New York, New York

Photograph by Timothy Vogel

Hello to All That

Joan Didion once called New York “a city only for the very young.” Moving back to the city at age 33, our writer considers her complaints and comes up optimistic.

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” about decamping for Los Angeles after eight years in Manhattan. “It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.”

Oops. At 33, not old but certainly no longer young, I am about to move back to New York after seven years in Washington, with my wife in tow and our dreams of homeownership and a family (hopefully) only slightly delayed. It wasn’t something we planned; at our age, picking up and moving to New York is something locked away securely in the bank vault of twenty-something fantasies, tucked alongside teaching English in Japan and starting a rock band.

But I got a job offer we couldn’t refuse, so here we go. Of course, having a good reason to move to New York doesn’t make it any more of a good idea. Though the price of housing in the D.C. area is higher than in New York, the cost of living is much lower. We are neither poor nor rich nor young; in a year, we hope to be middle-class parents.

Every few days I dream a year into the future, to a time when I have triplets and a mortgage and a stay-at-home wife. I wake up in a fetal position, sweating and chewing my pillow. Then I remind myself of a few things. First, triplets don’t run in either family. Second, my wife is the sort who’d go crazy stuck at home; she’ll accept a job as a carnival barker if that’s what it takes to get out of the house. But more important, I remember that New York isn’t unmanageably expensive; it’s “New York” that breaks the bank. Distinguishing between the two, and avoiding the latter, is the trick.

I lived in New York once, for a year. It was 2002, and I had followed a girlfriend and my ill-formed plan to become a journalist. This being the depths of a recession that hit the media particularly hard, I ended up as a contract writer for a small web firm, making $18,000 before taxes and student-loan payments. Yet somehow I got by, and even prospered. I visited museums, but only on free days. I went to the Philharmonic, but only when my friends and I could stub in after the intermission. When I got my first paycheck I took my girlfriend out to a pricey dinner in NoLita, then never again set foot in a restaurant requiring reservations.

I found other options. For example, there are few places in New York more sublime than the southern tip of City Island, off the shore of the Bronx, right where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. There’s a cheap, greasy, wonderful fried seafood shop, and in the summer you can sit on the deck and munch on clams and shrimp and watch sailboats pass south toward the distant Manhattan skyline. It’s nothing the cast of Gossip Girl would recognize, but it’s still very much New York (and much cheaper than Nobu). And there are thousands of New York experiences just like it.

I often come across recent ex-New Yorkers who, in trying to explain their decision to leave, point me to Didion’s essay—her tale of falling in and out of love with the city during her twenties seems to have set the standard for youthful dalliances with Big Apple life. “I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again,” she writes.

At our age, picking up and moving to New York is something locked away securely in the bank vault of twenty-something fantasies, alongside teaching English in Japan.

Yet at some point, after countless parties and long dinners at Sardi’s, she grew tired of it all: “I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair… I no longer had any interest in hearing about the advances other people had received from their publishers, about plays which were having second-act trouble in Philadelphia.”

I had always thought that the idea of New York as river-to-river glamour, like Vogue or Vanity Fair, was a classy notion that played well in Peoria, but never New York—an image of chic city life wholly unconnected from reality, concocted to fuel the imaginations of unhappy housewives in Des Moines.

But even New Yorkers—perhaps especially New Yorkers, and especially transplants—can get taken in by a media-fueled tunnel vision of their lives as fantasy, their residence in Manhattan as an all-access pass to the sleek and hip. Which is why I take issue with Didion’s gripe against New York. While I am sure she, like countless others, had many other good reasons for leaving New York, what she reports in “Goodbye to All That” makes clear that her problem lay not in the city, but herself.

For example, Didion writes, with no irony, that she had so little money that “some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat.” A hearty bowl of spaghetti would be cheaper, but What Would Holly Golightly Think? Didion believes New York to be “no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.” But New York is just a mere city, no more and no less—it’s simply bigger than the rest. It may be the “nexus of all love and money and power,” but there’s no mystery to it. It’s just life, on an exponentially larger scale than most people are prepared for.

Perhaps in fear of this oceanic spread of humanity, most New York transplants narrow their field of vision, ensconce themselves in the club scene, or the white-shoe law world, or the book-party circuit. It’s a reasonable move—why try drinking from a fire hose when you can drink from a water fountain? But over time, it’s easy to mistake the niche for the entirety of New York life. And when their artificially narrow stream goes dry, they blame the city, not themselves. Didion relates how she tried to talk a friend into going to a party:

I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white as far as I could see up Park Avenue and I had a new dress and it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.

Of course, that would happen in any city, and much more quickly if it were small enough. But because New York seems to promise so much, folks get disappointed in it when they fail to take full advantage of its offerings, even as they mistake their self-selected brook for the mighty river. Did Didion suggest a change of scene? Would the friend have accepted the advice if she had?

Compare Didion’s New York with that of Joseph Mitchell, another transplanted New York writer. Though I’m sure Mitchell spent more than a few hours at a back table at Sardi’s, he didn’t put up stakes there. Instead, he wrote about Joe Gould and the Bowery and the Old Hotel and McSorley’s and all the things that came together to make New York. Mitchell’s vision didn’t narrow when he came to the city; it exploded, and he spent his career documenting where the pieces landed. Mitchell managed to live in New York, not “New York,” and though he probably had a nice income as a staff writer for the New Yorker, he’s a better model for aspiring New York transplants than Joan Didion. As far as the written record goes, he never once complained about seeing the same people at parties. He probably had better things to do. Hopefully, so will I.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen