New York Is Wounded. I Miss It More Than Ever.
New York Is Wounded. I Miss It More Than Ever.
I live in Beirut, Lebanon, but in this season of confinement I could be anywhere. I have left my apartment eight times in six weeks; my brushes with the city where I’ve lived for a year and a half are so brief, I forgot that I lived near the sea until I went up on a roof and my eyes confronted the blue fact of the Mediterranean. In my apartment, with friends nine time zones away as accessible as friends down the block, I Zoom far and wide. I could be anywhere, but some part of me wants to be in New York.
New York was home for six years and six months, until I left in late 2018 to cover the Middle East for the Times. I started out as a metro reporter, always assuming a bigger story lay elsewhere. When I arrived here as a foreign correspondent, I found stories — civil war in Syria, authoritarianism in Egypt. But now the loudest headlines are all at home.
I text people in New York in the same tones my mother has taken to using since I moved to the Middle East: “Are you OK? Be careful.” I worry for sick friends, donate to GoFundMes for the laid-off staff of restaurants I love, mourn the dead, all the while reminding myself: I am lucky not to be there. I am lucky to be merely homesick.
It is deeply confusing, dementedly self-indulgent, to kind of want to be in a city soundtracked by ambulance sirens. Let’s not forget that in New York I would be self-isolating in an apartment about as big as the guest room of the one I am locked in now, where I have two whole balconies for fresh air instead of three windows and not even a fire escape.
But real estate is not why I left New York, though it’s a convenient stand-in for all the city tedium that helped me board the plane out. Living there can make you feel like you never have enough — closet space, counter space, outdoor space, light, cool friends, books you’ve read, pizzas you’ve tried, status tote bags, money, time, money, time.
It made me feel that way, anyway. By the time I left, my ambitions had begun to feel small and pointless. The worst part was, they also seemed to be shared by roughly three to eight million other people, and none of us would ever feel as if we had really won.
Sheep Meadow was always going to be too crowded on a Saturday in May; there would always be a stupidly long wait at the new Thai place on Smith Street. The fantasy — having New York all to yourself, you and some friends and maybe a few low-key celebrities you wouldn’t mind bumping into — was never going to come true, because all these other people kept getting in the way.
But now it is them I miss, the strangers of New York.
I miss taking pictures of unsuspecting pedestrians just because I thought they looked cool, and maybe I’d copy their outfits later on. I miss the way, when your subway train dipped past another one coming out of the Union Square stop, the passengers on the other train would flicker in and out of view as if with the click of an old slide projector. I miss walking through Brooklyn Heights around 7 or 8 o’clock, peering into other people’s brownstones just as everyone was getting home, their windows rectangles of aspiration.
I miss how it was OK to do almost everything alone, a movie at the Angelika on Christmas Eve or dinner at the bar for one, because the room was full of other people who didn’t care. You could never be that weird, because someone else had always done something weirder before you. The city had a grimy patina of millions of past lives. It was seasoned like a cast iron pan, nonstick.
I miss how you’d go to some friend-of-a-friend’s walk-up in Crown Heights and all of a sudden there was a new view over the rooftops, like some secret you’d been let into, even though you knew perfectly well a hundred or ten thousand people had seen it before — that was part of the appeal and the frustration of New York, never having to be alone with a secret, never getting to be alone with one.
I even miss the way people lined up for what I thought were the dumbest things: Why were there always whole blocks of SoHo paved with people itchy for a new streetwear release or the chance to see a YouTube influencer? I would hurry past feeling superior, even though I have waited in many New York lines for not very good reasons, even though every line caused a small part of me to wonder: Should I be lining up, too?
The line I waited in most was the one that doubled as a slow tour of every aisle of the Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue, where on Sundays one employee’s entire function was to stand next to the last customer gripping a red flag that said something like “The Line Ends Here.” Once, I stood in it for a good 40 minutes in order to buy a single bottle of olive oil. We idled no more than 10 inches apart, the strangers at Trader Joe’s and I.
It’s watching other people, not minding the fact that I might be watched, too, that I miss. Every space in New York is its own theater. If the city offers absolution in anonymity, it also offers fleeting fame in the simple act of walking around.
I get it. You put up with New York partly to participate in the shared destiny of it, for the contact high of being able to say you’re a New Yorker. It’s why I made leaving New York more dramatic than it had to be. I can’t be the only one, right? There were tears for weeks. The last MetroCard swipe, the last time being quoted a two-hour wait for dinner (and going elsewhere). Certain goodbyes replayed in my head like movie scenes.
When I left, everyone said, Oh, you’ll come back, and it’ll be exactly the same. You’ll change, but New York never does. Even then I didn’t believe them, though I trusted that a certain timelessness would prevail. Now they don’t believe it either.
It had bothered me, by the end, feeling like I had seen all the characters too many times. There were just too many people to dodge, too many to envy. It was exasperating to know that, however long I lived there and however much I loved it, the city in its superb narcissism would not pause to notice I was gone.
But now all I want is for them to go on forever minding their own business, the people who are New York: the strangers I knew, because in New York City it is possible to see someone all the time and yet remain strangers, and the strangers I wanted to know; the ones I never knew, and the ones I will now never see again.