If I lived somewhere else, perhaps a city where the alleyways are small, I would notice the simple joy in the bricks under flimsy sandal bottoms.
Or perhaps this somewhere is a small town in the mountains, where I magically overcome my fear of snails and grow an abundant garden where I sit and paint the vegetables on a large canvas I’ve rigged up on a fence. Or perhaps if I lived on a commune, where everyone plays ten different instruments each, my bedroom would become a gigantic art studio with a full-sized print press next to my bed.
If I lived in one of these places and not New York City, I imagine I would only spend money on concerts. Of course, since I would learn to cook, eat local food that I’ve bartered for (or grow my own) and do my laundry in the basement, or on a washboard in big tin tub, I would have a small overflow of cash that I’d keep in a collaged mason jar on the windowsill, next to the herbs. There wouldn’t be many concerts to go to, so each one would be precious. I’d mark them on the calendar and count down the days.
Yeah, right. Nice fantasy. I’d be bored in a day.
This life I’ve become stuck in, the cynical skin of a New Yorker is something I revisit almost daily, an ongoing dialogue about choices and conflicting desires. Today I am in the mountains, tomorrow I am in the desert, the jungle, the savannah, sometimes I am right here, but most often I dream of the beach.
Sometimes I forget how to stop dreaming and I miss the things in front of my face: the street shrine on the corner with fresh flowers, five-year-olds flirting in the park, the moon as it rests its round belly on the church spire. I know there is terrible beauty in every moment of this derelict city, the way there is beauty in clean sheets and a pair of deep indents in the cheeks of a wide smile, but sometimes you forget to see it, because it is you, too.
It can be entirely frightening when you recognize the raving of a madman as your own reflection, and it can be joyful when it is a young mother nuzzling her baby on the subway, or the work ethic of a Michael Jackson impersonator putting on a solid show in each train car from 207th Street to the Rockaways. It is always a show, though, this is for certain. But I can’t stop wondering about what’s over there. The great photographer Robert Frank once said,
“You fight a lot here in New York. Everybody fights—for space, recognition, love, anything. Fight. Still, it is a wonderful city. The subway is pure theater. It is wonderful to look, to understand what you look at, and to be sympathetic about what you look at… This is why it is wonderful to be in New York. You use your eyes and you don’t get tired of looking. Even though I’m tired of New York, I’m still looking.”
I have never again stumbled across a quotation that so accurately describes the journey of the weary New Yorker, the terrible in-between of exhaustion and still-hungry eyes.
Neverland could be New York’s nickname and if you are an artist or a club owner or someone else who deals in the nightlife industry, you’ll notice men and women well into their middle-aged years acting much like your little sister did at college parties (except, perhaps or perhaps not, with a touch more grace and less slop). In this way, New York-Neverland can make you a fool for preferring to lie on your belly with a pen and paper over a party.
I think of my friends moving into a steady groove under someone’s slick body, probably to a song I love and have loved for a very long time and I remember the last time that was me in the frame. My head must have been thrown back laughing or drawing in the fine scent of whomever my hips were writhing against, putting on the caricature of a charming, mysterious artist. I have to laugh a little bit at that constructed self and how silly she was. The men never fell under the spell for more than a matter of days and I am acutely thankful that basement club feels years away.
I am stuck in the quiet dreaming of a softer story. If illustrated, the scenes would look something like this: a morning hike to pick the berries on Blueberry Mountain for mixing with pancake batter. The rusty smell of the mountain house and each morning cricket rubbing its legs together in a private symphony. The nights I’d stay awake until the dawn throwing colors onto a canvas, when I loved the feel of paint and losing my words for a stretch of time, when the rest of the world lay still.
Today I am living in this very fantasy. It comes in colorful detail, where six hours above the city I am back in Keene, New York, buying a card for my father. At the Rivermeade Market we stopped for fresh strawberries, which are so ripe they taste like fruit-butter, velvety and tangy, the flavor an overwhelming wave over the tongue, it vibrates through my whole body. How sappy, to be so moved by a strawberry, but it feels like a luxury I have not been afforded in years. The little berries pile on each other, hugging up in the green cardboard container. They are the smaller, more authentic sisters of the hormone-injected monster berries I buy caged in the plastic container in Brooklyn.
