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Dodging Potholes Along Memory Lane

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On trips back to New York, I visit a street sign outside my old apartment on East 63rd Street near First Avenue. "Unnecessary Noise Prohibited." It's my sign, my permanent (whatever that means) contribution (whatever that means) to the city.

Ex-New Yorkers invest lots of emotion in inanimate objects, so I never feel overly demented staring at a sign no one else notices. I once met a man who on business trips to the city makes a detour to a hydrant near Carl Schurz Park, a spot where a dancer once said she couldn't live without him. He lives in Santa Fe now, and last he heard, she's in commodities.

When you live in New York, it's hard enough claiming any chunk of the city as your own, but when you're part of the diaspora, you are really lost. You're among (it must be) thousands of people walking around who once lived here but for some reason -- love, ambition, allergies -- moved. And now, on your couple of trips back per year, you're in this nether-demographic. Not quite tourist, not quite resident. Your experience as a New Yorker, adjusted for inflation, has a street value of nothing.

I bolted 18 years ago, and when I come back for a visit, the city is full of strangers who act as if the good old days are just beginning. Every time I come to town and take one of my strolls down repressed memory lane, my old landmarks not only offer little sense memory of my life in New York, they make me feel more detached.

Still, I try to fit in: opting for a hotel on a neighborhoody street on upper Broadway (the room edges out my old apartment for square footage), taking subways (embarrassingly slow with a MetroCard), except when I don't (barking out unsure routes to cab drivers). The big thrill is being mistaken for a resident by tourists asking directions.

"Do you know where there's a restaurant called Al Dente?"

"No idea."

I shrug and walk off. Al Dente. As if there's a restaurant in Rome called Undercooked.

The sad thing is, the inhabitants of the diaspora are even lower on the totem pole than tourists. At least tourists are wooed and/or accommodated and/or targeted. But no one invests in ex-New Yorkers. No one tries to make you feel as if you still belong. No one opens a restaurant aimed at people who lived in town during the '80s: A pasta-loaded joint with a smoking section, menus printed on junk bonds, waitresses in leg-warmers and photos of Bernhard Goetz on the wall.

No one runs a tour bus showing you around your old life:

"This is where your office was when you worked at ABC Sports. It's now the headquarters of The Financial Times. And ABC Sports is now folded into ESPN, and your boss died 13 years ago."

"This soon-to-be-new wing of Sloan-Kettering is on the site of the movie theater where you and your ex-girlfriend, who also happens to live in Los Angeles now with her husband and three kids, saw 'Hannah and Her Sisters' twice on the day it opened, Feb. 7, 1986."

"This is where you found a $20 bill as you got out of the subway just before having breakfast at Windows on the World."

No, you're left to your own jangled memories. I walk around New York so full of retrospect, I feel as if I'm looking back on things that never happened.

The truly weird thing is, I invariably wind up spending a day with another ex-New Yorker who happens to be in town, someone I probably had lunch with a week earlier in Santa Monica. There is an ease in knocking around with someone in the same fogged-in boat. We can safely laugh at how out of it we are while grasping at personal histories.

ON a trip last month, I met up with a friend (who lives one ZIP code over from me in Los Angeles) outside Time & Life ("You know, Sixth and 50-whatever"). As it was summer, we didn't even have the benefit of looking more tanned and healthy than everyone else.

Walking east toward Madison Avenue, I flipped back to 1983 and recounted walking past the Hotel Elysée not two minutes after hearing that Tennessee Williams just died there. My friend remembered that day as if it were -- well, maybe the day before yesterday: "Are you sure it was the Elysée and not the Warwick?"

I was sure. He wasn't. It became such a point of ex-New Yorker pride, we considered going to the Elysée to ask. Surely so notable a death would be a big selling point. But instead of making a potentially touristy inquiry, we retreated back to our Hollywood selves, guessing that, if Williams were alive and living in L.A., Paramount would have him writing "Suddenly Last Samurai."

We laughed about it the way New Yorkers do. During lunch, I almost mentioned to him how, on return flights, when the pilot says we'll be landing at LAX in 20 minutes, I always smile. Another trip back to New York. Over.

You must be wondering about that street sign. When I lived in New York, my apartment was on the ground floor, and the honking cars piling into the city from the Queensboro Bridge and converging into other cars trying to get out of the city made so much noise that friends would ask me why I was calling them from a phone booth. So in 1988, I wrote a letter of complaint to the mayor.

In the fall of 1989, I got a letter saying that the city would be putting up a sign on my street to discourage honking. The letter was forwarded to my new address in Venice, Calif., from my post office on 70th Street. That post office is still there, but my old ZIP code had changed.

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