yesterday’s sunset from the Highline, this strange amazing city
The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.
We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,
We encounter them. Actually
A populace flows
Thru the city.
This is a language, therefore, of New York
- Section 3, Of Being Numerous, George Oppen
”[…] quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.”
– Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1967
I’ve been trying to write all night and instead I’ve found myself coming back to this essay, as I do every now and then when I feel weird about the city and what I do with myself here. I am trying to write on belonging and I found myself thinking a lot about how I ended up here and haven’t left. Joan Didion left New York City after eight years and I have been here for seven. Today is commencement at Columbia University, and it has been almost three years since I first read this, not long after graduation – I think that was the first time that I saw it, it may have been earlier, I can’t remember anymore but I always associate it with that time in my life and in a way probably always will. I recognized its power then and it almost felt like a premonition at the time, with that foreboding feeling of impermanence that she casts so well over her words.
I’m not at the other end yet. I still find myself caught somewhere between the romanticism of this city and its biting reality –– slowly letting the “miraculous” become my “mundane.” I remember being 18 years old and all my excitement for finally having a ticket out of Houston, a place that was comfortable but that I found uncomfortably comfortable. I think that, when I was 18, I had this arrogant idea that I would come to New York City and become something stellar, the idea you get from certain movies and books as kid. I almost forgot, until tonight, while going through the pains of remembering how I got here, that I had once wanted to become a writer, a musician – and I thought that by coming here and studying here and somehow making a life here that I could make that mark that I had so desperately wanted, for what reasons I cannot articulate except that it felt right at the time. I’ve been humbled since then. It’s not that I’ve quit altogether, it’s just that I’ve given up on straight lines to anything. My father used to tell me that, whatever I did, I needed to stay “in a straight line.” Things are stranger than that.
Every now and then I hear of someone from back home who has moved to the city and when I hear of what they are doing I realize that their New York is so different from mine. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been here for so long or because I live off scratches or because I get increasingly wary, the more real things become. The city will make you wary in general, if you are here long enough. I am too aware of the real. And then there is the part of me that wants to know how long the real can still be miraculous.
I thought I had put Joan Didion away awhile ago but tonight I found myself desperately combing through my things and the internet to find this essay because it suddenly felt important. Because, for days, I have struggled with writing about belonging and migration and why we move from place to place in hopes of finding the spaces that will make us whole, and this felt so crucial because I couldn’t find what I was feeling, what I was trying to say. I am not Joan Didion, and my New York is not her New York – I’m not even very far from twenty-two or twenty-three – but it’s about her feeling that resonates with me, and perhaps with so many other transient New Yorkers who have come across it as I have, in some way or another. I still get chills from reading this. I don’t know what I am saying except that over time you learn to become aware of your own weight and the weight of the things that surround you. I am still in love with being here, but it’s a different feeling. But, I am still here.
Thank you, Nhu-Y, for sending this to me back then.
They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth to-night.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
- from Columbus, Joaquin Miller
The photo is a detail from the Columbus Circle monument in Manhattan. The statue was created by Gaetano Russo in 1892, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. I had never noticed the intricacy of the bronze reliefs on the statue’s base until I began taking my lunch hour near them this summer. One of the beautiful things about living in New York City is that you are especially capable of being surprised by the places that you frequent.