New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
A week after I moved to New York, small pellets of ice began to fall from the giant, dark clouds above. I had just graduated from college in California, where I spent weekdays studying on a beach and weekends working on a vineyard. Inclement weather was not a prevalent concern.
"It's hail, you fucking moron," a passerby screamed in my face, recognizing a teachable moment.
During the six years I lived in New York, I readily introduced myself as a Californian, though it was hardly necessary in a city full of people from other places. (Also, it seems I have an accent.) I frequented Pacific Standard in earnest, an expat bar in Park Slope, along with others who had been called flaky or spacey or told the most egregious lie of all, that there was decent Mexican food to be had. Weather permitting, we stumbled through the door in flip-flops, happy to set aside petty geographical differences, this business of NorCal versus SoCal, and consume imported It's-It Ice Cream Sandwiches together.
"To the motherland, brah," a new friend exclaimed as we clinked our frosty glasses, filled to brim with a West Coast microbrew.
"Next year in California," I responded piously, knowing that I would have rolled my eyes at such parlance back home.
Sometime in Year Two, my friends from the Golden State began taking leave. One friend had lost his job, while another had never found one. Breakups, family illnesses, bed bugs, and stolen possessions also did the trick. When transplants were forsaken, they departed suddenly, saying goodbye to New York on bad terms.
Not me. I learned to embrace the seasons and speak with authority on a diverse set of East Coast topics, from fingerless mittens to leaf peeping. I lugged around a gigantic purse crammed full of materials to aid me in every situation, from a broken heel to an impromptu picnic. I hated Times Square, and walked ridiculously fast.
I would leave when I had the upper hand, dammit, and not a minute sooner. A potent mix of hard work and good luck eventually paid off, save a maddeningly narrow apartment with a demented mouse. I found myself happily embracing the kinds of opportunities one can only find - and it kills me to admit this - in New York.
I freely acknowledged all these very good things at the time, followed by a caveat: it's not California. I was just treading water, waiting to purchase a one-way ticket home. And somewhere around Year 6, I did just that.
This tale should be familiar, if not grating, to consumers of autobiographical essays. I actually sent a version of this to The Awl when I moved back to California, a site where I'm now a columnist, and they did well to reject it. Rest assured, "It's fucking hail, moron" always gets a laugh, as the editor herself acknowledged with an "LOL," but my story is precious. The world doesn't need another overwrought essay on the subject because the experiences of mostly white, middle to upper class English majors who depart or stay in the city offer little variety. (Full disclosure: I admittedly find fictional accounts perennially appealing, especially in May.) And yet, the reason I pitched the essay in the first place was that it appeared to be in demand. I saw iterations everywhere, a kind of cerebral sister to the abundance of monthly magazine covers promising perfect abs.
If you are voracious reader of these kinds of essays, you will no doubt embrace editor Sari Botton's new anthology, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (Seal Press, 2013). Borrowing the title from Joan Didion's perfect 1968 essay, Botton invited 28 women writers to share their experiences on sometimes loving, and other times leaving, the big city.
After finishing the book, however, I wanted out of the echo chamber. While I am usually downright grateful to read anything by the likes of Ruth Curry, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, and Mira Ptacin, their stories had more in common than just a thematic grouping. Even the sublime Cheryl Strayed, who witnessed a stabbing on her twenty-fourth birthday, tried to reconcile that horrific scene with the familiar dreams and realities others spoke to. Perhaps I am just greedy for another Wild, but I wanted to keep these stories separate, to preserve them not as a collective, but in distinctive spaces over which each woman exerted ownership.
There were exceptions to this rule, including a writer entirely new to me, and this, of course, is where anthologies become the most exciting. I feel indebted to Botton for this introduction to Valerie Eagle, and the inclusion of her excellent "View from the Penthouse," which pulled me in immediately with the heart-wrenching line, "When I was little, I pretended I was a pretty white girl." Halfway through the book, it was a welcomed departure from the many essayists whose introductions spoke to New York's global appeal. And yet, after Eagle, the return to Brownstone envy and attempts to define the "energy" of the city seemed less remarkable.
In Goodbye to All That, the personal, no matter how much the style and content differed, became the universal. Publishing salaries are abysmal, writes everyone who has worked in publishing. If there's a musician boyfriend to be had, he likely lives in the East Village. Brooklyn can be a great compromise when one partner wants to stay, and the other wishes to quit the city altogether. Other big cities exist, and the desire to be close to family can eventually outweigh the initial instinct to flee from them.
That's not to say there weren't stirring, important moments in every single essay, ones that will prove vital to many readers. I can easily imagine Goodbye to All That becoming a kind of bible for the Columbia Publishing Course's incoming class, a modern, nonfiction complement to The Best of Everything. But to the initiated, either through voyeuristic consumption of personal essays or lived experience, the book all but exhausted a waning craving. I remember feeling this way about cupcakes, another New York trend, albeit one thankfully in the past. There was a time when they were everywhere, too, offered in inventive flavors and differing sizes. Don't get me wrong, cupcakes are absolutely delicious, but I haven't had one in years. Overindulgence can ruin just about anything.