Talk to anyone that lived in New York City for any period of time (for as little as one month) and they will tell you that New York was so much better back then (even if back then meant a year ago when there were only four places selling bubble tea in Williamsburg instead of five). People will say things like, I loved it when Times Square was actually dirty and scary and when the subways were covered in graffiti! I can’t actually say that because though I was there at that time it didn’t exactly stand out for me, the way things don’t stand out for you as a kid because that’s all you know. I see pictures from that time and I’m often surprised. Seeing pictures of old New York City buses, however, takes me thrillingly back to my childhood because in the Bronx we took buses everywhere. There is something satisfying to me about the way those old buses look (like old New York!), but really I guess it’s just that they remind me of my hometown.
Not long ago, I found myself walking to meet a friend, I think in the west 30s, and as I walked downtown I noticed how different the city felt to me. I was a bit early when I got close to the street we were meeting on, so I wandered into a Trader Joe’s and looked at the endless dried fruit selection and then wandered out, buying nothing. I felt weird, disconnected, like someone in a foreign place.
But here’s the thing: it didn’t really bother me. If I were living there now, that would be my New York. I know I would find things to love, even trendy things (not bubble tea though, which I find alarming) (is bubble tea even trendy anymore?) (why do I keep writing about it?). People are not going to stop loving that city, even with Times Square looking the way it does now, like some imagined futuristic city dreamed up by people in a scary and dirty one. I never go to Times Square if I don’t have to. But you really don’t have to, is my point. The only constant about New York is change. You know that, of course.
Plus I really believe that the truest New Yorkers are the ones who moved there from somewhere else. This is probably a controversial statement but hear me out. It is one thing to stick around in your hometown, even if your hometown happens to be one of the most exciting places on earth. It’s quite another to move to New York from whatever fill in the blank place you came from and to reinvent yourself as a New Yorker (think of Madonna with just $35 in her pocket being dropped off in Times Square – the old Times Square! – after asking a cab driver to take her to the center of everything). Aren’t the converted the strongest adherents to any religion? Life, my friends, is a mystery.
At this point in the game, my feelings about New York are complex. When I see it in pictures or in a movie, my heart swells and I think, My hometown! When I’m actually there, on the subway, say, nostalgia is the last thing I feel. I like being away from it so I can miss it, the way you want your true love to go away and then come back, because missing someone or something can be a delicious ache. The last time I was there, some truck barreled down a narrow street and sideswiped my parked car, puncturing my tire. An upstanding New Yorker (the city is teeming with them) left me a note describing the very incident I had not witnessed. After four hours, I was finally on the road back home, and I thought, Well, I’m not coming back for a long time. But I will, of course. I will never not come back. And part of it is that I just want to see what’s going to happen next.