“When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantiasis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don’t impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future drainpipes don’t look like dormitories. My mother lost her city eyes and the newness of what she was seeing made her flush, newness like a hailstorm pricking her cheeks. Look, my God, those beautiful children have black teeth! Would you believe…girl children baring their nipples! How terrible, truly! And, Allah-tobah, heaven forfend, sweeper women with — no! untouchables, sweet Allah!…and cripples everywhere, mutilated by loving parents to ensure them of a lifelong income from begging…yes, beggars in boxcars, grown men with babies’ legs, in crates on wheels, made out of discarded roller-skates and old mango boxes.”
– Salman Rushdie
I was hooked on New York City from the moment I first crossed into Manhattan on a road trip as a kid. The awesome food, the arcane history and the incredible diversity of all aspects of life tantalized me until I finally made being here a permanent thing. I’ve bounced around the town for years now and tried my best to keep up with the vast array of experiences one can have here (and only here). However, I’ve reached the point where the city is no longer the right home for me. I took a bite of the Big Apple and lost my innocence. I still love this place as a golden and byzantine Eden, but I don’t feel I belong here anymore.
When I first arrived here, I started in the deep end. I lived in Bed-Stuy and worked in the service industry to make rent and pay my exorbitant student loans. I helped a Hasidic man set his alarm clock after sundown on Passover. I adopted a stray cat. Sadly, after all this time I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished a single thing. I’ve encountered that vague ennui of writer’s block, given up the cat and learned of at least four other people who’ve also helped Hasidim after sundown. All of it seems like just a rite of passage. Instead of continuing this treadmill, I’m going to live on the road — no, not like frat-bro jerk-off Kerouac. I need to see more of this vast and beautiful country before I decide where to lay roots (and I really need to visit some of my far-flung friends before we drift further apart). Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California are all on my list.
I knew this piece would be my farewell to this city, but I didn’t know what to say as I walked out the door: how flippant or nostalgic to be, how personal to make it. The direction came over me on the subway last week, reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I read the passage above in a mildly crowded car, sitting on a cross-borough ride across from two incredibly hyperactive children. Crossing the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn (it doesn’t matter what bridge) I always pause and enjoy the view before the train plunges itself underground on the other side of the river. On this particular crossing, the two kids plastered themselves to the window and pointed at cars on the next bridge level. Not once did they or their bedraggled chaperones move their eyes to the cityscape beyond. With my view north obstructed, I noticed I could see a fair amount of the scenery behind me through the reflection in the window across. I smiled for a moment at the convenience of this, but quickly stopped.
If my city eyes were stripped from me at any one point, it was this one. I sat for full minutes staring at the recursive, heavily-framed reflection of the world I live in. I realized that I was seeing a picture of New York that was so edited and unrepresentative of any reality that it had become completely meaningless. So I focused my eyes and looked north, to find reality again. Looking at the skyline of Manhattan through the rounded rectangle of the subway window, I could still see only a layer of framed perspective. I couldn’t see the reality in the city that I fell in love with a decade ago. I thought about this as I got off the train in Brooklyn, but with buildings crowded around I couldn’t see any of the things I saw on that high arch anyway.
My city eyes were trained to look at the Art-Deco metropolitan architectural girder-trained skyscraping gold-paved city that only really exists in our cultural imagination. I thought I knew that New York City was the center of the universe, and all the rest of humanity quietly seethed and bubbled around. It may still be true, but I see that the city itself is basically an ant farm or a fish tank. Skyscrapers float like so many bubble-headed scuba diver toys as a diversion for whoever looks into the tank. One gets so excited about the sunken mermaid palaces and cartoony treasure chests nestled in the pebble ground that the fish — the residents of the sunken city — become forgotten. When my city eyes were stripped from me, no newness assaulted me “like a hailstorm” at my cheeks. All I saw was the layered sediment of so many dreams and realities pressed by time into a sandstone-cliff — the edge of which I am standing under, terrified by the sheer volume of man-hours and time spent creating the place I loved and lived in. There’s too much.
The realization must come to everybody in a place like this (there’s no place quite like this) that no matter how long we explore, climb, struggle and maintain we will never be able to grasp more than an infinitesimal fraction of the reality of this city. Even if we could see past the horizons that New York arcs toward in all directions, by the time we’d turned all the way around the entire view would have changed anyways. Humans don’t have the time (or a crow’s nest tall enough) to understand what we ourselves have created.
As I walked home past old brownstones and a new arena, still out of breath for more reasons than the escalator from underground being out of order, I firmly realized I couldn’t stay here. I was trapped in a dormitory elevator once for several hours, but the claustrophobia and drowning, suffocating fear was nothing compared to the breathless, wild-eyed search for an escape I felt then. I have since smoothed my hysteria to a general unrest, which will hopefully last the week I have until I can drive away with no physical ties to this churning meat grinder of a place.
In a way, it’s almost embarrassing to compare my realization of the totality of a city to the opening of mind and eyes to the tiny sufferings of the bedraggled poor in an Indian slum. In fact, I’m sure that I’m still completely unaware of the sufferings of even my close neighbors because I’m too absorbed with planning my own escape. However, my city eyes acted as blinders to a different truth: I thought it would be different here and I’m disappointed. The rawness of that awareness chafes against the equally raw knowledge that it’s too late to go back and change it. There are only a few things left to do before I’m done here. If I can eat spicy food with friends; if I can walk through Central Park with a girl in the evening; if I can drink whiskey in a bar until the dimness of night fades; if I can smile one last time at the sun rising over Manhattan — seen only through my rear-view mirror — then I can leave, at peace without my city eyes again.