*New York cityscape images are courtesy of Charlotte Popper
I read Goodbye to All That a couple of days after I had moved down to Stuyvesant Town from the Upper East Side. Yes, I’ll admit, I read it a few years too late, but at least I got it done. I was a Los Angeles transplant who had landed in New York City a few decades after you, ready to make it as a writer. I moved around from Murray Hill to SoHo to the Upper West, until—finally—I found a home in Yorkville. (I guess I was always more of an Upper East kind of writer.)
So I devoured your essay one day while I was roaming the streets after shipping my boxes across the Atlantic Ocean. I was getting ready to leave New York, you see, and as always, the city chose to bid farewell in the way only she knows how. It was a surreal late spring day in Manhattan, the kind you know will never leave your memory and the kind that no man could ever compete with. There was a visit to The Strand, a visit to a frozen yogurt store, and a walk around Union Square. There was watching the sun set on the High Line and a drunken walk around the Village.
And, somewhere in the blurry lines between, there was a visit to a massive bookstore on East 17th Street.
That’s where I—we—found the book Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. I was very aware that it was one of the last times I would be walking down the cobbled streets of SoHo or sitting on a bench in Central Park or looking across the East River wondering, “Is there somebody who can watch you for me?” I guess it was only fate or destiny that made me stumble across your writing, only a couple of days before I was set to jump on a plane and leave behind the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.
Joan, let me tell you something, something that only you will understand. That anthology book I came across—the one that was right next to The Best Things to Do in New York: 1001 Ideas that told me on page 46 to visit The White Horse Tavern—the one that had twenty-eight female writers join you in penning their love and goodbyes to New York City, it’s the kind of book that reaches into your chest and whispers lovingly into your heart through the dark. It’s the kind of book that captures the seduction Manhattan has always had for writers, poets, dreamers, and lost souls.
You know what I’m talking about.
I don’t think anyone will ever understand what it’s like to fall in love with this city and then decide to leave. No matter what I write in this letter, nothing will even come close to explaining just how beautiful this city is, just how ethereal your love affair with Manhattan was, either. No one—unless you’re a writer. But even then, it won’t begin to touch the emotion of what it feels like to live in New York. Your eight years of living there were my eighteen months. I was only supposed to be there for three months, but three became six became twelve became eighteen. And, now, nothing can take away the melancholic nostalgia when I think about stepping onto the crowded subway during rush hour and getting off on 86th Street, only a few minutes away from seeing her smile. (That was the only time Manhattan would fall silent in the background.)
There’s nothing left to write about New York except for this last letter to you. Because it is only if you sit outside on the sidewalk drinking a beer on a late spring day with someone you adore that you realize exactly what New York means. (My day was June 2nd, 2014.)
That’s kind of how I found myself at The White Horse Tavern, a month away from Delmore Schwartz’ death anniversary and a few avenues away from where I had picked up the anthology. The White Horse Tavern, in case you didn’t know, opened in 1880, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that it attracted the Bohemian culture of great writers. Literary giants came and went every night, drinking themselves to death (most notably Dylan Thomas, who drank eighteen whiskies before retiring to the Hotel Chelsea to die). Giants like James Baldwin, Delmore Schwartz, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the editors of the Village Voice. I guess The White Horse Tavern could have been any bar, really, but in our case it was The White Horse Tavern, and it all seemed very Manhattan-like, and still all I remember was that light breeze that blows through the streets a few minutes before that bruised Chelsea sundown and her gold-flecked eyes.
Like Delmore Schwartz, you had no illusion about the city, the cynical city that I, too, write about. And perhaps it’s a bit arrogant or even totally delusional to suggest our writings are the same, but this city—this city that is so beautifully ugly—tore me apart, too. It tore me apart so delicately that it holds all of the pieces of my broken soul within its skyscrapers, even if, on a warm Tuesday morning with Paul Simon singing in the background, she told me she was letting me go—that it was for the best.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know why I’m writing this letter to you, Joan; I really don’t. Maybe it’s because I needed someone to hear my New York story, someone who has loved and left this city just like me, someone who writes like the city never gave us the fairy tale we never believed we deserved—the fairy tale that gave us the East River as a lover, The Strand as a favorite valentine, and the High Line as a flawless sunset.
I don’t know, but The White Horse Tavern surely gave me the greatest epilogue that I could ever ask for, and maybe this letter serves not as a Dear You, but as a foreign elegy to Goodbye to All That.
I hear you’re living in New York again, so I can only pray for you to watch over her for me.
Because, yes, I am a writer, and I, too, have loved and left New York.
And, maybe, that tavern means everything to me that my New York ought to be and always will be—idealistic, and so heartbreakingly romantic.
But, surely, I must have loved her wrong or not enough because I couldn’t keep her in my life.