A Love Letter To New York City

09/30/2013 01:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013
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The following is an essay by novelist Dani Shapiro, in which she discusses her love affair with a city she eventually decided to leave. It is excerpted from "Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York," [Seal Press, $16.00] an anthology of tumultuous tales and passionate odes to the Empire State.

1. The city, was what people from New Jersey called it. The city, as if there were no other. If you were a suburban Jewish girl in the late 1970s, aching to burst out of the tepid swamp of your adolescence (synagogue! field hockey! cigarettes!), the magnetic pull of the city from across the water was irresistible. Between you and the city were the smokestacks of Newark, the stench of oil refineries, the soaring Budweiser eagle, its lit-up wings flapping high above the manufacturing plant. That eagle—if you were a certain kind of girl, you wanted to leap on its neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips into the city, you’d watch from the backseat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.

2. At least once or twice a month, when I was in high school, I’d slip out of third-period algebra. No one noticed. I’d walk a mile to the train station in Elizabeth and board the 11:33 to Penn Station. The windows were gray with the film of cigarette smoke. You could write your name on them. The train car, largely empty. The men who worked downtown had long since commuted, and the women tended to drive or stay home. Some of my friends’ mothers had never even been to the city. It was the end of the 1970s. I was fifteen, and not a soul knew my whereabouts. I disembarked in Penn Station and made my way through its urine-stained halls in my corduroys and Fair Isle sweater, trudging along in my Wallabees. North up Eighth Avenue, past strip joints, neon XXX signs, bodegas. I stopped when I reached Lincoln Center and took a moment by the fountain in the plaza, looking at the Chagalls framed by the arched windows of the Metropolitan Opera. Hungry, I continued north to 72nd Street, where I spent my allowance on a turkey, tongue, and coleslaw sandwich and a Dr. Brown’s CelRay soda at the Fine & Schapiro delicatessen. I imagined that I was already a woman, that I had shed Jersey, my extreme youth, like a layer of baby fat. By the end of the school day, I’d be back home, delivering monosyllabic answers to the question, “How was your day?” But secretly, I was high on the knowledge that I had done it. I had been there.

3. In a popular TV commercial of that era, for Charlie perfume, an actress named Shelley Hack strode across the screen in her pantsuit, blonde mane flying. She was the Charlie girl—tall, urban, glamorous, on her way to important places—someone who was “kind of now, kind of wow, Charlie,” as the jingle went. She had it all—and why not? With the hubris of the very young, I planted both feet in my fantasy. I was the Charlie girl. My life in New York was going to involve some sort of career in which I could wear pantsuits like that.

4. I moved to New York at nineteen, into the West 75th Street walk-up apartment of a boyfriend. The boyfriend owned a small shop on Columbus that sold South American artifacts and the peasant clothes popular with a certain urban-bohemian crowd. My father—an Orthodox Jew—threatened to disown me if I shacked up (his words) with my boyfriend. So I married him. It seemed like a fine solution. We divorced a year later. But in between—as a college student—I threw dinner parties in that brownstone apartment, making the one dish I knew how: Chicken Marbella from The Silver Palate Cookbook, with olives, prunes, and cinnamon, flavors I haven’t liked in combination since. In photos from that time I see a round-faced girl with feathered hair (hello, Farrah), dimples, and a ring that had no busi- ness being on her finger. Our block was home to several dancers from the New York City corps de ballet whom I’d see heading to re- hearsal early in the mornings, their heads small and neat, their long necks wrapped in soft scarves. I made the mistake of thinking that we were alike, these dancers and I, because we were the same age. But in fact, they were moving toward life, and I—masquerading as a happy homemaker—was drifting away from it.

5. “Kind of now, kind of wow, Charlie.” Another one of the Charlie girls was an actress named Cheryl Ladd, who went on to be one of Charlie’s Angels (no relation). And then there was a model, Shelley Smith, whom I would meet many years later—in another life, a future I couldn’t possibly imagine—after she had opened an egg donation agency in Beverly Hills and I was trying to have a second child. But back then, to me, she was part of a trifecta of blondes who epitomized life among skyscrapers—a burnished, free-floating glamour that seemed, in itself, a worthy goal.

