by Tess Mangiardi
It’s common for New Yorkers to have a kind of cultish love for their city. As if the city’s trash, dirty sidewalks, and crumbling transportation system are a Mecca for everyone who wants to be someone. New York is the best and worst of everything. This is its Baudelairean beauty.
Joan Didion fell in love with the city when she was twenty. It was a tumultuous love that she describes in her 1968 essay ‘Goodbye to All That’ as “the way you love the first person who ever touches you, and never love anyone the same way again.” Didion, an American journalist and author, wrote about love, but the essay is really a breakup letter. When I read it in the winter of 2013, I was twenty and in the thick of my own love affair, and I thought she had to be kidding. I could never imagine leaving New York, even though I had spent that morning stuck on the 6 train and the night before crying in a bodega.
Three years later, I stepped from a very different train onto the platform at Zollikon Bahnhof in Switzerland. Cold air grazed my cheeks and grief clung to me like a cloak, heavy and black. Because—as Didion had learned, long before I did—love doesn’t last forever.
Falling in love with a city may seem strange to some people, but I can say with confidence that those people have never been young in New York.
Didion spent her early twenties broke but was insistently infatuated with the city that never sleeps. It didn’t matter that she had to use her credit card to pay at Bloomingdale’s gourmet food to eat or that she made only $65 a week. Being poor in New York was part of the experience. She never mentioned her lack of money in any of her letters, and why would she? It’s not like anyone who didn’t live in the city would understand. She could walk down Park Avenue on a sunny, spring day or stay inside with a cup of tea and watch the snow fall outside her window, brilliant white for just a moment before the city transformed it into sheets of gray. “Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never seen or done or known about.” It didn’t matter that she was poor. She was there, and that was what mattered.
Didion is not the only one who succumbed to NYC’s siren call. Thousands of people have moved to New York without much money or even a plan. Walt Whitman, Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, and so many other artists and writers flocked to the city to make a name for themselves. I get it. Its appeal becomes a need. Surviving in New York is a medal of honor to be achieved and worn around one’s neck. It’s to be bragged about at dinner parties
‘Goodbye to All That’ was first published in Didion’s anthology of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. By then, she was in LA and out of love. She never wrote the exact moment she knew it was over. Instead, she describes it as a series of moments.
“I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the hairs on the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay a finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”
New York ended for Joan Didion in a way that it ends for many. The way it ended for me.
As I sweated and pulled my suitcase up the hill that day in the suburbs of Zürich, I recalled Didion’s essay. It was three years since I’d first read it, but I got it now. Leaving New York didn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. The past year had almost broken me. I knew what Didion meant when she said that New York City could be so full of people, yet she always felt alone.
New York had been a place where everything seemed possible until it wasn’t. I’m unable to remember when the film dissolved from my eyes and my love was gone. I remember dumplings in Chinatown, coffee by the river, and laughing in darkly lit lofts with my best friends. However, I can’t remember the day I woke up and decided the city wasn’t working for me. I suppose it was instantaneous. One day, the charm of the dirty streets vanished and the smile I pasted on every morning as I rushed to work felt deflated and fake. I started to wonder if this struggle I was willingly putting myself through was really worth it.
Then, two people who meant everything to me died, one right after another. Overnight, the city was littered with the ghosts of the people I had lost, and the buildings that I had once stared up at in awe seemed to be closing in. I spent that year at a revolving carousel of bars, surrounding myself with crowds of people because I couldn’t stand to be at home. All the while, my grief was a scream permanently lodged in my throat and I wanted to cry until my lungs gave out—until I was swallowed whole. And yet I knew that no matter how hard or how loud I shouted, no one would even look up.
In New York, it’s common to see people crying on the subway or the streets. It is an unspoken rule that you’re supposed to let them be. I used to think it was nice that the city left you alone like that. That year, though, all I wanted was for someone, for anyone, to ask me if I was really okay. For someone to tell me to stop pretending that I was.
New York had somehow, stealthily, suffocated me.
I went to Switzerland to visit my dad. Or, at least that’s what I told myself. Until you’ve been gone for a while, it’s difficult to break up with a place. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel real. Even Didion kept her apartment in New York because she thought she’d return. I did the same thing. I thought I’d be back by winter, back by the time the city was covered in ashy, gray snow.
I felt as if I had failed. As if the medal of honor that I had worn for so long was undeserved. Sinatra sang: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” I didn’t feel like a survivor. All I really knew was I couldn’t go back.
I’m now sitting in my home in a small village near Zürich, holding a coffee. It’s been two years since I took that first step off the train and into an entirely different life. Switzerland is slow. There are pockets of calm and quiet. Things are closed on Sundays and you’re meant to rest. I’ve never lived anywhere that gave me permission to sit still. I think of Didion’s line, “All I mean is that I was very young in New York and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”
I’ve been back to New York twice, and I can feel the golden stirrings of magic as I walk the streets, but in some ways I’m not that young anymore. I have battle scars.
New York was my first love: that toxic, crazy, exhilarating love that you only feel once and never again. Switzerland, with its winters that come in white snow blankets, is mine forever.