Taking the Girl out of New York
December 10, 2012
It was easy to leave New York. We took everything from our Brooklyn apartment except two suitcases and stuffed it all into a twenty-foot U-Haul truck. We drove to a bright orange Public Storage facility off U.S. Route 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and re-stuffed everything into a ten-square-foot garage. I snapped closed the metal lock on the garage door, then my soon-to-be-fiancé and I dusted off our palms, both literally and proverbially. A week later we were in Baja.
I wasn’t just leaving New York, I was leaving all the parts of New York that had grown like my own organs and limbs, each formed for a specific purpose at a different time. I am often mistaken for someone who was born in New York, which isn’t true, though I don’t always offer the correction. I was born in Israel and brought to New York at about two months of age. The first apartment we lived in was on Austin Street in Rego Park, Queens, where all the other Israeli immigrants moved. When I try to conjure that place I see a small room with wood paneling, a thin white mattress, and light streaming through a window. But I must have invented that memory. The only home I really remember is in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
That house, that part of my body, is now missing its evergreen tree. The tree stood firm in the soil on our front lawn for as far back as I can remember. When my parents had it removed some time in my twenties, there went one limb, then another, till it was all gone. On the inside – mostly by coats of paint – the house has changed. Every few years a new shade of white appears, like eggshell or beige, the distinctions between each color so mild that only my mother can detect them. But what I remember most is the outside of the house, all driveway to me: launching pad for bike rides around the block, rough canvas for chalk art, location of sukkah building, and Point A for drives to friends’ houses on Long Island.
The neighborhood is called Fresh Meadows, which sounds much nicer than what my mom always wrote on our home mailing address: Flushing, NY. I never did figure out the cause for that discrepancy; I knew we didn’t really live in Flushing, because that was where all the Orthodox Jews and Asians lived, and we were neither. Since I attended a Conservative Jewish day school, I mostly socialized with other Conservative Jews. The only non-Jews I ever met as a child were the ones on my block. Therefore, my understanding of ethnic diversity developed piecemeal into a vague system of categorization, which basically kept track of who did and didn’t eat pork. The boundaries of that classification system would slowly blur each year as I went farther out on the F train, from Queens into Manhattan.
If Queens was my heart, then Manhattan was my legs. I only really got to know Manhattan in the “let-one’s-hair-down” kind of way during high school, when it was still an adventure to get on at the first stop of the F train at 179th Street in Queens and get off at West 4th Street in the Village forty-five minutes later. When CBGB’s was just the place my best friend and I went to see that cute guy from 195th Street play in some band. That night I called my mom on a pay phone to let her know I’d be home by eleven. She said Princess Diana had died. I was fifteen.
Later, traveling to Manhattan meant Phish concerts at Madison Square Garden, Caruso’s Pizza at Penn Station, jazz at Sweet Basil. I mostly went to the city to hear music, but I kept it tame, didn’t actually let my hair down. New York was safety to me; it was a place in which to stay, not escape to. Manhattan was my legs, but they didn’t take me far outside its parameters. I spent my college years there, but I sometimes think of it as a time when I missed out. Maybe I was too comfortable. Maybe I thought of New York as already mine, and I scoffed at the wide-eyed first-years who thrilled at seeing a Broadway show or going out dancing at a bar until dawn. Sure, I did those things. I discovered new parts of New York: the Apollo, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the entire Lower East Side. But in retrospect it’s easy for me to admonish my younger self at not having appreciated that precious time, taking all of it for granted instead. After living in Manhattan for a few years after college, I was, inexplicably already bored.
So I moved to Brooklyn. And since my heart was already taken by Queens, I let Brooklyn be my arms. That’s where I did the heavy lifting of survival: managing a series of nanny jobs, getting an MFA in writing, dating, watching friendships evolve, learning to hold myself and others up through the transitions of our twenties. I grasped stroller handles in Prospect Park, pens that scrawled illegible drafts, and men’s hands that sweated in the sun.
