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I grew up in New York and I don’t like to visit now that I don’t live there anymore. A good friend pointed out why it might make me sad: because being there I notice that everything’s the same but older, and it reminds me that I’m older – older and somewhat different for having been away. This leaves no feeling other than being disconnected. I avoid going home because I know that when I do I will be confronted with things I once used to use and no longer need, people I once saw every weekend and now talk to once in a while, stores I used to shop at and now don’t even think about. In other words, I will be faced with the reality that I had a life once that was not indispensable, and like after any sort of loss, I end up feeling sad. I end up feeling sad and guilty for leaving. Like my life here was a garden and I’ve abandoned it to a bunch of anonymous weeds.

It’s not an accident that it’s been so long since I last visited New York. I left there because I didn’t like it, because I felt crowded and claustrophobic and alone and I’ve been avoiding a visit like I’ve been avoiding a heart attack: not by doing anything to prevent it, just assuming that it’s never going to happen. Suddenly, one Monday morning in early May, that assumption was broken by a phone call from my mother. She was crying and mumbling stuff about my stepfather having had a stroke and the family business needing to be watched and that I have to get on a plane because she needed me there. So I did, and five hours later I was at JFK.

It was late at night when I arrived and I was tired so I got in line to take a taxi. There were tourists all around me, all tired but eager to be in New York but for me the line was long, it was cold outside and I couldn’t comprehend their energy. I will even say that I resented it. This is the place I left. I left because it was no good. Could they not see that? I mean, visit Paris, Rome, Shangri-La or something. Why would you want go to New York? New York is a place where people work. The subway is practical, not quaint like the wooden streetcars in New Orleans. The tall buildings are offices, not museums. Moreover, no one will treat you hospitably here, because no one will notice you’re a tourist. I kind of felt sorry for the suckers in line behind me. I was at least from here and knew what not to expect. They, however, were in for a big disappointment. I thought.

I eventually got to the front of the line and the taxi dispatcher asked where I was going. Queens, I said, with a little bit of ridiculous superiority, because I knew for sure that I was the only one in that line not going to Manhattan. While he filled out a sort of trip ticket and hailed a cab, another dispatcher clapped a handshake with one of the idle drivers. “How you been, man? I ain’t seen you.” “Oh, you know, just driving around,” said the cab driver, in a slight accent. Right then I looked behind me and saw a couple, Caucasian backpackers, standing there just staring at the two cabdrivers, and I realized: oh, all these people behind me are really enjoying this.

The yellow cabs and the banter and the mannerisms, that’s what they come here to see. They come to gawk at the tall buildings and jaywalk and rush on the subways with the rushed New Yorkers like they see it done in the movies. They come to see if the cab drivers really talk like that and if the women are really just like in Sex and the City. It’s like one big virtual reality movie for them, and for a week or five days or whatever, they feel like they’re part of a big, interesting story. It’s different when you’ve lived your life here. It’s new for them but it’s old for me and that’s why I left. Well, maybe I also left to find more room. But really I left to find something new and to find it on my own and to drive around in California with a convertible like they do in the movies. My cab pulled up and I got in and I told the driver my address and he drove and I looked out the window and the places that were there before I left were still there and I realized that my life in New York is not a garden devoured by weeds. It is a movie that plays on without me, and all I have to do to get back in is buy a plane ticket.

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ANDRA MOLDAV lives and works in Los Angeles. Before that, she was a grad student in New York. Among other things, she writes stories about foreign people in strange lands.

16 responses to “Go Away and Then Come Back”

  1. Wow. Nice. Welcome.

    I recently moved back to Manhattan after nearly a decade away. I left a few weeks after September 11th; August will mark a solid year here again.

    I’ve loved it. The vibrance, the life, the motion, the thrum and vrill of the City at all times.

    For a while, I got into a PS3-based videogame called inFamous, in which you play a protagonist who has electrical-based powers. He can shoot lightning bolts at people and such. Thing is, his power is finite; to replenish it, he has to recharge, and he does so by going up to various electric components–cars, streetlights, power transformers, etc.–and siphoning their energy by way of some ludicrous osmosis.

    It’s kind of insane how much fun it is.

    I mention that because walking in Manhattan has felt the same way for me, in ways; like I can siphon it. Like I’m flying.

