As I prepare to move from New York City, my home for over a decade, to San Francisco, my home for at least a few years, I find myself viewing NYC through the eyes of a man in limbo. I'm still living in Queens, but my attention is already on the road.
A decade of NYC living makes me, by at least one standard, an official "New Yorker." How does that define me? New York, like all conurbations, is ever in flux. On my watch, it's changed in remarkable ways. What changes will come after I'm no longer a resident? Likewise, what changes are yet in store for me, a similarly adaptable organism?
I moved to New York City in October 1999, not long after I graduated from The College of William & Mary. I was then an ambitious twenty-one year old with a deeply cynical streak and an abiding love of beer and partying. My paintings and drawings featured naked people interacting in various ways with other animals, medical instruments, fossils, and, on occasion, Teletubbies. (If a reader knows what became of the big Tinky Winky sex painting, I'd love to see a photo of it!) Despite my apparent enthusiasm, I was steeped in melancholy. I spent hours each week brooding over "I," my pet novel project, a 1990s East Village vampire update of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. I viewed humanity as a noxious species, religion as the most noxious of human inventions, and I not so secretly looked forward to our inevitable extinction.
Today, I'm an ambitious thirty-two year old who reacts against cynicism, drinks much less, and generally dislikes partying. Naked people sometimes appear in my paintings, but there aren't any Teletubbies. I'm a stubborn optimist. Each morning, I take twenty minutes to humbly celebrate a new day; if I wake in a funk, I fight through the fog to see anew just how marvelous life is. I recall my earlier character with some embarrassment. What was wrong with the arrogant kid who labored on a novel that painted such an ugly picture of humanity and religion? Perhaps he just needed to be more intellectually rigorous, and to open his eyes to the awesome fact of being? Or maybe that twenty-one year old also needed a good hug, which is no small thing?
My time in New York City has seen me metamorphize from a hardened and cynical adolescent into an optimistic, joyful adult. The direction of this evolution runs counter to the standard assumption made about the effect of NYC living. As the columnist Mary Schmich warned (and director Baz Luhrmann popularized with his song "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)"),
"Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."In my experience, however, NYC living sanded smooth the hard edges.
Perhaps, too, the mournful and nostalgic wails of NYC residents (myself included) are misguided? We should accept that "what will come, will come" without falling victim to fatalistic impotence. New York City (and Manhattan, in particular) is one of the most sustainable, environmentally responsible cities in the world, and its educated, informed residents should work with New York State and City representatives to make sure the city continues apace on that front. They should also do all they can to ensure that it remains a mecca for tolerance, the arts, and cultural pluralism. In what ways I can, I'll do the same from the Left coast; New York City is a part of me, and I will always feel a part of New York City.
Love and peace to all of my friends here. Thank you for everything. I'll be in touch. I'll visit. I hope that you'll visit me.
Image credits: all photography, Hungry Hyaena