People leave New York City all the time. It takes a special brand of narcissism to believe this big-old city cares why you left.
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There is a certain type of New York–dwelling writer—a certain type of New Yorker—who feels compelled, upon moving away, to bare their jaded little urban souls and expound loudly and in great detail about why the city they are leaving is no longer worthy of the affection they once held for it. The most recent entrants swear it’s the politicians (though, why you’d move to New York and expect the rest of us to elect conservatives eludes me) or the schools (and the politicians elsewhere). But the fact of the matter is that they’re just the latest Narcissuses who believe that their departure from a city of 8.8 million people is worth the rest of us paying attention to.
The truth is that writing an essay about leaving New York is like breaking up with someone you were never dating.
By that, I don’t mean it’s like the humiliating experience of carving out time and emotional space to end some ill-defined relationship (as the Germans say, “Beziehung“) and promptly discovering you believed the relationship (or, as I once hurtfully said to a German I was dating, “Verhältnis“) was more serious than the other person did. That, of course, comes with a sharp moment of humiliation, as it dawns on you that its ill-definedness was entirely on your part because the other person didn’t think you were in a relationship at all.
No, I mean that writing an essay about leaving New York is like delusionally walking up to a person you’ve never gone on a date with—never slept with, never kissed, maybe never even met—and pronouncing, in front of all their friends and yours, that this relationship is OVER.
New York hasn’t been fucking you. It hasn’t been sleeping in your bed, using your towels, making you ignore the fact that it picks its nose first thing in the morning. New York didn’t take you to Central Park to walk hand-in-hand on an autumn afternoon, it didn’t ride with you on the ferry to Governors Island last summer, it never sheltered you under an umbrella with one broken rib during a rainstorm that came up suddenly when you were at dinner on the Lower East Side in the spring. New York doesn’t leave its dirty underwear on the floor next to the hamper or its shoes in front of the goddamn door.
New York didn’t even notice you were here. So it is not going to notice when you are gone.
Joan Didion arguably wrote the only readable essay about leaving New York solely because she repeatedly acknowledges both her narcissism and a New Yorker’s innate solipsism. She sees quite clearly that the New York she came here for was the one in her head. And she acknowledges that she never planned on staying. Didion wasn’t even really writing about leaving New York per se; she was writing about how she first adopted and then removed the costume of being a New Yorker.
Many of the people writing essays about leaving New York fail to understand that they are abandoning a relationship that existed only in their head—and that almost nobody cares.
At its best, New York, like every major urban area, is a million or more cities within a city. But it’s not just the neighborhoods—from the East Village to Harlem, Park Slope to Bed-Stuy, Gramercy Park to Long Island City, to name a handful—though to the most boring of hidebound New Yorkers who refuse to leave their micro-neighborhoods, that can play a role.
There’s also the Finance Bro New York that differs from the Writer New York that differs from the Nurse New York that differs from the IT Professional New York, even if you happen to live in adjacent buildings within the same neighborhood. One of you goes to Equinox, another has a membership at the YMCA; one of you frequents every trendy new hellhole while another one dines at the same sushi place every Friday night. Finance bros hang out with other finance bros and writers with other writers, nurses with other nurses and IT pros with other IT pros. Maybe the tender gods of Tinder algorithms (or whatever dating app you use in lieu of “going out with strangers”) pair you with each other … but maybe they don’t, and most of us will never notice.
So if or when you leave New York, you only ever leave the New York you created for yourself, and the millions of other New Yorks that exist in which you were never present don’t notice and won’t miss you.
Maybe this is why non–New Yorkers think that New Yorkers believe themselves to be at the center of the universe: because to live in New York requires you to all but create your own universe here, and we all call them “New York.”
But, look: When you decide to shut down your “New York” and move upstate or to Los Angeles or to Florida or back to freaking Cleveland or wherever you decide is preferable to the universe that you—a little god—created in your own image, the actual New York just goes on. Someone else will live in your apartment; someone else will assuredly find a use for whatever junk of yous is still good that you pile on the street. The other New Yorkers, all living in their personal New Yorks, will keep sweating on their Soulcycle bikes after you stop going; that Italian place on the corner you always took dates will keep serving plates of pasta and red wine to other New Yorkers going on dates. And no matter how good you thought you tipped, that bartender is not actually going to miss you. (They might miss your money, but there will be another ass on your preferred barstool.)
A million New Yorks will prosper in your absence, and in the absence of the New York that you created and came to want to leave.
So when you write an essay pronouncing that you—the center of your New York—are leaving New York, you are mistaking your New York for the New York. You are revealing, in essence, your essential New Yorkiness by revealing how central you believe your presence to all the other New Yorks and all the other New Yorkers; you are revealing your concerted belief that you, too, are the center of the universe.
And as someone who grew up, attended college, and lived in another city for ten years before coming to New York, I can tell you one thing for sure: You are also admitting to being the exact kind of New Yorker who people outside New York loathe.
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