Joan Dideon was wrong. In her essay, Goodbye to All That, she wrote, “I’m not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.” Dideon believed that for the east coast child, New York City was just a city, “a plausible city in which to live.” For those from other places, New York was “an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
What Dideon didn’t see was that for many us who lived just outside of the City, in a suburb, a commute away, the idea of New York City – or more properly, Manhattan – the dream of a life on that brick, glass and steel island, was as far away for us as it was for those from California. The dream to be a part of its fabric and pace on a 24-hour basis was out of reach. For those of us who came of age in the 70s and 80s, newly graduated with our liberal arts degrees in hand, that infinitely romantic notion of New York was right there teasing us, at the edge of our fingertips, never within our grasp. I discovered this the summer I started my first job at Fairchild Publications in lower Manhattan. I took an entry-level position in their customer service department, dreaming of being near and making connections with the creative, beautiful, high-fashion writing staff of Women’s Wear Daily and W Magazine. Instead, I found myself in a windowless basement, working as part of a phone bank with about eight other customer service reps as we took orders for new subscriptions, and tried to soothe the anger of customers not receiving their current edition Footwear News –how could they possibly run their business without immediately knowing the latest trends in heel shapes and sizes?
I took the train to the city every day at eight and I left at five, to return to my childhood home in Yonkers, with its manicured lawn and perfectly straight hedges. I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. But more accurately, I gave in to the pressure of my family, and the story I came to believe, that Manhattan was not for people like us. It was for the few chosen ones, the rich, powerful, successful, and privileged. I was ordinary. Who was I to think I could make a life in that shining city that never slept? My family knew what was best for me: go to college, get a job, work for a couple of years, meet a nice man, get married, have kids, buy a house a block away – “we’d be happy to look after the grandkids.” It was what my older sister did, and if I was a good daughter, that would be my fate too. But I didn’t acquiesce with my family’s vision for my life and this didn’t go well. As the almighty judge of all things proper, my mother would find fault in nearly everything about me, subjecting me to relentless diatribes about my hair, clothes, friends, beliefs. And I was labeled as oversensitive.
I found refuge in my room where I listened to and read the troubadours of poetry and prose: Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins. How thin did I wear out the vinyl of Blood on the Tracks and Desire. How many times did I listen to the tape of the Dead, Saratoga 1983, my first Dead show. How many passages did I underline in On the Road and Another Roadside Attraction, their pages creased and folded, their covers taped back on. Through these artists I discovered another path. Before me now were two seemingly impossible choices – the Manhattan skyline or the open road.
During my lunch hour, I would talk long walks, soaking up everything the city had to offer. In Union Square, grizzled old black men would play chess; tourists would ask strangers to take their photos by the fountain; street musicians and mimes would entertain; and NYU students would sleep on the lawn, text books opened, faced down beside them. Just beyond the park was Greenwich Village, with its eclectic shops, cafes and of course, the jazz and folk clubs with their rich history – The Village Gate, The Bottom Line, The Bitter End – all filling me with a sense of nostalgia for a time that was never mine.
Walking along the tree-lined streets of the West Village, I’d admire the charming brownstones, imagining the lives within those walls. It was along one of those streets I noticed a tan card, the size of postcard, lying in the road. Garbage really, but I felt the need to pick it up. On the card were some words in a lovely script:
To achieve all that is possible, we must attempt the impossible.
To be all that we can be, we must dream of being more.
I stood on the sidewalk staring at that card, my hand shaking. I knew I no longer had a choice. If I was ever to be happy, if I was ever to live my life on my terms, I could only do one thing – leave my family, leave New York. I chose the open road.
Ironically, Joan Dideon’s love letter to New York was written because she was leaving. She wrote that she remembered exactly when New York began for her but “could not lay her finger on when it ended.” For me, it was the opposite. I remember exactly when it ended, standing on that tree-lined sidewalk, when the courage I so badly needed seemed to come from a little tan card I still have to this day. It was a couple of years before I had enough money to take to the road and I spent that summer of 1985 driving across the country, ending up in Seattle. I thought I’d return to New York one day, but I never did. Although in many ways, the most tender of ways, the city has never left me, and it remains a shining and perishable dream.