I can’t pinpoint the exact moment “when” became “if.” I just know that it was one of those beautiful May days in DC, when the sun plays Midas, turning leaves and trees to sunlit gold. I was walking around Lincoln Park on my way to the grocery store when the first traitorous thought left its roost in the back of my mind to announce its presence. “I could see myself growing old here” it chirped. As I tried on the idea, I found to my surprise that it fit me well and flattered me in all the right places. It wasn’t long before I’d catch myself saying “if I ever move back to New York… .”
I’d sold the move to Washington DC to my friends and family as a two-year adventure in the nation’s capital before a triumphant return to the city of my birth–and entire life, up until February. Some friends would refer to the move as a kind of “gap year.” Other, less generous friends, predicted that I would last six months before fleeing (awkwardly) in my absurdly high heels and black clothes to “civilization” in New York City.
I’ll admit that on the far side of this six months, I was ambivalent about my move to Washington. As a lifelong New Yorker, I wore that badge proudly (and arrogantly, as is our wont), and was hesitant to cede my “superior” citizenship. It had fit me well and flattered me in all the right places. Well, that is, until I started changing.
I had never lived anywhere other than New York City. I’d never lived outside the five boroughs. And while I had tried (and failed) to leave the city several times, a few years ago I’d resigned myself to the idea that being stuck in a huge, diverse city with 8 million+ people wasn’t the worst fate imaginable. Though my nerdy childhood dream of living in Washington DC seemed like it would never be realized, I consoled myself with the knowledge that our pizza/bagels/fashion/culture was far better than any other. I mean, how could I live anywhere else, after growing up in the “Capital of the World”?
Oh but on this side of six months, I want to make it very clear: you can. And maybe you should.
I was born in Queens, a third-generation New Yorker. I exclusively attended New York City public schools. My junior high school was overcrowded and had once been attended by Russell Simmons. My high school, also overcrowded and with metal detectors at the front entrance, had once been attended by Madeline Kahn. I attended Queens College, part of the City University of New York, and only condescended to attend a private school for my Masters (Sidenote: all that to say, it is possible to succeed in life with public school education, even in New York City).
I spent my formative years in Alphabet City before it became gentrified and much less terrifying. I saw my first transvestite when I was five. At church.
And for my last seven years in New York, I lived in a railroad-style walk-up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, blocks from where my father and his siblings grew up. I haven’t used a car as my main form of transportation since 2004. I’ve passed people on the street and wracked my brain to recall how I knew that person, only to realize it was a celebrity. And then quickly forgot about it.
So to the readers who will take offense at what I have to say about New York, please understand that New York, like family, will always be mine in a way that is messy and complicated and full of laughter and tears. But sometimes children need to sit their parents down and say “you have a problem and we are dysfunctional because of it.”
Also, every native New Yorker worth his or her Domino’s sugar knows that Manhattan ≠ New York City. There is nothing that will spark our ire more than someone moving to the city and referring to Manhattan as New York (amirite?). Yeah, as much as we don’t really know what to do with Staten Island, that’s still part of New York. So I will make the distinction between “New York” and “Manhattan” and please understand they are not the same thing.
As James Murphy has stated far better than I, “New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down.” I think I might modify that to “Manhattan, I love you, but right now I can’t even look at you. Go to your tiny room and think about your life.”
I’d constantly hear the comment “you’re a native New Yorker? I never meet natives.” That comment is usually made by transplants, often to Manhattan, who also usually start calling themselves “New Yorkers” long before their 10 year probationary period is over. Most natives don’t live in Manhattan. They used to. But they’ve largely been priced out, gotten annoyed with the nonsense and fled to another borough, or moved out of the city entirely. So I’d wager that for the past decade or so, Manhattan has been about as authentic New York as the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in Times Square. But everyone wants to claim a piece of it and say “this is soooo New York.”
