Why I Stopped Running From New York
It took moving to the promised land of California for me to learn that wherever you go, there you are.
The following is a slightly edited excerpt from Never Can Say Goodbye, a collection of essays edited by Sari Botton and originally published in 2014.
The first time I considered moving to New York City I was fresh out of college and there was a job on the table: “I know a guy we could deal cocaine for,” my buddy Pete said.
It was tempting. I’d spent the whole summer working on a paint maintenance crew on an island off the coast of New Hampshire, and the idea of moving to the largest city in the country had its appeal. Not to mention that I’d always thought I’d be good at dealing cocaine.
My other option was to work for little money on a long-shot congressional campaign in Pennsylvania’s Eighth District. Much to the relief of pretty much everyone I knew, that’s what I ended up doing. The candidate was Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War vet who would eventually win, become the youngest Democrat on the Hill, and help get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, only to be voted out again in 2010.
But I wouldn’t be there for any of that. After six months on the campaign trail, sleeping in suits and living in an unheated, unfinished room built out of crumbling drywall on a diet of scotch to help me fall asleep, I, with a fresh degree in political science and episodes of The West Wing bouncing around in my head, realized that I had made a terrible four-year-long mistake. Politics wasn’t for me.
Luckily I had an escape route. I’d met a girl while painting all those buildings in New Hampshire — a girl who had just moved to San Francisco. Like so many of us who don’t know what to do with ourselves, I chased a relationship. While all my friends on the East Coast were moving to New York City, I moved 3,000 miles away.
California was totally unfamiliar. My life had been East Coast all the way, from Boston to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. But moving to the West Coast gave me something staying back east didn’t: much-needed distance from my childhood. I had a history with my parents, as any of us who have parents do. A history of a combative household filled with explosive arguments and estranged silence. My parents were married when they had me, just to different people. Their lives weren’t easy. Not enough money or trust, too many tough situations with no way to win. We lived poor in Boston at a halfway house for low-income families run by the Catholic Worker, and then in North Central Massachusetts, white and rural and impoverished.
In North Central Massachusetts, my parents began to reconcile. But I was still a child and unable to understand the difficulties that they had faced. Angry and resentful, I turned to the distractions available to me in backwoods Massachusetts — riding around in trucks, consuming beer and terribly stepped-on drugs in deserted forests and quarries. As the wounds between my parents healed, I withdrew from them, unable to forgive them for being human.
San Francisco was beautiful and new and strange, but my bad habits made the trip with me.
San Francisco was beautiful and new and strange, but my bad habits made the trip with me. A year after I arrived, the girl moved back east to get away from our relationship, which was really more of a drinking partnership at that point. She left, but I stayed, bottle in hand.
I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that I shared with three people, where mice ran across the kitchen table while you were eating like you weren’t even there and pigeons nested in the walls. I waited tables at Buca di Beppo (which was like Olive Garden but worse), slung beers at old, punk-encrusted bars, and at one point was the world’s worst sushi chef. At 5 a.m. every morning, I got up to make rolls that I would then drive to different tech campuses — Google, LinkedIn, Facebook — stocking their snack refrigerators with the hand-rolled fruits of my labor from a blue beer cooler. In my uniform of a black T-shirt and ripped jeans, and reeking of fish, I’d drag the cooler through brightly lit offices where everything matched except me, as I skulked past beautiful, well-dressed kids my own age having loud sex on the tops of piles of money. At least that’s how I remember it.
The years passed, and crappy jobs turned into less crappy jobs, as they tend to if you stay in one place long enough. Bouncing turned into barbacking turned into a few shifts bartending turned into a trip running medical supplies illegally into Burma out of Thailand turned into a job for a news website that actually had a steady paycheck and health insurance. I quit after a year because a friend offered me an opportunity that was too good to pass up: taking a 50% pay cut and absolutely no insurance whatsoever to help him with his new online arts and culture magazine. But, hey. Talking about books online might be a meager living, but it was still a living. And it was talking about books online.