I am seriously moved by these berries. I am grateful for them and I deliver them a silent monologue of thanks as I rub their fuzzy faces. Mom gently slaps my hand away before I can steal my third and I am instead, immediately drawn to a book on the table with a handwritten sign, “local author!” There is a delicious red barn covering the majority of the jacket, the author perched in the window, a ladder leaning against its worn red exterior. I’m already in love with this barn, just its character. The beauty of its worn planks, the apple-red accented by white, the triangles of its architecture. It looks shockingly…honest.
The book is called The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love by Kristin Kimball, a once East Village-dwelling freelance writer who fell in love with a farmer and now runs a CSA just a few towns over from where I grew up during my summers. A few towns over from where I am standing in the Rivermeade Market. My parents’ friends are members. They know the author, I later find out.
My mother says, “No way you’d do this, I don’t think farm work is your thing.”I see in her facial expression all the times I’ve opted out of hikes growing up, the times I “forgot my gym clothes” in high school gym class, my precarious relationship with the phrase “steady exercise.”
I admit this is true, just as the cashier jumps into the conversation. He loves the book. In fact, he first came to the mountains to volunteer on this very farm after reading the story and well, here he is. I quietly take note. Next summer? I am always keeping a running list in my brain about how to escape New York affordably.
I take the book straight to the hammock. Hammocks, I am convinced, are the greatest gift to oneself, the most simple and satisfying reprieve. It’s all very return-to-the-womb, being held and balanced and rocked like that. I devour the book. Her trials and tribulations in the dirt remind me of the important things in life (how could it not?) and suddenly makes New York City seem very silly.
The dress-up and the makeup and the parties and the who’s who. What is it for, again? There is so much more to life, like organic fresh, local juicy strawberries and hammocks and honest barns and books! I feel giddy by my revelation! My father mows the lawn and there is the comforting distant background buzz of the tractor over the grass. Mom makes some killer guacamole. I am reading a great book in the sun on a hammock. New York Who?
My parents have thoughtfully invited to dinner one of my favorite couples on the planet. Two writers whom I deeply revere—Roger Mitchell, one of my favorite poets, who is well past his middle years (though you’d never know by his demeanor, look or work) and Dorian Gossy, whose short stories leave me aching. I am such a fan that I still become nervous when they arrive though they have shown me tremendous love and support, and of course, are my just my parent’s mountain buddies, right?
We sit on the deck under the cool breeze and the setting sun and the forever comforting gaze of the mountains, who stand there almost as if smiling with their arms over each other’s shoulders, like protective giants looking over us. On our plates: grilled chicken with Caribbean mango sauce (the meat is succulent!), mixed greens with balsamic vinegar, fresh cantaloupe. Red wine that seems to never end (my glass is never empty but I am surely steadily sipping from it.) A dessert of whipped cream and those sweet-faced strawberries and angel food cake.
We laugh as if there are no generation gaps between us. Stories of things we’ve seen on the train, stories of travel, of writing, of artists, of films. A little bit of love. What are our stories about? The same answer Roger gives when writing a new poem, it never changes. What is the new poem about Roger? “Life.”
There is a little talk of pain slipped in, the way all real, heart-driven conversation will unearth and there is space for it, but we don’t dwell there. I feel a special shine touch my limbs and travel up my belly to my heart where it pauses for a moment and expands.
For a moment my parents are not my parents at all, but equals and friends, slipping out the curse words they used to admonish me for, speaking with ease and uncensored, with their own unique and fascinating stories that started before me, before I even existed and will continue after I leave back for home. They are wonderful people, and by this I mean, people full of wonder, still—wonder at the world and its offering. I would still choose them as friends, if I had been given a choice this go ’round.
The fantasy is almost too much to bear here in the woods, before the large expanse of mountains that grin unbearably wide. “Why are you leaving us, again?” they seem to ask, as if placing the world’s largest dunce cap on my head (a cap that has been fashioned to New York’s style standards, still large, still a dunce cap, still goofy if worn anywhere else in the world.)