6. Divorced and twenty. How many people can claim that? For years, I erased that marriage from my life story. It was just too hard to explain—to others, to myself. But now, thirty years later, I wish I could reach back through time and shake some sense into that lost little girl. I wish I could tell her to wait, to hold on. That becoming a grown-up is not something that happens overnight, or on paper. That rings and certificates and apartments and meals have nothing to do with it. That everything we do matters. Wait, I want to say—but she is impatient, racing ahead of me.

7. The city. It isn’t possible for me to write about the city without writing about real estate and men. From the baby-marriage, I moved on to a full-blown affair with an older married man. From a walk-up on 75th, I graduated to a duplex in the West Village and finally to an apartment on the top floor of the Dakota. The Dakota apartment looked like a dollhouse, with a string of tiny rooms, slanted ceilings, walls papered with peach and lavender Laura Ashley flowers. I ate next to nothing and drank white wine and frozen margaritas. I drank champagne with my girlfriends at Petrossian, and we charged our drinks to our parents’ credit cards. I had my nails done next to Madonna, my hair blown out next to the original uptown girl, Christie Brinkley. I took back-to-back aerobics classes at Bjorkman and Martin, a cultish studio run by a compact woman with powerful thighs named Lee who taught us intricate dance steps and yelled at those who couldn’t follow. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral, we—all of us drenched in perspiration at that studio—held hands and said a prayer.

8. There were other apartments, other men. Chance encounters, coincidence, desires, and invitations. Another brief, failed marriage. All before I was thirty. I was trying, flailing, failing, in an attempt to chisel myself into a woman who existed only as a fantasy, airbrushed, photoshopped, as lost as that high school sophomore who wandered in a fugue state past the strip joints of Times Square. I was a girl who hadn’t gotten the memo about not taking candy from strangers—and New York was full of those strangers. A girl who was playing a part she was wrong for, whose own gifts were elusive and strange to her, contraband, brought home from a foreign country and best stored out of reach.

9. But still, all the while, I was becoming a writer. How to explain this—how, without conceiving myself as a split screen, one part of me blurry and undefined and the other honing skills, finding the words, becoming, in the invisibility, the solitude of these rooms, these apartments, someone with something to say. I wrote my first novel, then another. I began to teach. I interned at a literary magazine on 17th, lugged home laundry bags full of manuscripts, and sat cross-legged on my bed as if mining through coals for gold. I went to book parties in clubs and smoky bars and had them thrown for me. I lunched on vertical salads with my terrifying agent at Michael’s on West 54th Street, where table position determined pecking order, and no one was ever quite focused on their own dining companion. Wasn’t that Barbara Walters being shown to the window table? I posed for a portrait in Vanity Fair in a tiny lemon yellow suit, my hair big and fluffy, a face covered in makeup, in a coffee shop on West 83rd Street. Once, late at night, as I was in bed reading manuscripts, a giant water bug flew across the bedroom and landed on my shoulder. I screamed and called the doorman, a man who must have been in his late seventies, who poked with a broom through the shoes and boots littering my closet floor until he found and disposed of it.

10. I could lecture on metaphor; I could teach graduate students; I could locate and deconstruct the animal imagery in Madame Bovary. But I could not squash a water bug by myself. The practicalities of life eluded me. The city—which I knew with the intimacy of a lover—made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of a building, a hydrant, a tree.

11. I am writing this from a small study in a house high on a hill in the Connecticut countryside, two hours north of the city. It is winter. The bare branches of wisteria that climb our roof are banging against the window. One of my dogs is curled up at my feet. I hear the sharp pitter-patter of the other as he forages through the house for crumbs left from a party we threw the other night. The walls of my study are hung with photographs: My son as a ring-bearer at a friend’s wedding, tiny in his first tuxedo. My husband, from his years as a war correspondent, lighting a cigarette in his flak jacket on a rooftop in Somalia—a reminder that he, too, had a life that he left behind when he met me. While I was drinking champagne on my parents’ credit card, he was filing stories from the bloody streets of Mogadishu.

