(Photo: A skyline I can live with. Credit: Looper.)
You really can’t go home again. Not that I was jonesing to, with all the recent fuss I’ve made about preferring these Lake Michigan shores to Gotham’s piece of the Atlantic seaboard, where I’m from. But a few days away from Chicago earlier this month, spent in New York, really drove the point home.
I figured the successful conclusion of the (for me and many others) life-changing 7 Days @ Minimum Wage campaign was a good time to take a break from Hogtown. After almost four years away from NYC with only one visit back, I decided to take a chance and a cheap airfare to see whether the town that I walked away from in early 2003 looked any different through eyes much tempered by time and distance.
I headed to the hills of Essex County, New Jersey, just west of Newark. I know, I know, but I went to visit with my Portuguese friend, Jose (remember, folks, in Portuguese that’s “Joe-ZAY”, not “Hoe-SAY”), and his partner, Anthony. Last year, they fled Gotham, themselves, to set up shop halfway up a mountain in Maplewood, half an hour’s commuter-train ride from Manhattan.
You know I couldn’t blame them.
For the four days I was there, it was nice to be almost home. The happiness of being with old friends goes without saying. Nor was I surprised when, barely 15 minutes after arriving, Jose handed me the phone to chat with his parents, who were calling from Portugal, in my beloved (and quickly kick-started) European Portuguese. Or when we started to eat our way through Portuguese restaurants and bakeries in Newark’s Ironbound. In fact, of the four days, three of them were spent contentedly in suburban New Jersey.
It’s the one day in Manhattan that said it all. I had forgotten. Clear forgotten. The swarms of people, the narrowness of the streets, the brusqueness of the attitude. The abject, deeply entrenched fear of garlic and spicy food.
The soggy pizza.
The machine-gun-armed police squads, guarding a City Hall that citizens no longer have access to. The x-ray machines and metal detectors to pass through in order to visit the otherwise stupendous (if overpriced) new Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center observation deck.
The lack of being greeted with “hello” when you walk into a store. The lack of “please” and “thank you”. The hurrying, always hurrying, to get somewhere, faster than everyone else, regardless of whether you have something urgent to do when you actually arrive.
The hills, everywhere the rolling topography (for a four-year flatlander, Manhattan seemed mountainous to me).
And the organizationally shameful, comprehensively etched-the-fuck-up, impossible-to-see-through-anymore (get it?) windows of NYC Transit’s subway trains.
Bright spot? Seeing Adam and Vicki, the two transcendent New Yorkers whom Devyn and I showed around town last summer. They’re wonderful people–and Adam now with a great walk-to-work job (congrats on that!)–who spent an awesome evening with Jose and me in a comfy Greek taverna in TriBeCa.
I told Adam I could move back someday. Even for the above, I wasn’t lying. New York is still the center of the world for Devyn. And, unexpectedly, I found I wasn’t running from it anymore, either. Four years away and I was finally able to see my hometown for what it was. That’s big, ponderous, wonderful, maddening, stress-inducing, and altogether a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Of course, my answer to that urban ultimatum was, eventually, to run like hell. And I was lucky enough to find a really welcoming place to run to. Still, I finally found out I really do miss Gotham, dearly. With enough money, or a good-enough gig, I could return. Obviously there’s very much-appreciated amity there for Devyn and me. I won’t say no.
I did lie about one thing. It wasn’t the day in Manhattan that said it all for me. It was the flight back.
Specifically, the descent, during which my eyes were glued to the ground. I watched the wide and endless Midwestern grid of small towns and farms spread flat below, broken eventually by the comforting, massive sweep of the inland sea of Lake Michigan, and, finally, the appearance of the only skyline I’ve known for four years.
I settled back in my seat and smiled. I pulled that skyline around me like a warm blanket. I knew one thing for certain.
I was back home.