By the time I was thirty, and, finally, getting ready to leave the city, the recurring reaction was: I can’t believe you’ve never lived outside New York! I guess it had never occurred to me that living somewhere else was something I was supposed to do. Aside from a junior semester spent in England–a mere six months–indeed I hadn’t lived anywhere else. Though my college and grad school applications traveled to a few places outside New York, I always managed to stay. So by the time I left, only a year ago, I had a pretty compelling reason to do so: to join my now-husband on the next stage of his career, as he started his PhD in Philadelphia (and for those still keeping score, he belongs to the pork-eating camp). It took that dramatic of a life change to pry me out of New York’s grip. It was the first time I’d followed a guy anywhere farther than a borough’s distance away.
I’m writing this in Philly. I can’t believe I’m writing this in Philly. Everyone says it could have been worse––we did almost move to Atlanta, until a last-minute wait list decision brought us here, to Penn. Friends and family around the country remind me that we practically haven’t left: it’s only a two-hour bus ride to New York. Sure, that’s like taking the subway from Queens to the Bronx, which I never did. My sister, who now lives in southern California, is ecstatic when she visits New York; she runs around the city with her three kids, soaking up every possible form of cultural stimulation. And now I do the same. On average, I visit twice a month.
The evergreen tree in front of my parents’ house in Queens seemed to disappear so starkly and suddenly from the front lawn. In the same way, my friends on 196th Street all fell away––kids went to college, families moved, but no one ever seemed to announce when they’d leave. There went Donna, the other Israeli kid who got her training wheels off before me. There went Jordi, whose family had moved to New York from Spain. There went Larissa, whose family also came from Spain and who had a piñata for Christmas. In came the Asians, Muslims, and Italians. There went the pale Christian boy who came sledding with us once, who neighbors later said built bombs in his basement. During one visit home from college I found out he had killed himself.
There went the long limb of the small tree in Cunningham Park off Union Turnpike. My friend Anatte and I used to climb this tree and scribble in a journal called “Pure and Simple.” One day, we decided, we’d buy a farm upstate and she’d ride horses while I wrote. We knew life was about to get more complicated. We were twelve.
There went the red sled my sisters pulled me in through the December snow. I would cling to the side of the sled in stiff mittens. There went the seasons in New York, when there still were seasons. The summers when the Big Apple Circus came, and there was no parking on our block, and the park stank of elephant shit. The circus with the too salty popcorn in the hot, yellow tent. The autumns with our annual drive upstate to Wilklow Orchards for apple picking, hay rides, and cider donuts.
There went the frozen yogurt at TCBY in the spring, the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, signing up for theater camp on Long Island. Spring was graduating from Barnard, my first apartment on the Upper West Side. It was quitting my job to go to grad school. It was looking for a job again. It was the thrill of a new relationship, a new apartment. Spring was holding the hard-boiled Passover egg in my tiny hand for the first time, standing on a chair in front of the whole family, reciting the four questions that I still haven’t answered.
Some people refer to Philly as New York’s sixth borough, to which my heart collapses. I promised myself I wouldn’t be that snobby New Yorker who compares everything in Philly to New York. But when my husband and I visited an art gallery in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, I said, “This looks like Brooklyn, but scarier.” When we lived for a while in Rittenhouse Square, I said, “This is like SoHo, but with more rich, white people.” When we saw apartments in South Philly, I said, “Why are all the floors on angle? Why are there no apartments in Philly with normal floors?” And finally, like Goldilocks, we found a neighborhood that was just right. Two months ago we moved to West Philadelphia, which we agreed was “like Brooklyn, but hippier.” Our neighbor on the right, a pastor at a local Baptist church, who has the improbable and fantastic name of Theophilus White, is turning eighty and has lived in his house for fifty years. Our neighbor on the left, Diane, lets me borrow her gardening equipment as I awkwardly try to make a garden out of a small pile of mulch. The landlord planted an evergreen tree there, and I wonder how long we will be here to watch it grow.
Hila Ratzabi has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize, and received an Amy Award (Poets & Writers Magazine). Her essays and articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Forward, Drunken Boat, Zeek, and the Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poetry has been published widely. She is the author of a chapbook, The Apparatus of Visible Things (2009), published by Finishing Line Press. She is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of Storyscape. She holds an MFA in Poetry Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is a freelance editor in Philadelphia.