I used to think that it was normal to be an adult living in a space the size of a dorm room. I used to think that it was a deal to pay $745 for that privilege. I used to think that it was normal to fight and push and claw your way to everything, from a spot on a subway car to a spot to (briefly) view the rare exhibits you have the time/energy to see. I used to think that it was a mark of status to pay $15 for a cocktail without blinking an eye. I used to think that access to outdoor space was only for the very rich or people in outer boroughs. I used to think that being able to do your laundry at home was a luxury. And I used to believe that merely because I lived this way, I was hot shit and that you weren’t because you lived anywhere else.
As I spun constantly on my slick New York rat wheel, running from grooming appointment to therapy appointment (we all have therapists, ‘cause that’s not symptomatic that something might be wrong), to drinks, to dinner, to work, to volunteer, to more work, to more drinks, to mani pedis, to therapy, to drinks, I couldn’t fathom that there would be any other way to live. Why would you? New York is the greatest city in the world, right? We have museums and plays and restaurants and bars and people (and people and people and people)!
Oh the people. Let’s talk about the people for a second. Don’t think for one moment that I do not dearly miss my New York family or friends. But yeah…the people.
Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote that all cities had a word that described them. And in her estimation, New York’s is “Achieve.” This is true. You are your resume. You are your job, your education, your internships and your connections. You are nothing unless you are constantly doing something (or possibly someone, but no strings attached).
This is not untrue of other places; in DC there is a similar vibe, whether you’re in political circles (Oh, when will I be able to stop smirking when someone says they work for the “member from __.” Do they hear themselves?!) or in non-profit/development circles (“I do M&E for [insert terrifying/poverty-stricken/post-conflict country here].”) Somehow though, like most things about New York in general and Manhattan in particular, it’s sharper, more concentrated, and more aggressive.
New York is a planet of pretense and Manhattan is its molten core. It’s not that people are fake; it’s more that people are always looking for an angle. This is mainly out of necessity; resources, access, and breathing space is scarce in New York. If you don’t get yours, no one will get it for you (rather, they’ll wait for you fail and then use your crumpled body as a step ladder).
No matter where you live in the city, you are constantly “on.” Whether it’s setting your game face to merely ride the subway to work or to walk to the store, you live your life in public and on display. Yes, you’re anonymous. But you’re also never really alone. You’ve got to constantly watch your back, constantly look over your shoulder. Yes, this vigilance is wise for city-living anywhere. But in New York, it’s not only literal, it’s figurative. It’s an urban jungle out there, with a scarce distribution of resources. Only the strong (and well-connected) survive.
Spending my entire life in this world definitely prepared me, as Frank Sinatra (a Jersey boy, fyi) so proudly sang, to “make it anywhere.” But it also made me a cynic, a hoarder of friends, time, money and space. It made me fearful because unless I held on to mine it would be taken away from me. Since moving to Washington I’ve stopped having the dreams where I find a hidden room in my tiny apartment, revealing all the abundance I never knew I had, only to wake from nightmares of returning to my formerly cramped quarters. Cramped not only literally, filled with “stuff,” but metaphorically, filled with the detritus of past selves (why was I holding on?), failed hopes (cynicism kills dreams) and all the many expectations that mostly everyone I’d known (why couldn’t I ignore them?) had for me.
Eventually in those cramped quarters on that tiny island the scope of your vision starts to shrink and your once expansive thinking becomes narrow. You can’t imagine life anywhere else. You would suffer any indignity and pay any price (literally and figuratively) to live in Manhattan. You fear that you will lose your sense of self if you leave, but in a way, you’ve already lost a sense of yourself because you believed the lie that there isn’t anywhere else you can go because this city makes you who you are.
Yes, readers, I’ll freely admit that while I was a product of my environment, I still contributed to my own misery by daily climbing back up onto my slick New York rat wheel and running until my legs gave way.
I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment my feelings about New York started changing, but as spring 2011 turned to summer and 29 turned to 30, I began to feel extremely uncomfortable in my New York skin. How was this possible? I’d never tried on another city, but after a July full of thoughts about leaving my job and the city, an August visit to the “fitting room” of DC showed me that maybe I was in need of a makeover. Six months later, freshly “funemployed,” I moved to Washington to detox, to learn, to grow and to ultimately come back to New York with my new-found perspective.
