back to the Black Table

About 20 minutes after the cab that picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at an apartment I’d never seen in a city I’d never even visited, I went to a bar. I was meeting a woman, another writer, who had written for some of the same publications I had. One of her friends was having a birthday party there. I had been in town for an hour, with a feathered hair and a center part, and I looked about 16 years old.

Everyone seemed so fancy. No, not fancy; urban. Everyone seemed to be snickering at a joke I’d never heard but wanted desperately to figure out. They all lived in the East Village -- I had to be told that East Village wasn’t the same thing as Greenwich Village -- and they smoked and they talked


really fast and they laughed really loud. It was a large table, packed with about 15 people, and I was the curiosity of the moment. After all, I was literally just off the bus.

I tried to make dopey jokes and self-aware references to my greenness, asking where all the cows were, wondering aloud if anyone knew where to find Woody Allen. They chuckled knowingly at my naivete, and I played along, because I wanted to be like them, I wanted to be as sharp and vibrant and smart smart smart, man, they seemed so smart.

We drank for about four hours, and at around midnight, this guy named Karl took me aside. He appeared a bit fey -- a lot fey; even this intrigued me. Gay people are openly gay in New York! Wow! -- to me, and something about my cornpoke nature intrigued him.

"So, you’re here to be a writer, huh?" He said this with the soft condescension of a parent whose child has just told him they’re going to be an astronaut. I told him, yeah, that was the plan, with a side joke about being rich and famous that hopefully let him know that I was aware I was a cliche but was forging forward nevertheless. I asked him how long he’d lived in New York. "Seven years. I’ve lived in the same apartment for seven years." He said he had grown up in New Jersey.

I told him how excited I was to be a New Yorker, to be part of this special club of rejects and miscreants and dreamers. He laughed and took a deep drag off a long, slender cigarette.

"Oh, honey, you’re not a New Yorker yet. Far from it. You’re not a New Yorker until you’ve lived here five years." He stubbed out his cigarette and cocked his head slightly. He looked me dead in the eye. "Until five years, you’re pretty much just playing with your dick around here, doll."


By my count, there have been three different occassions when I have been 100 percent, absolutely sure, no doubt, that I was leaving New York for good. My first year began with unlimited opportunity, a rather surreal succession of success, and ended with me in poverty, with no job, living in my cousin’s guest room in Mattoon. If just to prove some kind of point, I forced myself to return to New York at the beginning of 2001, using my last $65 for a bus ticket, though I had no apartment and no means of support. In retrospect, it would seem a horrible decision. I spent three months looking for work, sleeping on friends’ couches, stuck in a deep chasm of depression; I had gone from the biggest shot among shots to a cautionary tale people whispered about. My parents, when I swiped a friends’ cell phone to make a rare long-distance call, would beg me to come home. Maybe The Sporting News, the job I’d left, would take me back.

I hung around, just to prove to myself that I wasn’t the failure I so obviously was.

I finally found a regular job, a shit job, really, one that paid just enough to survive, but then a girl left me, and I looked at my life, and saw that I still had no real reason to stay. On a trip home for a wedding, I told my parents that this was it, without her, New York was pointless. I said I was looking for jobs in Chicago, where I had friends, a urban area where I’d be closer to home, safer, without feeling that I had somehow taken a step back. I was convinced of this; my parents even spoke about giving me a cheap used car as a return-home gift.

And yet I could never really leave. I found excuses; my lease runs out in a few months, and I’ll go then. I’ll finish up this freelance project, then I’ll go. I’ll live recklessly, as if there are no ramifications, because I’ll be leaving soon enough.

But I never did leave. I fought through it, and found a better job, and settled my life down, and realized that New York isn’t just a big playground, a grownup Disneyworld, for me to play with and discard as I saw fit.

I've now been here 3 1/2 years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere since college. I’m not just playing with my dick anymore. I have a stable of friends, I have professional opportunities, I have stability. It took me three years to find it ... and now I can’t ever imagine leaving.

I’m not a New Yorker yet, even if I finally understand where all the subways go. But this is my home, and I’m as proud of its continued hospitality as I am of my own persistance. This place is chaotic, and confused, and scary, and everything that’s full of life and hope and the feverish rush that life is supposed to have in abundance.

Perhaps there is a time, upcoming, where I will tire of it, when I will retire to strip-mall suburbia, when I eat at the Outback for my special Sunday night dinner, where I placate myself with digital cable and the Elks Club and the treadmill in the basement. There is nothing wrong with these things. But I don’t want them, not yet. I go to bed every night exhuasted and wake up without refreshment. I slog through long hard days and endure endless subway rides home. I carry my laundry five blocks just to overpay an Asian man to clean it for me because I just don’t have time.

But it is all worth it. This is a time to celebrate this city, which has let me stay here, for which I am eternally grateful. I might not be a New Yorker just yet, but I’m getting there. I’m immensely lucky for the opportunity, and glad I never left when I had the chance, when it made absolute sense to leave. I have stayed, endured and am blessed to have done so. Even my parents understand now. They’ve transferred their nagging from "When are you coming home?" to "When are you going to settle down with a nice girl and make us some grandchildren?" Which is nice, really, I guess.

But this is my home, and they’ll have to blow the place up to get me to leave now. Which is good, you know, because, um, they might.



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