“I was making only $65 or $70 a week then, so little money that some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat, a fact which went unmentioned in the letters I wrote to California. I never told my father that I needed money because then he would have sent it, and I would never know if I could do it by myself.”
What sounds like another disheartening confession from an overeducated, underemployed millennial is actually Joan Didion, writing in 1967. In an essay titled “Goodbye to All That,” Didion lays bare her reasons for leaving New York after spending eight years here while in her 20s. She writes of the pull exerted by a city depicted so romantically in countless songs, movies and books, of meeting and sleeping with strangers at Greenwich Village house parties, and gawking at perfectly coiffed socialites on Madison Avenue while not really caring how she looked herself. But, Didion concludes, her life in New York was frivolous, idealistic, not really real. New York is for the young, and “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair.”
“Goodbye to All That” is also the title of a recently released anthology by Sari Botton, another writer at first enchanted, and later unfulfilled by New York City. Botton suspected her sentiments were not unique, so she asked some of her writer friends to pen essays on the topic of loving and leaving New York. The result is a hilarious, tragic and painfully familiar sequence of tales extolling this maddening city’s charms and lamenting its letdowns.
Botton confided that while the compilation has garnered an incredible amount of admiration, it has also received a potentially equal amount of scorn. So last Monday, Botton staged a reading at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, and invited a handful of writers who weren’t included in the book–-and had more mixed views of New York-–to voice a rebuttal of sorts.
So after comedy writer Elissa Bassist described watching horror movies incessantly because they made her life in New York look tolerable by comparison, BuzzFeed editor Isaac Fitzgerald movingly explained that family was his reason for returning to New York from San Francisco just a few days prior. Jon-Jon Goulian read aloud a letter from a friend arguing that “house parties in LA blow doors off house parties in New York,” particularly owing to the magical, centrifugal middle ground that is the backyard patio. Everywhere he moved was a hundred times better than New York, a claim he made despite constantly returning to the city. Jezebel founder Anna Holmes rehearsed a biting listicle contrasting the things she loves about New York (the Times, the Brooklyn Bridge, the skyline) with those she doesn’t (the Post, tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge, not being able to see stars).
They came from small towns and suburbs, drawn not just by the glittering promise of the city that never sleeps, but also by the prospect of living that old ideal of the New York City writer: tapping out stories in a cramped apartment and wine-fueled arguments in the wee hours with (finally) your intellectual equals. Allen Ginsberg! Woody Allen! Carrie Bradshaw! These are writers after all, and New York is the epicenter of the English-speaking publishing world.
But eventually each one arrives, some slowly, some quickly, at the revelation that New York has reneged on its promise, that the things that pulled them here-–foreign films, Central Park, fashion magazines–-had been outweighed by the starker realities of serial dating, fourth floor walk-ups, and unpaid internships. They leave for financial reasons or are lured away by relationships, to places like Los Angeles and Iowa, reluctantly, exhaustingly or blissfully.
Allen Ginsberg’s apartment
Some recite a variation of the tired eulogy for the good old New York, decrying the chain store-ification of Manhattan and reminiscing on the wonders of Needle Park. But most aren’t old enough to remember that New York. Their New York is one that will be recognizable to today’s readers, one measured in booms and busts, punctuated by disasters and rebirth. And despite the omnipresent problem of money, there’s never a sense of failure in these writer’s departures. Indeed many of the contributors have achieved some degrees of fame and fortune. No, the common thread here seems to be disillusionment.
Savvy readers will point out that Joan Didion has returned to New York since writing her farewell letter. Botton is aware of this fact, and concedes, “if I win the lottery, you can bet the first thing I’ll do is get an apartment here as well.”
Get in touch with the author @alexmcqw.