Excerpted and adapted from Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Even before I’d ever set foot on its teeming streets, New York City represented to me the perfect place. As in perfectly opposite of the place I was: I was 9 and growing up in Hibbing, Minn., a rural mining town where, in winter, snowdrifts could easily engulf cars. I was bookish, introverted, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Everyone else seemed tall, blond, athletic. The center of town was the indoor hockey arena that seated hundreds. My favorite place was the tiny public library. My love of reading and solitude did not make me a particularly sought-after playmate.
The billboard that welcomes you to Hibbing boasts world’s largest open pit mine!! There is little preserved to indicate Bob Dylan once lived here, confounding the pilgrims who’ve driven 200 miles straight north from the Minneapolis airport. Any and all locals of a certain age will instead cheerily recount how he was laughed off the stage at the high school talent show. To the town, Bob Dylan wasn’t a cause for celebration but a long-haired countercultural freak. If you’re a misfit, either you acquiesce to having your rough edges pummeled to fit the groove of conformity, or you leave. Dylan left Hibbing almost immediately after that disastrous performance at the high school and headed for—where else?—New York.
I’d similarly marked New York as my future destination—I’d already decided to become a writer, and that’s where the writers went. Logical.
Taking William Saroyan’s advice about how to become a writer—“You write, man, you write”—I wrote. I became a published author when, in my senior year of high school, Seventeen accepted my essay “Volunteer Workers Are Not Schmucks!” Schmuck was a word I picked up from Mad magazine, unaware of its origins in the word penis. The lack of Jews in our town (Robert Zimmerman’s family was one of the few) left me unacquainted with Yiddish, yet here I was already speaking like a New Yorker. My editor gently changed the title to “Volunteer Work Does Pay Off!”
It is strange to think you can have a spiritual home even before you have ever been there. But some places are so iconic—the Taj Mahal, Paris, the moon—it is possible to know them from afar. That was New York for me. When I arrived at age 23, everything was instantly familiar. What people are most apt to complain about—the bustle and chaos—both excited and soothed me. I didn’t like the urine smells, the near-suffocation by crowds, the unbearably hot subway cars covered with lurid graffiti. But those were all because the place was chockablock with people. What I loved, I realized, was the teeming number of human stories being pushed right into my face—a cornucopia from the muse, the freedom to observe unobserved. This environment doesn’t exist in a small town, where you never escape surveillance.
When I was out and about in Hibbing, curtains would swish aside, Vincent Price eyes peering out. Was it small-town snoopiness or the dreaded invisible letter A(as in Asian in a white town)? Once, when my sister and I went to play at the house of a little girl we knew from church, she started closing the electric garage when she saw us coming, saying: “My mother told me I’m not supposed to play with you!” Asian, I could only conclude.
In New York, being Korean-American would be just part of who I was, along with single female writer, recent college grad, cat owner. Ironically, being among such diversity allowed me to seek out others of my various tribes: writers and Asian-Americans. Hating being singled out for being Asian elsewhere, we could choose to identify as such in New York. And, ironically, with Korean groceries starting to dot the Upper West Side, the owners would sometimes chide me for not speaking Korean; in New York, sometimes, I wasn’t Korean enough.
I didn’t live in a garret or with tons of roommates. A Goldman Sachs salary allowed me an apartment in one of those 1970s cookie-cutter high-rises near Lincoln Center. The apartment was a studio sloppily bisected by a fake wall to make it into a one-bedroom. It made the space smaller, but I liked having another room to go into. It was almost comical, the logistics of containing the necessities of daily life in two shallow closets, then trying to make only-in-New-York decisions such as determining which cleaning supplies were attractive enough to remain out (vacuum) and which needed to be hidden (bucket, mop, and rubber gloves). The “view” was a close-up of the Chinese consulate, a similarly featureless brick building. Tower Records (now defunct) blocked out any aspirational sun, so that even on the brightest days, the best I’d get was a pencil-thin shaft of light moving through the interstice between the buildings, not enough to sustain even an air plant. Instead, I got a cat, who spent all day snoring on the printer.
I had moved to New York with an inchoate sense that writers went there and then stuff happened. Writing-wise, the straightforward transaction—write, get paid, make a living—that I’d envisioned given my early Seventeen success turned out to be more complicated. The alumni contacts at magazines that I’d been given by the college career office all rebuffed me, and I was retroactively glad my tiger parents had made me major in something “secure” like economics. At the investment bank, I earned ample money with handsome benefits, but the work left me exhausted. I was waking up at 4:30 a.m. just to get in a solid hour of writing before heading off to my job, where a misplaced decimal point could mean disaster. I was a terrible employee but also a stunted writer. While my banking peers were applying to Harvard Business School, the highest-paying writing gig I scored was a free dinner for winning a writing contest at West Side Weekly, describing my travails at the DMV.
I still wrote. I even finished a novel. And what had begun as mild distaste for my job at the august Goldman Sachs became full-bore loathing. But it brought in the money and allowed me to stay in New York, where I still held out hope that proximity to the literary world might engender its affection for me. I acquired an unexpected “in” when my boyfriend (now husband) followed me to New York one year later and won a job as an editorial assistant at a venerable publishing house. To make up for the poverty-line salary ($13,000), assistants often received invitations to literary events, which is how I ended up at a PEN reading, standing in line to get a book signed by two authors I loved. The signing broke up before they got to me, and author No. 1 said the equivalent of “Fuck off, kid,” but No. 2 actually took a minute to chat with me. When I tremulously mentioned that I’d written a novel, she said I should send her 20 pages.