My only answer is a shrug. Indeed, why would I leave this scene to return to a place where I get nary a second alone (and as much as I would love to believe, riding on the subway with headphones does not count as alone time.) Once upon a time I pretended my reason was because I am an artist. I need New York’s inspiration! No where else could I possibly live and create! However, as I have grown to know, only young and egoic artists believe that New York is the only city to ever matter, the center of the universe.
The plain fact is New York, as much as it is a city of inspiration, is also a barrage of fancy, good-looking, good-tasting distraction. There is no space to let your thoughts gather wind, though there are a million galleries and publishers and curators that you might be lucky to rub elbows with, if you still have the energy to leave home and chat endlessly, and with calculated softness, about yourself and your current work.
And there is a place for that. I should know, I once threw myself into that world with reckless abandon, and it did great things for my growing character and, yes, my work. But what happens when you grow up with your art and prefer to share a cup of coffee with it instead of parading it around on your arm like a trophy? These events are beyond exhausting for some of us, who are still artists, just not the same type we once were.
But many of the things I love about the mountain town, too, are just memories sparked alive by the big wooden ice cream sign that marks entry into the world of my youth. The rest of Keene is only vaguely recognizable in its spiffed up clothing—as you might notice now while driving along the main road that cuts the town in two—looks like a vacation destination for those with fat wallets.
The run-down shops have been constructed into “Adirondack rustic” galleries and restaurants. But our town wasn’t always this way. Aside from the fancy Ausable Club and the pockets of vacationers who were “in the know,” the Keene of my childhood was downtrodden, the beauty of the mountains that cupped the valley in stark contrast to the grit of the interior of the town: the local bar full of neighborhood drunks, the grocer that stayed open only until 5pm, the greasy diner, the struggling population. With the risk of sounding like, well, a condescending New Yorker, there was something authentic, and a little aching about it all. Now you’ll find shiny B&Bs, restaurants with pricey meals and loads of tourists with bike racks strapped to the back of their SUVs. I feel my sleepy mountain town has been discovered.
Back in New York, New York: People bark at each other everywhere. A young woman accosts an older woman verbally for hailing a cab on the same corner. It was outrageous. The superhero buried in me wanted to punch her in the face and stand up for the elder. What right did she have to say those things? The bartender in the corner pub was disappointed I didn’t want a drink, just the bathroom after a long bus ride.
The night is sticky, that New York sticky that feels like a thick extra skin of honey, a sensation the air conditioning of the subway will allow reprieve from for the duration of your ride. On this train ride, a man named Bowie drew a portrait of my face on the train with charcoal on scrap paper. I gave him $6 and my conversation from 28th Street to 157th Street. He seemed to unite the whole train car with his quick sketches, everyone had a comment or a smile, a comment of awe spoken to a friend, “I wish I had that ability.” For a moment, we knew each other. Like a small town, like the mountains.
I said goodbye to my new nameless friends when I stepped off. This is something about New York that is wildly infuriating. You write an entire essay, a love letter really, if you are being truthful with yourself, to nature and the history in the mountains. You count all the reasons to hate the city you live in and feel righteous about this feeling pounding your skull like a bad song on loop. You declare all your reasons for leaving to everyone who will have the conversation. And then New York does something really, truly simple and fantastic to remind you exactly why you are here, why you love it, why you’ve stayed. Connection.
The mountains, the concrete, the quiet pockets in the morning when meditation will take you across the world, or more deeply into the long hole of your endless spirit. When you reach for a stranger’s hand to steady them on a rocking train platform, or lay in the grass at the feet of a dwarfing view and feel your own heart rise up in your chest like waves.
No matter where you land, the tastes on your tongue can vibrate, if you pay attention. The people can come alive like dancers with waving wands of color, the scenery can astound the senses. This life is your play, and if you pay attention, if you can connect, you can find purpose anywhere.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Apprentice: Jamie Khoo/Editor: Travis May