The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

You had me at ‘‘Goodbye’’

Edited by Sari Botton
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
(Seal Press, 2013)

Earlier this month, I returned to New York City from a family visit and, for the first time since I moved here more than six years ago, did not feel glad to arrive. I was used to landing, gliding along the BQE in the dark of a taxi's backseat, catching sight of the Financial District skyscrapers strung like costume gems along the waterfront, and inhaling sharply with love. And now? Just, nothing. Ho hum. (It didn’t help that I’d flown into Newark and arrived in the city by way of a commuter train.)

That feeling—of somehow souring on the Big Apple—arises again and again in Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. The 28-essay collection is the brainchild of Hudson Valley resident and writer Sari Botton, who took her inspiration from Joan Didion's classic essay of the same name.

Ironically, it’s hard not to fall for the city reading these essays, despite the seemingly awful occurrences that fill the pages. Cheryl Strayed’s story of a stabbing in broad daylight—her waiter barely cocks an eyebrow—is hilarious. Chloe Caldwell’s account of her reckless youth—where “grooming was buying a thong at Forever 21 while coked up out of our skulls because we had plans to have anal sex that night”—is enthralling and alarming at once. And Elisa Albert’s “Currency,” written aggressively in the second person, manages to capture both a romanticism and a realism about the city, as well as her departure for upstate. “I mean, Jesus, it's only a place,” she writes. “It isn’t responsible for who you’ve become…And yet, let us not skirt the issue that something was lost. Something has been lost.”

If most of the individual essays stand alone, the collection as a whole suffers from too much sameness. All the writers are women (Seal Press is a women’s publisher) and, with a few exceptions, they are all professional American writers who, for the most part, leave New York by choice. All but one of the essays were apparently written in the last year or two; even if the writers lived in the city during different eras, their current view is still of a post-9/11, Bloombergian New York.

It’s not that Botton hasn’t included other voices: a Goldman Sachs banker and a formerly homeless crack addict both contribute essays, as do several native New Yorkers. But most of the narratives follow Didion’s trajectory: aspiring writer moves here full of hope, grows tired of the rat race, finds that life exists west of the Hudson. In between, boxes of books are hauled, black leather jackets are worn, rent is hiked, and revelations accrue.

One of the freshest essays in the book is actually more than a decade old: Meghan Daum’s “Misspent Youth” is not about leaving New York, but about falling woefully into debt and being forced to give it up. Published in the New Yorker in 1999, it follows the same arc—youthful folly, an abrupt awakening—but with a different focus and without the benefit of hindsight, giving it a different cast than the other essays.

The lesson, of course, is that Didions will always flock to New York City to eke out literary careers, and they will always find it difficult and rewarding and, for some, unsustainable. The difference today is that we’re so damn familiar with these motifs: from Sex and the City and Girls and countless movies financed with city tax breaks. From the 9/11 stories told and retold on the news. From the Williamsburg-themed bars in Stockholm and Shanghai.

In essay after essay, New York takes the form of a complicated lover: “The city is the one that got away.” “New York City was always destined for me, as if I were betrothed to it when I was a baby.” “I ached for it like a woman pining for an unrequited love.” “Seeing the East River…was like bumping into an ex you're still in love with.” Didn't Carrie Bradshaw say the same thing?

I’d moved to New York City as a 23-year-old graduate student; I grew up in Toronto. My first roommate—a 23-year-old Louisiana native found on Craigslist—had counseled me that “To live in New York, you have to leave New York.” And she was right. Every time I spent a weekend outside the city, I felt like I'd come up for air. And yet, every time I returned, I breathed in New York and felt at peace.

In the ensuing years, I established a career, or at least obtained a job that I couldn’t just up and leave. I wrangled an affordable one-bedroom (a real one-bedroom!) through a friend of a friend. I reclaimed my cat from my mother’s house, where she’d lived while I bounced from college to India to an apartment with an allergic roommate. I had a romance or two. I voted in American elections. I snapped at strangers for their breaches of subway etiquette.

Six years in, the city felt like something I could handle. Manageable. New York had transformed from a postcard to a collection of real buildings, from a televised fantasy to a real place. Was this the source of my apathy upon returning earlier this month? I'm still not sure. It may take me staying to figure it out.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues