A very smart friend gifted me this book for Christmas. It was the perfect gift, because I am a writer and I loved and left New York, and also, unbeknownst to my friend, I had read about the book in an upstate magazine months earlier and put it on my mental “to-read” list. The basics: it’s a collection of 28 personal essays all ostensibly inspired by Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” for which the anthology is named. The writers are all women who, at some point, lived in and, at some point, left “the City.” Some were New York natives; some grew up just out of reach in the suburbs of Long Island or Jersey (like I did); some dreamed of the city from cities and states thousands of miles away (California, the Midwest). What’s fascinating about the collection is that, origins notwithstanding, so many of the stories are the same—so much so that I wonder if a somewhat “universal” NYC experience exists.
I started the book New Year’s day and finished it a mere two days later. It is easy to devour; none of the prose is particularly complex, but much of it is quite beautiful, particularly the descriptions of New York as the writers saw it when they were still excited and energized by their city. “The city lent itself especially well to a mental configuration in which you were an extra in an artsy, high-budget movie,” writes Ruth Curry in “Out of Season.” Chloe Caldwell echoes this romanticism in “Leaving My Groovy Lifestyle.” “Everyone I met during my first three years in New York seemed exceptionally exotic and exciting,” she writes. “I fell in love with almost anyone who looked my way.”
In “Think of This as a Window,” Maggie Estep describes living on the Lower East Side and feeling empowered by the squalor: “Many of the buildings were vacant, holes in their sides where windows had been. Over a bricked-in window someone had spray-painted THINK OF THIS AS A WINDOW. When the end of the world came, this is what it would be like. And I’d be ready.” Later in the same essay, she recounts long bike rides from one end of the city to the other, from the beaches of the Rockaways to the George Washington Bridge. It’s enough to give any “recovering” New Yorker major pangs of nostalgia, nostalgia that stems from missing a place that, as many of the writers acknowledge, no longer exists—New York moves so quickly that if you leave, even briefly, it’s never the same when you return.
The aching pain of missing the city is a recurring theme amongst the essays, even for those who ultimately decide not to return. For many of the writers, New York was their first “home,” the first place to welcome them as it does everyone—with a cold apathy that resembles acceptance. “If the people of New York didn’t bother looking at a dead body, then they weren’t going to bother looking at me,” recalls Estep. Of course, the “dead body” she refers to is actually a passed out “drunk,” as she calls them—and images of the homeless (as well as discomfort and guilt surrounding their presence in the city) dot the essays. The ability of the city’s residents to block out their surroundings—stepping over homeless in the street, for example, or hardly blinking at the sight of a man being stabbed, as happens in Cheryl Strayed concluding essay, “Minnesota Nice,”—is another recurring theme, prompting Mira Ptacin to write, of her decision to leave, “I didn’t want to be callous. I just wanted to remain the sensitive creature that I was,” in her essay, “Homecoming.”
There are other recurrences. September 11 and its after-effects factor in several of the stories. A few even pay homage to what my fiancé and I have always called “New York black”—the unique ability of New Yorkers to “wear all black without looking like [they are] attending a funeral,” as Roxane Gay puts it.
The gentrification of Manhattan, specifically lower Manhattan, is ubiquitous throughout the pieces. This gives the anthology the feeling of being a “time capsule” at times—in many of the pieces, no one goes to Brooklyn, Times Square is a scary place, and rent-stabilized apartments for $300 a month are fairly commonplace (or at least plausible). It makes me realize how quickly the city really has changed, in a way that’s more tangible to me than statistics—when Rachel Wolff calls the new SoHo the “Mall of Outrageous Crap,” I have to laugh, because that is the only SoHo I’ve ever known.
The anthology is not perfect—there is some rough prose here and there, a clunky wording or two, and the feeling that some of the pieces needed to be workshopped or polished a bit more (Roxane Gay’s, for example). The collection gets better as you go along, but unfortunately, another common theme amongst the pieces was rather anti-climatic essay conclusions—only a few ended in a way that left me feeling inspired or excited.
However, what I think the collection really suffers from is redundancy. I wonder at the decision to include 28 essays in the book when half that would have been sufficient—or at least some more varied perspectives. The anthology is all female, and overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class. Valerie Eagle’s essay “View from the Penthouse,” which explores her history of crack addiction, homelessness, and jail time, wasn’t my favorite, but it was refreshing because it explored a different side of New York that was clearly lacking in the collection. Rachel Wolff’s piece “So Long, Suckers” stuck with me as well, thanks to her snarky, unapologetic voice. If a second volume is ever published, it would do well to solicit submissions from writers with more varied stories.
Overall, though, the collection satisfies, especially for a recent “ex-pat,” like myself, to borrow a term from editor/essayist Sari Botton. Yes, I felt nostalgic, but where the anthology succeeds is in helping me feel validated in my decision to leave. My favorite of the essays, Elisa Albert’s “Currency,” puts into words feelings that I have had many times but never knew how to express—the frustration with the phony air of “cool” that seems requisite for New York dwellers, which she refers to as the “currency” of NYC. After moving to Albany, she revels in the new, laidback atmosphere.
No one gives a flying fucking shit what you’re wearing. There’s always room for you and your laptop at the okay coffee roaster…At the Shitty Bagel Chain surrounded by Real People (meaning not living meta-lives on top of actual lives, not trained in matters of ultimate coolness, not wealthy, not angling for notoriety), notice how it’s a bit less noisy in the superego sense. You can relax. You have nothing to prove.
Reading this, I had one of the many eureka! moments I experienced during the collection. If the book accomplishes anything, it is this—comforting those of us who took our “I HEART NYC” t-shirts and ran for the hills, reminding us, as Albert writes, that our “identity is not reliant on that place, on any place.”
Image from the Goodbye to All That website, here.
Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn. See her portfolio at eberhardtsmith.com.