When I visit Manhattan, I feel seized by that New York excitement, a state of being which resembles my hyper teenage self. (I know there are songs written about this, and the reason there are songs is because it’s real: That NY state of mind.) The great mix of people and the sounds and the smells, and the pace, and the way I feel each street due to the light and the architecture, and how ornate and ever changing the interior design flavor of the moment. Right now, on 9th Ave, there is a return to “rustic authenticity.” I have a choice: upscale, or downscale. I can eat cheap pastries on a stoop, or tapas in a heated indoor winter garden. I make the city mine by engaging it with my personal blend of whimsy and interest, and (unavoidably) spending power.
I first came to live in NYC when I was 21. New York has become a personal measurement tool, like those childhood height marks on doors. I go back and I measure myself to the city: How is my energy? Who is with me and why? What am I attracted to? What do I wish to see again? What do I wish to see anew?
This last visit, we went to see the Colbert Report on Monday and the Daily Show on Tuesday. The warm-up comedian made a point of reminding the audience that we were splurging with free tickets. Both shows were great, with interesting similarities and style variances in the handling of the audience. My partner and I also walked around, ate good sushi, and caught by chance the loveliness-drenched end of The Marriage of Figaro, simulcast on the Lincoln Center Plaza. My spirit was soaring to the music. It had to be Mozart. Out of all the wonders, that will probably be the moment that sticks with me: The dream of visiting Lincoln Center with my sweetheart, which has preoccupied me since I first saw Cher in Moonstruck. Going to see La Boheme was sweepingly romantic in the movie and stumbling onto Figaro was beautiful in real life, more than 25 years after the movie came out. Funny how movies and New York City can conspire to make life dreamlike. (This dream of life which whose end is unknown, but probably unlike The Marriage of Figaro.)
As the time came to board the bus back to Philadelphia on Sunday night, after three really good days in New York City, I started feeling the usual: relief plus validation. Relief because I’m always happy to come home. I’m a little bit smug in the knowledge that I picked the right city to live in. I love living in Philadelphia. I love living here because I find it to be (Philly attitude and all) an exceedingly gentle city (with the exception of the universal horror of the Philly driving culture). Philly has a vibrant art scene, a delicious food scene, architecture, history, quality of life, and affordability to recommend it. NYC has that odd way of making my spine tingle with the unfettered sense of possibility that makes me want to run around giggling. NYC is recklessly overstimulating. I LOVE the people watching in New York. It is awesome. But my wallet lies flat like dessicated husk whenever I leave Manhattan. And what I love more than being overstimulated is being relaxed. I love the fact that I never ever feel stressed out when I’m commuting home in Philadelphia–even annoying setbacks in public transportation are generally manageable. The distances aren’t that great in my life. I can walk if I must. (This distance thing includes emotional, financial, and intellectual distances–it’s a metaphor). In New York, there’s a low level but endless grind that makes me feel like my soul is constantly battling tiny little scratches to its vital organs. That said, I’ll be scratched to death while sitting in a restaurant with a really fabulous interior design, which might distract me way past soul death. On the other hand, back home in Philadelphia, I feel like my soul drinks smoothies, listens to Mozart, and gets regular massages–even if the setting is less fantastic (and nothing feels more like a fairy tale come true than when I walk the High Line Park in Manhattan). I like the Philly option better. That’s just me.
And in fairness, I already had my five years in Manhattan and I loved every second of those years.
I lived in New York City, Manhattan–so I’d get those spiffy envelopes that said it: New York New York, for five years right after college. I moved to Philly more than a decade ago, but when it came time for my 30th birthday, I had my party in New York City. This was an act of nostalgia for my twenties and an act of love towards the city. I’m facing the next turning of the decade, and I’m headed back to New York. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means I’m salmon swimming upstream to the watering places that shaped a younger me. I’m going to spend a celebratory weekend, and will make a symbolic stop at my once glamorous watering holes, The Algonquin and the Royalton for one cocktail each. I was so excited to walk in Dorothy Parker’s steps when I was young.
New York still feels incredibly familiar but strange. Manhattan doesn’t need me, it has its own thing going and I haven’t been written into that story. I no longer belong to the New York City timeline. I get occasional glimpses of the city’s evolution. My weekend jaunts are little postcards from the future to my current self which holds the old Manhattan in its mind. In the early 90s, Manhattan still had a kind of wild rugged energy in places, and now the whole of it feels like a polished grand dame to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older and I gravitate to quieter scenes.
Anyway, salmon, swimming upstream, not to spawn but to witness, maybe catch a glimpse of myself rounding the corner. Who’s doing the gazing and who’s being beheld is the mystery.