"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?": On Growing Up in New York
"Some time later there was a song in the jukeboxes on the Upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before."
- Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That"
Two years ago - and I mean, holy shit, only two years ago - in the space of a week I broke up with my first real boyfriend, and Maggie moved to Brooklyn. And then, everything happened.
For a really long time I've been meaning to write a thing about what it is to be young in New York, and I've put it off, because A) Joan Didion already did it for me in "Goodbye to All That" (can you smell the influence? I mean, can't you?), and B) Because I always felt like I was still right in the middle of that era in my life, whatever that ultimately means, because what really characterizes that era is a constant sense of nostalgia for, I don't know, whatever happened twenty minutes ago.
So why now? I think because I remember a time when I didn't know how to do any of the things that I now know how to do. I mean, Christ, I was a baby. The one thing that I would add to the Our Lady of Didion quote above is that a lot of us, at 19 and 20, mistake experience for maturity. Going to college in Manhattan throws you into a mix of people and places that generally, otherwise, you would not be exposed to for a few more years. That's a fact. But then you go to bars and guys tell you you're old for your age and you eat that shit up. And ultimately, you're not, and you won't listen when people try to tell you that surviving 4 am trains with your best friend doesn't make you anything.
And when I say I didn't know how to do anything, I mean that. There were the practicalities: I was unclear on the specific etiquette surrounding the closing of a bar tab. I had dated a lot in high school but that was nothing compared to dating Guys With Real Jobs. You adopt this really jaded affectation about love and relationships but there's a part of you deep down that's still a starry-eyed teenager, and there's a special tenderness to the first, tiny little heartbreak when you realize that there actually is a reason to be cynical. This brings a special magic to the first time you realize that when you fall in love, a part of you will always be a starry-eyed teenager. Eventually you start to see that as a blessing. And honestly, it's like, the best part.
In a lot of ways I treated womanhood like a project, and there seemed to be some sort of list that I could check off, somewhere: How to Bruise an Ego, How to Act at a Dinner with Someone's Colleagues, What to Do When Your Friend is Drunk and Crying But It's Like, Existential or Something, How to Create a Life You Don't Hate. How to Be Yourself. I didn't know how to be myself. I don't like to imply that it's a completed project, because of course it never is. But I mean, you're one person and you become other people and it's weird to learn how to move with that.
At 19, I thought that experience was the important work of life. I wasn't totally ignorant. I thought if I just learned how to do things, I'd get this Golden Badge of Womanhood. And how do you learn? You experience. First grade shit here. I sought experience as if it would fulfill these boxes and one day I would wake up and find something completed, which anyone who is more mature than I am or was will tell you is impossible. At the end of the day experience takes you about 50% of the way there. (This isn't life advice. Don't ever take life advice from me. Unless you're really into spending a lot of time your bed?)
Okay, god, this is getting fucking nauseating, so let me make my point here. Once upon a time, there were a lot of things that I had no idea how to do. Groping around blindly in the dark, really. It was all uncertain, and it scared the shit out of me. And I ran right towards it, but I kept my eyes fixed behind me. At 19 I was a baby, and everything was valuable experience that was going to get me towards this final, completed, certain, knowing.
We're supposed to be talking about being young in New York and I think it's important to mention here that in a lot of ways, moving here was something of a second childhood for me. I think I've talked before about becoming myself in New York, and if that implies some melodramatic aspect of rebirth, on some levels that's true. You come to New York and it's mythic and the next project of your life is destroying that myth, it's making it real, it's making it a real place where real people have their real lives. And you roll your eyes at the new kids and the tourists because it's difficult to face the reality that on some levels, certain aspects of the myth are true, like:
New York, when you're 19, is a playground. New York is everything, and it is available to you 24 hours. New York is freedom. On a very practical level there's freedom of movement, freedom of motion, freedom of doing whatever the hell you want, whenever. You know? We didn't have to deal with Designated Drivers, or anything like that. We lived thousands of miles away from our parents. We grew up in a New York that was a far less gritty than previous incarnations. Don't forget your fucking purse. That's the big challenge of the night.
And then on a more metaphorical level there's this freedom to become - if New York is mythic than what makes it so is that you can be anyone, here. There's some part of me that thinks this is a story that really only could have happened to me, as I was, in New York. You arrive, and everything that's been held back inside of you gets let out in a thousand different directions at a thousand miles an hour. In New York, when you're 19, you're everything. And you're so excited to become whatever it is that you will be. And so you run towards those experiences, full speed.
What separates right-now from right-then is a question of time. The growth slows. You grow up. Part of it is my relationship to New York. I've compared it to a first boyfriend before and I think that metaphor stands. You find other places. You find the place where you feel most like yourself, and that's not always here. It starts to become less and less about experience and more and more about becoming someone. And so you find yourself trying to go other places where you will become yourself, and you realize there's no singular version. This project is impossible to complete, and you will learn that lesson again and again a million times over.
This is getting preachy. I don't have an answer! I was 19 and then a bunch of things happened and now I'm not! That's the fucking secret!
The real reason I'm writing this - the real answer to the question "Why now?" is that in truth, I still don't really know how to do anything. This is a scary time in our lives, I'm sure you're all aware. This is like, Real Fucking Life, looming. This could very easily be a pre-graduation existential crisis, but it isn't. Uncertainty doesn't scare me anymore. It's all uncertain. If anything separates me-now and me-then it's this recognition that there never was a fucking checklist. No one's watching you. No one's keeping a tally. No one cares, and that's so great.
So, why now? Last night, I was walking around Brooklyn with Maggie. It was one of the first warm nights of the year and everything felt so unbelievably open. It was as though we were back in that old apartment in Crown Heights, telling stories we now have memorized, back when they were new. All those stories, all those nights I'd spend thinking about who I used to be. And I remember thinking - I was totally sober, definitely, really, yeah, I promise - I remember thinking that if I just shut my eyes, I'd open them and be back there. Everything had been so uncertain. There were a lot of things that scared me back then, but charging forward was never one of them. Last night, in a weird way, had that same wide open feeling. This sense that this was a story we'd be telling, something we'd be nostalgic for one day. Maybe it's all just the weather, I don't know.
People always talk about the things they'd tell their younger selves if they could. Personally, I spent so much time at 19 running forward yet looking back, and checking off boxes and trying to develop these individual pieces of my life, and I wish I'd enjoyed the trip, had known how it would all fall into place. If there was one thing I wish I'd known at 19 it's how unbelievably good it was all going to be.