12. It has been ten years since we left the city. A decade—long enough for our friends to stop taking bets on how long it would take us to come to our senses and return to New York. What do you do up there? Whom do you see? What’s it like? They drive up to visit us in their Zip cars or rental SUVs, bearing urban bounty: shopping bags from Citarella filled with pungent Epoisses and chorizo tortellini; boxes of linzer cookies from Sarabeth’s; delicate, pastel Laduree macarons. In turn, we take our houseguests on hikes or to lakeside beaches or to quaint village streets lined with shops selling cashmere and tweed. But we aren’t hearty country folk. I don’t own muck boots or a Barbour coat. We don’t ski or own horses or build bonfires in our backyard. I spend most of my days alone in my writing study, with a midday yoga break in the next room. My husband now writes and directs films, and the closest he gets to an outdoor activity is when he takes his chainsaw out into our woods to clear brush. Our son, like us, is an indoor dreamer. We are urban Jews, descended from the shtetl, pale and neurasthenic. Living in our heads.

13. Deep within my recesses there is a turntable, its needle skipping, skipping. My twenty-year-old self, straight from Jersey, watches me, hands on hips. How could you? she accuses me. When we’d come so far? I want to tell her that we were refugees, my husband, son, and I, fleeing north, heading away from a place and time that we hoped would recede, like the view from our rearview mirror, until it disappeared entirely, until it became nothing more than a memory. I want to tell her that my baby had been very sick. That my father was dead, my mother dying. That we watched as one plane, then another, crashed into the towers, debris swirling in the sky above us like a storm of blackened snow. That everything I thought I knew about living no longer applied. That the champagne and the men and the real estate and the book parties were like the fool’s gold that my now-teenage, healthy son unearths on his geology field trips. Look, I want to say. This life you think you want is a shiny apparition. Those restaurants and clubs, those bars bathed in a light pinker than sunset? Those cafes where photographers from magazines took your picture, and makeup artists dusted your pretty nose? They will be submerged, as in a shipwreck, the seas of time washing over them until something new has taken their place. The joint where you now drink those frozen margaritas will become an organic juice bar. The bistro with the best steak frites is now a T-Mobile store. The bookstore where you will eventually give your first reading sells boxes of hair dye and curling irons. It all changes—even institutions, even concrete towers, even, or perhaps most of all, our very selves—my foolish little sweetheart. That’s how I could leave. Trust me. You’ll thank me someday.

14. I am not yet old, but I am no longer young. My city—the one that beckoned just beyond the smokestacks and Budweiser plant—has vanished. Only glimpses of it remain, in the sandstone facade of a Fifth Avenue building, or Washington Square Park, when seen from a certain angle. My city broke its promise to me, and I to it. I fell out of love, and then I fell back in—with my small town, its winding country roads, and the ladies at the post office who know my name. I did my best to become the airbrushed girl on its billboards, but even air-brushed girls grow up. We soften over time, or maybe harden. One way or another, life will have its way with us.

15. I still drive into the city once a week or so. I see doctors, get my hair done, have lunch with my agent, have dinner with a girlfriend at a candlelit restaurant where we share a bottle of wine and order the cheese plate. I give readings from my books in crowded, East Village bars. If I can, I squeeze in a yoga class near Union Square, in a loft filled with plants and statues of the Buddha. Mostly, I watch the young people—their new designs in facial hair, piercings, and tattoos—who are in the midst of their own love affair. They’re from Ohio or Nebraska. Or New Jersey. They’ve arrived, and they’re here to stay, just as I once was. It’s their city now. I have become invisible to them. I could be their mother. They laugh and whisper, lovely heads bent together. Sometimes, if it’s going to be a late night—the theater, perhaps, or a boozy dinner party—my husband and I stay over at a hotel. We pull up to the entrance in our SUV with Connecticut plates, a middle-aged couple from out of town, just as my parents once were. “Can I help you folks get a taxi?” the doorman asks. “Do you need directions?” No, my husband tells him. That’s okay. We’re from here. We know our way around.


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