Not that Joan Didion’s writing could ever really be characterized as “sweet” but Pier 1 Cafe on the Upper West Side, at the Hudson River, is one of my favorite places in NYC (or at least it used to be), and thus seemed to be the perfect place for me to go when I wanted to re-read her 1968 essay “Goodbye to All That,” about her decision to leave New York. I needed to contemplate my own reasons for wanting to leave this city, that I once found so electrifying. The Sweet Melissa (prosecco, peach schnapps, and a splash of orange stoli) is simply what I always have there (though the bartenders seem always to forget how to make it).
When I first read “Goodbye” (which is in her essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem), I was new here, and very in love with New York. I really couldn’t understand a word of that essay - emotionally, I mean. It’s funny, but re-reading it, I still don’t understand her exact reasons for becoming so disenchanted. Nor do I understand my own. She opens with the words:
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.
She goes on to talk about that exact moment when NY began for her. I remember my moment with clarity too. It was May 1993. I’d just received my masters from a school in New England and I’d decided not to continue on with the PhD. But I didn’t really want to go back to Phoenix, where I’m from. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, just knew that academia was not for me. A friend of mine from grad school had a summer job on Wall Street and invited me to stay with him. We sublet his friend’s East Village railroad-style apartment.
We drove down from Providence, Rhode Island. My belongings consisted of two suitcases of clothes and a backpack of books. After we unpacked the car, we walked around the corner of Avenue A to St. Marks Place, the busiest street in the hood, in search of food. We ended up at a cozy-looking fifties-style diner called Stingy Lulus, with shiny red glitter-covered seats and the most beautiful entertainer I’d ever seen - a statuesque black drag queen with sky-high cheekbones and a gorgeously rich, deep voice. And he wore bright red pumps that reminded me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And, cliche as it is, I did have a little laugh to myself: you’re not in Kansas anymore! My New York began with that drag queen.
Nowadays, you might, might find such a thing in a tourist spot. Probably not. But this was not a tourist spot. The park at the end of the block - Tompkins Square - was gated shut at night and surrounded by police in riot gear. There’d recently been a squatter’s riot in the area. People sold crack on our doorstep. My friend suggested we abide by Abbie Hoffman’s dictum and be polite and say “no thank you” to them. He also gave me strict warnings not to walk any direction but west - we were surrounded by very bad neighborhoods: Alphabet City, the Lower East Side, and Kips Bay. Only the west village was safe to venture into. I was simultaneously terrified and thrilled.
Eighteen years and eight apartments later, both of those feelings are gone. My only real fear is that I’ll get hit by a car. Seriously. It seems there are more drivers in Manhattan than ever before and they have no respect for the law - not to mention human life - whatsoever. I subscribe to the Gothamist daily and it seems that every other day there is a report of a pedestrian death due to a vehicular assault. In doing research on NYPD for an upcoming book, I read Paul Bacon’s memoir, Bad Cop, and he said something like 75 percent of all drivers he stopped as a traffic cop turned out to be driving with suspended licenses. I dunno, to my mind that’s pretty astounding.
But the bigger problem is there is no thrill for me anymore. Haven’t seen any theater, any dance, been to any restaurants - haven’t really experienced anything for the better part of a decade that really made me feel the way that drag queen did. Which leaves me complaining ad nauseam about things that bother me - noisy neighbors, lack of space, lack of peace and quiet, year-round unpleasant weather (freezing all winter, rainy and humid all summer), exorbitant rents that skyrocket even during a serious recession, once New York phenomena - like the Halloween parade - overtaken by tourists and thus beyond borified. (I don’t know if it’s a word but if it isn’t, I just made it up.)
A friend recently asked me whether I think it’s more me or the city that’s changed. I’m not sure. Probably both. I don’t remember drivers being so horrible for one thing. This is, of course, the most pedestrian-friendly city in the U.S. I also don’t remember neighbors being so noisy. Everyone in my building used to abide by the 85 percent carpet rule (or, if they didn’t, they at least didn’t stomp around in hard-soled shoes all night) and no one blasted music after 11:00 on week nights. Of course this building used to be filled with young professionals who worked 14 hours a day and then partied outside at bars in their free time. Our shoe box apartments were just for sleeping. Now it seems all the studios in my building are inhabited by couples - and even one by a family with two children (which makes no sense to me at all) - instead of single people. Because there are so many more people here, it’s all the noisier. But a lot of the things - like noise and lack of space - probably didn’t bother me as much at the beginning because I was just so excited to be a New Yorker. They came with the package. The fascination far outweighed the annoyances.
All I know is that I need a break. At least for a while. I have two months before I leave and I’m already having bouts of sadness. New York will always be the place where I first felt inspired and then compelled to write. I’ll continue to write about this city, just from L.A. As one friend said, “perspective.”