My DC experience has admittedly been atypical. I didn’t move here for a job, which is what most people do. In fact, I’ve been told repeatedly that nobody moves here “for fun”–I can’t help that I’ve always been a trailblazer–so I’m sure that there is a rat race here. And I’ve been told that DC is a very neurotic city (sorry Washington, in this area especially, New York does it sooooooo much better). But the DC I’ve experienced has been open, expansive, spacious, and generous. I feel satisfied for the first time in my life–yet I’ve only ever lived here jobless and on an extremely tight budget. I can’t fall back on my resume here because from February 2012 to present it lists “TBD.” Still, I have never felt like I was “nothing” because of my joblessness. In fact, I’ll venture to say that DC has proven to be extremely understanding and quick to embrace me (in multiple senses of that word) and I have never felt like I had to hoard my resources or look over my shoulder. Figuratively.
It’s true that DC doesn’t have the same kind of “nightlives” you’ll find in New York. Still, there’s U Street, 14th, Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, H Street and Barracks Row (all with their own unique scenes too). The lack of dizzying options only makes it easier to enjoy and discern your favorite places rather than feeling overwhelmed by all the choices you’ve got to make.
It’s also true that in terms of fashion and style DC is not like New York or L.A. But to be fair, a lot of the criticism comes from observing only small pockets of DC life. Female Hill staffers tend to wear pencil skirts, cardigans and pearls. And flats. But you know what? Congress has enough problems as it is. For the love of God (and country) let them focus their energies on responsible lawmaking!
And lest you think that the District is just a company town, DC gave the world Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington. DC also gave the world Fugazi and Thievery Corporation. It has a thriving arts scene and is now one of the best cities for the “creative class.” It’s not just Hollywood for ugly people anymore.
I’ve been told by my Wheelhouse Review comrade-in-arms that I will be a true Washingtonian when I voluntarily wear flip-flops out to bars like they’re real shoes. So yes, people do that here, but people also do that in New York (a bold move in a city with grosser sidewalks and a less-forgiving style scene). I had been concerned that my stiletto-loving ways would need to be reformed once I lit from the Bolt Bus, but I haven’t found that to be true. Sure, sometimes women don’t wear heels because they don’t have style. Sometimes they wear flats while walking because the paving stones in the sidewalk will eat your heels. Sometimes heels are impractical while walking or biking in a more spread-out city. And hopefully most of the time you’re just too engaged in scintillating conversation or having fun to care about other people’s shoes.
Let’s talk about that for a moment, shall we? I know that New York is full of brilliant and well-educated people; it’s just that people are often too guarded to talk about things that interest them, especially if it might make them appear earnest. DC has just as many brilliant and well-educated people living here, but most don’t seem to be afraid to wear their interests and passions on their sleeves. Very few people posture; mostly they just engage. Maybe that’s because DC does transience sooooooo much better than New York and that forces people to get to know each other quickly before moving on. Which isn’t exactly a bad thing.
Six months into my life here in DC I’m not sure what to expect. My job search has taught me not to make predictions about the future, as most outcomes are out of our control. Still, falling in love with the city during leaner times definitely bodes well for a life here, especially during fatter times, which hopefully will come again. I would like to keep trying on the idea of staying here, if only just for the mirror.
DC has been a welcoming place for this rat wheel refugee. Six months in, seeing the Capitol or the Washington monument still gives me the kind of goosebumpy-rush most migrants to New York have for the Empire State Building (I know, I take it for granted. But New York is my hometown!) Will I start calling myself a Washingtonian soon? I don’t think I’ve paid my dues here yet. And anyway, that feels like a step this New Yorker isn’t ready to take. Yet.
But one day, if these two cities will have me, I hope they’ll agree to dual citizenship. And if I ever go back, I’m moving to Brooklyn.
Maybe you’re right…Maybe I’m wrong…And just maybe you’re right…