As improbable as it seems, that is how I found my first agent. Not only that, author No. 2 has become a good friend, thus confirming that the daily slog of living in New York—the crowds, my long commute to Wall Street, the lack of space, the heaviness of kitty litter bags—could pay off.
* * *
In your 20s, you always secretly think you’re the one person who’s never going to grow old, your evidence being that the next day you’re not old, nor the next or the next—ta-dah! But one day, you’re 30, and no matter how well-preserved you look, chronological limitations begin to become apparent. At 30 I was a published novelist, got an op-ed in the New York Times, had done a few teaching gigs—and I was also very tired.
Goldman Sachs had to plunder the U.S. economy without me. I’d quit to write full time and found my new life still kept me on a frantic treadmill: paying for rent, food, utilities plus my own Social Security taxes. And no more luxury medical insurance, no more free Wall Street travel clinic where you could get your shots for dengue fever and prophylactic antibiotics for your trip to Cozumel. Now, I had a high-deductible “catastrophic” plan paid out of pocket that dissuaded me from ever seeking medical help for anything short of losing an extremity. To make up for the inevitable shortfalls, I established a small word-processing and editing business from my apartment, as well as a job reading submissions for Ladies Home Journal’s “Helpful Hints” column. Even income from three sources wasn’t enough; I returned to work part-time for another investment bank.
My personal life was also starting to shift. The idea I’d had at age 9 of life in New York—cat, tiny apartment, lots and lots of writing—turned out to be eerily accurate. But its sustainability came into question. Because my building was a singleton’s warehouse—almost all studios and one-bedrooms—as soon as people had children, they moved out, most of them directly to Westchester or Jersey, leaving the childfree to age alone. Given the building’s proximity to Lincoln Center and Juilliard, there were musicians and actors who, you could tell, had begun full of youth and potential but, after sacrificing space, sanity, and fertility in pursuit of their art, had come to realize that New York was not going to keep up its half of the Faustian bargain.
After a dozen years, I had a hankering, if not for open spaces, then for something new. The exigencies of my current novel, which was set in Korea, drove me to apply for a Fulbright to do research. I got it and believed my leaving New York to be temporary. My plan was to spend the next academic year in Korea, come back, and resume writing and life as it was before. Life, however, had other plans. My boyfriend was now my fiancé. I was just as adamant about my writing career but becoming less rigid about where to conduct it. We wedged our wedding in between my leaving for Seoul and Karl’s first job as a professor at Oberlin. Somehow, in this short time, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I hadn’t even fully unpacked in Seoul before I flew back from Korea to take care of her until she died a few weeks later. It was a long year, at the end of which we received the wonderful news that Karl had been chosen for a job at our alma mater, Brown.
We inherited one of Karl’s family’s cars, an aged but sturdy Jetta, and I remember an odd sense of relief as we drove my stuff from the Upper West Side north to Providence, R.I. No more ridiculous humidity in summer! A yard! Living by the ocean! It was a wonder, the small stuff, like driving to the grocery store and stocking up heedlessly, instead of mentally calculating how much one could stand to carry.
We bought a house. It was a modest four-square, but our New York friends marveled at the size. There was a single-car garage for the Jetta and even a pizza slice of a yard. This was the early 2000s, when most of our friends had also left New York, either priced out by the beginning of the hedge funders’ era or smoked out by the devastation of Sept. 11.
It was an end of an era, of my 20s, of my youth, but also of much of my searching anxiety: What would the future hold? Would I succeed as a writer? Would I get married? As I headed into my fourth decade, I finally realized that what would happen would happen, whether I worried about it or not. I enjoyed my new outlook in the easy yet circumscribed life of a college town. I began to associate anxious or harried feelings with New York, where anything could and would happen at any time—but in a bad way—as opposed to Providence, where nothing much seemed to ever happen at all.
I didn’t think I missed New York. We had a child with medical issues, and treatments and driving him from doctor to doctor consumed a decade. When he was stable enough that I could travel, I would go into New York for the day on the train and be back in the early evening. One year, I judged a literary contest whose gala celebration was held at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where the crowds are so thick they swallow you up. Once I staggered into my room, there was still no peace: The crazy blinking nikon camera sign invaded the space with its red neon light, even through the blackout curtains. I loved it. Yes, I had quit New York, but I still carried around those feelings like a magnet that became reactivated every time I returned. But I had a child now, a teaching job, a house, and a community. New York was for the dreamers, the unattached, mobile types.
Act II: An opportunity for jobs in New York, for both my husband and me, came seemingly out of the blue. At first, we categorically dismissed it. It was going to be too hard on our son, now 12. To prove it to ourselves, we brought him down for an interview at one of the specialized schools for the disabled and waited for the stress and endless tantrums. To our surprise, he didn’t tantrum, not once. In his own unique way, he found the chaos oddly soothing. He lost his phobia of dogs in a day. He has severe cognitive impairments, so I know he didn’t pine for New York or even know what it was. But he wasn’t unhappy, and that’s something, because he often seems very, very unhappy. Could it be that New York might be a destination for him, the way it was for me?
Reader, we moved back.