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Why I Left

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I left because one morning I came downstairs from my third-floor tenement studio on East Third Street and found that someone had stolen the seat from my bicycle. In case you're wondering, the reason I was comfortable leaving it locked on the street overnight was that the Hell's Angels were my neighbors and they were alleged to keep that block safe. The bike must have been outside of their jurisdiction. For several minutes I leaned against my building and stared at this bare pipe sticking up where I was supposed to sit down. After spending all of my childhood and most of my adult life in New York, it seemed like an unambiguous message.

That was September 10, 2001.

The next day was no less portentous, but I was lucky, losing only psychic peace. For the next weeks, I needed ID to get anywhere near my home. For the next months, my office building, where the survivors of Cantor and Fitzgerald had relocated, received twice-daily bomb threats. By the second month, we were told that evacuation was optional. Meanwhile, the president was directing the nation to show its strength by returning to the mall and starting a war. I left because of all that.

I left because of that apartment. It was stabilized ($508 a month), but the shower was in the kitchen and the floor sloped so badly that a dropped grape would reliably roll to the west. My sleep, never a sure thing, was often broken by one particular Hell's Angel, who liked to walk up and down the street cracking a whip at three in the morning. But that wasn't why I left. My co-tenants and I had been through a long legal battle with the original landlord to get the building kept up to code. The first lease I received for that place was mailed to me from the Greenwood Correctional Facility, so getting him to employ a janitor was a big ask. The case was led by a fearless guy who lived directly below me. He had been there since the 70s (he paid $279). After all the court battles, a new landlord offered to buy us out so they could renovate and raise the prices for somebody else. With the air still smelling of the incinerated Twin Towers, I decided to take the money. That's why I left. All I needed was somewhere to go. The fantasy destination had long been the clichéd comforts of the East Bay but, thankfully, around that same time, the romantic mirage that had been beckoning me to the West Coast for years finally evaporated.

I left because of my job. Book publishing, where I'd spent nearly a decade, had delivered me to a boss and a position that were too good to last. Three days a week I designed book jackets at a smartypants literary imprint. The art director shielded us from office politics and championed us as artistes. She also managed to pay me ludicrously well. That winter however, when accountants were sniffing around for unnecessary expenses, she said to me, "I don't know if I can protect your job."

I left because my miles were with United. With the airlines all edging into bankruptcy, The Economist predicted the end of loyalty programs. Redemption was strongly advised. I had been hoarding for years without a goal. Australia had always intrigued me and was sufficiently distant to drain my account. United took me there, business class. Because of a previous stint as a map editor at a travel guide, I knew enough people around the country to tell me where to go.

I left because of the sunlight during the last four days of that trip. The country is epic and eccentric and largely empty of people, so it only takes the sun to come out to light the place well. The weather had complied during the week in Sydney, the week of jungle walking and snorkeling the reef in the far north, and the two more spent driving from the Red Center to the bottom (for those keeping count of weeks, credit goes again to my indulgent boss). Melbourne though. It gleamed. My friends welcomed me to their tan-and-teal deco apartment that overlooked the St Kilda pier and the modest, glistening waves of Port Philip Bay. On their corner was a century-old amusement park, modeled on Coney Island with an appropriately seedy beach across the road. Black cockatoos and mammoth Moreton Bay Fig trees reminded me I was in another hemisphere. The government had just published their proposal for the city for 2030, planning for immigration, transportation and resources. Even if it was a pretense, this gesture of political foresight thrilled me. Biking into town one blissful afternoon, riding down an expansive and well-respected bike lane, I had the thought you're not supposed to have on vacation: I could live here.

I left because the website for the Australian Department of Immigration said they were in need of pastry chefs. This was relevant. In New York, on the days when I was not a designer, I worked in a bakery. As you do. The single scrap of official interest in this portion of my skill set gave my dream some shape and legality. I thought, I'll telecommute as a graphic designer while I open a cupcake shop in Melbourne. (Be kind, it was 2002.)

"Can't you just stay in New York and complain about it like the rest of us?" a friend asked.

No, townies like me don't get this many excuses to flee. I had to go.

The entire enterprise went, as they say here, pear-shaped. I hadn't clicked through all the rules on the immigration website and my pastry career was short-lived. That telecommuting thing didn't work out either. And as for the weather, Melbourne has never looked that fresh to me again.

The fact that I'm here 10 years later is a surprise. Other things must have worked out. I live on a leafy street with my partner, a dog and three chickens. There are neighbors, but they're quiet at night. In the backyard, frogs make their clicking sounds and possums wander through the trees. I stand on the grass and look at all the stars. The constellations are all upside down, a tidy symbol for how this place still doesn't feel quite like home. Still, the turn of the head that's needed to make sense of the stars may be the reason I've stayed.