leaving it all behind.
Many of the essays here follow a similar arc, but few of the writers share Didion’s cool-headed certainty in their decision. The overall attitude is not so much jaded dismissal as wistful recollection; a more accurate subtitle might have been “Writers on Loving New York and Wishing They Hadn’t Had to Leave.”
Hope Edelman sets the tone in the book’s first essay, “You Are Here.” She arrived in New York in her late 20s, shortly after landing her first book deal, and spent five idyllic-sounding years there. But when “a bicoastal relationship took a sharp turn toward marriage,” she left for California, craving the quiet it offered and entertaining fantasies of gardening, hiking, and baking bread in the wilds of Topanga Canyon. Those fantasies quickly fizzled. “What I really needed, I soon learned, was to leave New York for six months and return refreshed and renewed,” Edelman writes — but by the time she figured that out, it was too late. She still lives in Topanga Canyon, and still thinks back to the perfect New York she experienced as a new arrival. “That wondrous, magical New York was the one I fell in love with, the one that I still pine for. It’s the one that got away.”
Meghan Daum’s New York experience was considerably rockier than Edelman’s. In an essay first published in The New Yorker in 1999 and reprinted here with a new preface, she describes how she left the city after racking up more than $75,000 in debt. Nevertheless, when young writers approach her today, asking if they should make the move themselves, she has an answer ready: “I nearly always say yes, go. I nearly always say buy your ticket and don’t look back — at least not until it’s time to look back. Because when you leave, chances are the thing you’ll be looking back on for the rest of your life is New York.”
In fairness, not all of the contributors still carry the torch. Rebecca Wolff, a Manhattan native who now lives upstate, delivers an impassioned, highly entertaining diatribe that includes the line “New York is a giant sinking pile of crap compared to what it used to be.” And in the most harrowing essay in the collection, Valerie Eagle recounts how she went from a naive teenager to a crack addict who spent a decade homeless in New York before finally getting clean and gratefully saying “goodbye to all that shit.”
Now for an embarrassing admission: I didn’t realize until I was several essays into the book that all of its contributors are women — a fact that, curiously, is not mentioned in the back-cover description or even in the introduction. (Obviously, I didn’t look at the table of contents very closely.) As it turns out, the Berkeley-based Seal Press “publishes books with the goal of informing women’s lives.” So that explains why an all-women cast makes sense for this publisher. But does it make sense for this subject matter? Since loving and leaving New York is such a gender-neutral topic, I couldn’t help but feel that it was odd and a little disappointing to only get women writers’ perspectives.
That said, I am grateful to Botton for introducing me to so many talented writers. I especially enjoyed Ruth Curry’s essay, in which she gets herself established in New York only to follow her boyfriend to New Zealand, a move that she makes even while feeling “fleetingly, in some pre-sentient way, that this was not going to end well.” Spoiler: it does not end well, and her account of living on the margins of a depressed small city in a foreign country is finely realized. (Another spoiler: Curry eventually winds her way back to New York and now lives in Brooklyn, as do a few of the other contributors. These essays are about leaving New York, but not necessarily leaving it forever.)
Another of my favorite entries was Botton’s own, aptly titled “Real Estate.” For more than a decade, from the late 1990s until the early 2000s, she had a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment in the East Village, for which she paid “about $600 a month” — a phenomenally good deal. Then Botton met her future husband, who had an even better situation: an 1,800-square-foot three-bedroom across the street from Tompkins Square Park, for $1,350. So she moved in. You can probably guess what happens next:
Brian and I were officially cohabiting on Tompkins Square Park for one measly month when we got the news: we were getting kicked out. The building had been awarded Landmark status, and we were allowed to stay just one more year, with our $1,350 rent nearly tripled. The week after we eloped, at thirty-nine and forty-two, we welcomed two roommates to help us afford the place. Yes — we got married and then we got roommates.
Your enjoyment of this collection will probably depend on your interest in anecdotes like this — which is to say, it will depend on your own level of involvement with the subject. If, like many of these contributors, you retain complicated or unresolved feelings about New York, you will probably find much to admire here. The essays do a great job capturing how the city can simultaneously feel like the greatest on earth and a terrible place to actually live. And they are full of the kind of urban survival stories that New Yorkers love to tell each other.
If, on the other hand, you do not consider New York the center of the cultural-artistic-intellectual universe, and the beacon to which all interesting, creative young Americans are inevitably drawn — well, you may find your patience tested by the similarity in narrative arc in so many of the essays, as well as the multiple reverential evocations of New York as a magical metropolis of infinite possibilities.
In my own case, I’m happy to have read Goodbye to All That, and now I’m happy to put it aside. Having finally made the break, I really don’t want to be one of those former New Yorkers who is constantly comparing everything to New York. And so my next order of business is to shut up about all that and move on.