As a child I had always loved books but never had a clue about how they were made. For the first time, surrounded by the amazing artists and writers of the Bay Area, I was thriving in a job that I actually enjoyed. I stopped drinking tequila in the morning (for the most part) and eventually moved into an incredible, illegally subletted, way-too-grown- up-for-me rent-controlled studio that I had all to myself. The city, which initially seemed to reject my very presence, slowly began to tolerate me, and then — it felt like — champion me. And in turn I championed her. “Look, look,” I would say, grabbing everyone who would listen, “look at this, the most beautiful city in the world. This is my home.”
Then my new job began bringing me east, more and more. My parents and I started
getting in touch more often. When I first got to San Francisco, I would call every week on Sunday, like the lapsed Catholic I was. In return, they would never visit. We maintained that schedule for years, until my first piece of writing was published: an essay about letting a woman fuck me in the ass with a strap-on. My father didn’t come to the phone for six months, although my mother and I still spoke. Then, one Sunday, my father picked up the line. We talked baseball, as one does when talking about feelings is too harrowing to consider. Sunday by Sunday, despite the distance, we grew closer. The calls turned into one visit, then two. My parents had moved, and our old home was behind us. The things I held against them, the things they held against themselves, seemed to soften with age. Instead of avoiding them when I was in New York on business, I invited them into the city for dinner.
The things I held against them, the things they held against themselves, seemed to soften with age.
After eight years of living in San Francisco and fighting to carve out a life of my own far away from my childhood home, I moved back to the East Coast. The decision came quickly. My half brother, from my mother’s previous marriage, was struggling to start a new family. He and his wife had suffered a devastating miscarriage on Christmas Day the previous year, a Christmas I wasn’t there for, and they’d been trying to get pregnant again ever since.
We spoke on the phone often. He’d describe fertility tests and drugs I couldn’t pronounce, procedures and endless appointments with doctors nearly as numerous as the miles that stood between the Atlantic and the Pacific. They lived on the New Hampshire coast, near where I’d painted those houses and met that woman who brought me west. I felt useless, wearing my armor of 3,000 miles. When he told me that he and his wife had finally succeeded — that they would be starting a family in the summer — I realized that I wanted to be there. That I didn’t want distance to be a part of our family’s next steps. My half sister, from my father’s previous marriage, lived in New York City. She didn’t know a guy I could deal cocaine for, but she would be happy to share the city with me and even help me find a place to live.
I moved in December. The winter was the harshest that it had been in years, or so
people would say as they saw me shiver through the drifts of snow, longing for
the California sun. Like San Francisco, New York did not welcome me with open arms. Why should it? New York is just a place. A city. It has no feelings toward me one way or the other. When I got to New York, I was the age my parents were when they had met and had me. What does anyone know about living life at thirty? About as much as I knew about the subway, I’d have said, as I took the wrong trains, missed my stops, and tried to figure out if Coney Island was ever the right direction to go in.
I saw my parents more in four months than I had in the past eight years. All I had to do was walk outside my apartment and money would disappear from my pockets. I stepped into every deceptively shallow-looking monster slush puddle that seasoned New Yorkers knew to avoid. I was anxious, feeling as though the entire eastern seaboard bore down on my shoulders, trying to push me underground.
The thing about missing eight winters, though, is that you forget that you also missed eight springs. Now, the sun is here. I no longer hide underground, crowded into subway cars that I worry I’ll never get used to. Riding my bicycle over the Manhattan Bridge, I see the city, instead of scuttling beneath it. And it is beautiful. Parks. Markets. Blossoms. People. Dresses. Pavement. This city is alive and full of wonder and I am just one lost person in it, but I wouldn’t want to be lost anywhere else. That’s the flip side to leaving a city that made me feel cozy and comfortable and loved: I get to be lost. I have an entire expanse of concrete to explore, to learn about, to appreciate. And to hell with concrete — I hear there’s a beach, even. I look forward to meeting the Rockaways, and perfect summer midnights and bitching about the heat and the smell of baked garbage. I look forward to meeting all the joys and challenges of a new city remade for a new season. My brother’s daughter will be born this summer. I look forward to meeting her too.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He is the editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them. More at isaacfitzgerald.net.
This essay, originally titled "SF -> NYC," was first published in the collection Never Can Say Goodbye, edited by Sari Botton. Copyright 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.