(originally written in 2009 and published in my zine. it still applies.)
Dear New York City, (2009)
You are not where I lost my virginity. You are not where my life was first threatened. You are not the inspiration for my novel. You are not where I wrote a single worthwhile word.
But you are the place where we found a gigantic (12” circumference!) bagel just sitting on a parking meter and it felt like magic. You are the place where I first protested something, where I first used the power of my voice to chance some homophobes out of the West Village. You are where I had a million revelations that saved my life. You are the proof that life is worth living. Or you were.
I remember the little gifts that you gave me, on the Lower East Side before the condos were too plentiful. I’m not talking about the hipsters or even the queers. The queers were important but somehow not as important as the old lady riding her bicycle with a basket full of vegetables, her frizzy gray hair pulled into lopsided pigtails. Not as important as that guy in the subway tunnel, that impossibly long walkway from the 2 to the F, draped in golden sheets, playing an invisible violin with a visible bow, a parakeet perched at the end, and from the way he moved and the look on his face I could tell that he was making the most beautiful music. And the parakeet’s wings weren’t clipped, it stayed on that golden violin bow simply because it wanted to be there. I remember all of them, even though they don’t seem based in the reality of you anymore.
Now I’m four hundred miles away [ed. note from 2020: i am three thousand miles away] and I like to say I’m never coming back. I probably won’t. [ed. note from 2020: i definitely won’t] I mean, to visit, but not to live. I just can’t do it. Maybe the story that best illustrates how I feel is this: a few months after 9/11, I was driving to Massachusetts with my siblings and dad. My dad is a NYC construction worker and has worked on most of the big buildings in Manhattan. And those guys get really attached to the buildings they work on. I worked with them one summer and one day this guy started ranting and raving. “I pour my fuckin’ blood into this building!” he yelled, voice breaking as if he were about to cry. “But if I try to come back once it’s done, I get arrested because I ain’t wearing a business suit!” Everyone else was quiet after he said that, and we all thought about it.
Anyway, we were driving past Manhattan and my dad was looking at the skyline with no small amount of pride and love. “Look, kids! There’s the Empire State building!” as if we hadn’t seen it a hundred times, but we looked anyway. “I wonder why you can’t see the twin—oh,” he said, and looked straight at the road ahead, in the saddest silence, for so long afterwards. That pride, turned inside out and upside down. Turned into silence. It’s all silence now.
Maybe I don’t have the right to claim allegiance. I only spent one summer sweating inside a sheetrock dust building, hanging lights in the ceiling while sweat dripped from underneath my hard hat. I was born in Queens but raised out on Long Island, because my mom didn’t want her kids growing up hard and my parents had the financial privilege to make that an option. When I return for the most superficial rushed visits I am nothing but saddened by the posturing, the insensitivity, the disparity, the coldness. Yeah, that was always there, but it was tempered with the love and the hope and the beauty. It’s all silenced now.
Lately I have realized that it’s okay to be homesick forever. It’s okay to be homesick and never go home. It’s okay to acknowledge that particular ache and keep going. P. (a Cuban refugee and fellow former New Yorker) said, “Millions of people all over the world are displaced. They never get to fuckin’ go home—so why should we?” That’s a sentence that stopped me with its truth, stopped me right in my complaining tracks. Homesick isn’t so bad. It means you’re doing new things, not stagnating, not accepting bullshit just because it’s familiar. Homesick is okay when you promise to not forget the things a place has taught you, and here is my promise: I do solemnly swear that I won’t fucking forget.