Of Golden Handcuffs and Silver Linings
There’s a joke about two old Yankees bumping into each other at the General Store up in Maine.
One says to the other, “Hey farmer, you been here all your life?”
The other replies, “Not yet I ain’t!”
People ask me whether I’m a native New Yorker or not. (Here, they ask me. I leave town and say two words, they tell me). I came here to escape the unspeakable horrors of suburbia in the spring of ‘69, and I never looked back. But if you had told me then I’d still be here now, I would have laughed at you.
Many come to New York City thinking they’ll stay a while and earn some money and then leave for someplace more pleasant. But the town’s merry-go-round has a way of spinning and pinning you with its centrifugal force. To put it another way, here, you get like a rat racing after the cheese, and the next thing you know, your fur is gray and you’re slower than most of the other rats. And you still don’t have the cheese.
Truth be told, though, I love the place. I’ve loved it ever since I did a sleep over at my grandma’s when I was 11. The next morning, a weekday, she let me go down to the street alone, there at 40th and Lex, to take a walk around the block. I smelled and heard things and coughed in ways one never does in Great Neck. Clearly this was a place, a buzz, a way of life that was greater than the sum of its parts. I was hooked.
Problem is, I came here to do a little time, and it’s turning into a life sentence.
Because now, though I often want out after all these years, it feels foolish to leave exactly because I’ve been here for so long: I have friends here that I’ve known for 25, 35, 45 years. What’s that worth? Now I’m going to move to some new place and start over? Why I’ll be dead before I know anyone well enough to come to my funeral! It’s these human connections – being blessed with the world’s best friends — that are the golden handcuffs that keep me here more than anything else. New York attracts not only talent, but depth, and I’ve known many who have left for the waspy hinterlands only to miss the level of engagement they had with people here.
So this is starting to become a conundrum for me. Because my body is becoming increasingly out of tune with city life. Busses are beginning to sound like they get their propulsion from forcing noise into the air. And sometimes now, when I look around before crossing the street, everything starts to blur. And then there’s what happened recently when I peered up First Avenue to see if there was any oncoming traffic, which there wasn’t, and as I stepped out, a car came careening from the other direction backwards at 30 MPH and almost flattened me. Or maybe it’s just that the average age here seems to go down about a year every year.
But mostly it’s about the pace. My whole body now lobbies for ease, something I never really valued before. New York is good for many things, including the good life, but not the easy life.
And there’s also simply the sad lament from deep inside me — You mean I’m always going to be here?
And Shelley too has a body that increasingly cries for change. In winter she breaks into what seem like a permanent shiver. And in summer she shvitzes more than ever. Think about it — when someone is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, where do you go to live? A more temperate climate, you say, like Seattle or Portland? If it weren’t for coffee and Prozac everyone there would have killed themselves by now, the weather is so depressing.
Which brings me to a counter-intuitive thought: That New York might just be the safest place for a person to grow old. The past few years’ worth of climate change has wrecked havoc all over America and the world, but not here. Oh we’ve had a lousy winter, but boo hoo on us. Everywhere else it seems, there’ve been crippling blizzards (the kind where many die), horrible droughts, rain storms that make people pray for droughts, typhoons, tornadoes, volcanoes, hurricanes that eat entire cities. Sure we had a tornado here last year. It tore up some trees and trashed like 3 cars, while uprooting zero homes and killing zero people.
In New York, even our worst clouds have silver linings.
Who woulda thought that one perk of living here would be to be shielded from nature’s worst? All we need to be worried about here is the worst of human nature.
And between getting mugged here or leaving and getting mugged by nature, well, we all know what happened just a couple of days ago…
When I think that, the way the earth is erupting, crying, quaking and overrunning, maybe the best place to be is right where we are. The entire west coast is quake (and tsunami) prone. The southwest could run out of water. Florida is, well, Florida, and the entire southeast is subject to annual attacks by Category 5 storms with names.
Besides, over time, even the worst things about New York have gotten so much better. When I see a twenty something woman walking down my street here in Brooklyn at midnight, texting and oblivious, I think – this girl has no idea what life was like here 20 years ago!
So at this rate I’ll probably never leave. An old friend, the late Dr. Dan Miller, upon hearing me kvetch about feeling stuck in one place here, said “Charley, you’ve traveled thousands of miles since coming to New York.” I know what he meant. I’ve bloomed where I’ve been planted. And it may hurt too much, and be too foolish, to ever pull up the roots.