    I can, however, see how one might react to it like you have. I think there’s a tipping point, in fact, one some people never actually get to (they’re the ones who live here a long, long time) where the hustle and the bustle and the Manhattan just suddenly goes from my experience of it toward yours.

    • Andra Moldav says:

      I won’t deny there’s an energy to New York like none other. Thing is there’s no right or wrong about it. Someone once told me: “When I visited Tokyo or Paris, I got the impression I could be there for ten years and still be a foreigner. But when I got to New York, I was here for a week and I was a New Yorker.”
      You’ll have to let me know how your tipping point pans out…

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    “It’s like one big virtual reality movie for them, and for a week or five days or whatever, they feel like they’re part of a big, interesting story. . . It is a movie that plays on without me, and all I have to do to get back in is buy a plane ticket.”

    Well done! I’ve never thought of it as you did, but I know exactly what you mean, having grown up in a tourist destination myself.

  3. Debbie says:

    “It’s not an accident that it’s been so long since I last visited New York. I left there because I didn’t like it, because I felt crowded and claustrophobic and alone…”

    I completely agree with you. I was born and raised in the Bronx and hated it. I left almost 18 years ago and have only returned 4 times (2 funerals, a wedding and my 20 year high school reunion). The last time I returned was depressing; nothing had changed. I couldn’t wait to get back to my life in Colorado.

  4. Andra Moldav says:

    I’ve never been to Colorado, but I want to go.
    I missed my 10 year high school reunion, and I don’t think I’ll miss the other ones as well. (I had few friends in high school. I still keep in touch with them. The rest I can just stalk on Facebook. … Joking.)

    Did you really feel claustrophobic in the Bronx? I always felt like it was a much larger version of Central Park whenever I was there…

    • Debbie says:

      I’m not sure how familiar you are with the area but I did feel very claustrophobic, I grew up in a small 2 bedroom apartment. My neigborhood was terrible, I referred to the drug dealers in my building as the door men and avoided the regular shoot outs down the block. The few “parks” in the area were mostly concrete with a little grass and a few trees. The wooded area was the Botanical Gardens. I was lucky enough to head “upstate” to camp all summer with my family until I was 14, summers after that sucked in the Bronx. Thankfully that is my former life and I can now enjoy sitting in my backyard and head for the mountains for camping, off-roading and hiking whenever we want. Colorado is a great place, I’d be happy to show you around if you ever visit.

    • Debbie says:

      Forgot to mention that I did like Manhattan, it had a very different feel. Clubs, concerts, generally hanging out and exploring, and of course working there was actually a life saver for me. I’d visit Manhattan in a heartbeat.

  5. Megan says:

    I’m dealing with the fetishization of home myself so it was easy to identify with your weary wariness here. Home is a such a powerful mental concept. Why do we humans cling to it so mightily? Hard to believe we used to be easy breezy nomads.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    I spent my first time in New York recently. I liked it – and I was weirded out by the fact that I felt familiar with parts of it, even though I had no right to, because of the huge space in Western culture it takes up.

    I could live there, I think. So much life.

    But place does weird things to people, so much of it unnoticed. It informs so much of our lives – so much.

    I guess we inform place as well, though. Your New York is not mine, just as mine is not my cat’s.

    • Andra Moldav says:

      Ha! Maybe because your cat sees less colors than we do. Or maybe it sees more… Do you think your cat would like New York? Cats do well in New York. There are always lots of people walking by on the sidewalk. They like that when they sit on the windowsill.

      I’m glad you liked New York.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Nice piece- welcome aboard!

    I was just mentioning in a piece a few weeks ago that, growing up in Massachusetts, I was genetically predisposed to reject the idea of New York being anything but dirty and over-hyped. But in college, I became friends with some guys from NYC and we’d all meet down there for random weekends, and it was spectacular. Unfortunately, the last time I was there I was chased by the cops on three separate occasions in the space of about four hours, so I’m sort of afraid to go back…

    I moved to Chicago after college and thought that would be my final landing spot. I left after 12 years and remember driving up Lake Shore Drive one final time the night before I left, and seeing all the high rises with the lights on in various condos and apartments, and thinking how lucky they would be to wake up the next morning and still be a resident of Chicago. Total fetishization of a city.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    Given your take on New York, I’m interested to see what your thoughts are about LA.

    It’s funny. Maybe because I didn’t grow up there, I love NYC. When I was in college at Vassar if someone mentioned The City, there was never any confusion. New York is The City. The one and only.

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