How many miles to Babylon?
March 14, 2014
3,635 miles. “Where to?” “Anywhere but where I am.”
It's an easy conclusion to reach, and a natural human reaction—to wish to have been born elsewhere, to have lived in another country, to explore other continents. Chronic dissatisfaction, effects of globalization, the grass is always greener on the other side, I-was-born-in-the-wrong-era syndrome translated to geographic considerations—the possibility of leaving, airplanes and trains and hitchhiking, limited prospects here and the land of opportunities over there. All valid and common arguments for a yearning for something else, for some place else. Perhaps I am just trying to rationalize the one thing I am sure of, the only thing I've ever been sure of, my wish and need to move to New York when I live in the so-called most Beautiful City In The World. The truth is that while I have a lot of issues regarding Paris and its population and "mentality," the root of the problem lies not in the city itself, but, what was it, Brutus, something about the stars and ourselves? For the first few years of my exploration phase, I was in fact rather enamored with Paris. Metrocard in hand and armed with a well-maintained idea of this labyrinth of cobbled streets as an ideal playground for the imaginary orphan in me to steal loaves of bread to share with my fellow orphaned juvenile pickpockets, to read in squallied nooks of Belleville squats, and to scrape my knees running through the tunnels under the bridges flying over the Seine (I know, I know, "Put down the Hugo and step away from the Dickens!!!"), I was determined to drain and absorb everything the city had to offer, with all the cafés and bookstores and music shops and train rides I could have asked for. I stood in line outside venues for rock shows and book signings, roamed the Latin Quarter ad nauseum, got lost in the 10th arrondissement, dreamed of owning a two-story flat in the Marais, pictured a life here (wherein I somehow became a billionaire). I grew out of that fantasy fairly quickly. I think that living in the banlieue gives you somewhat of an outsider's perspective on the city, a consciousness of what's absurd and not, although I should hope that even born-and-bred Parisians are aware of how much the city breeds elitism and rudeness, hypocrisy and disdain. I still get a little starry-eyed every time I'm on the bus crossing the Seine, usually raising my head from my phone or whatever book I'm reading to look both ways — over here, the Eiffel Tower, over there, the Musée d'Orsay. But this is essentially what Paris has been reduced to, in my mind at least: a pretty thing. A shiny, glittery façade to a cardboard city. There's nothing for me here.
It's not just the city. I need a clean slate. I hate myself here, I have nothing to offer the city more than it me, I have nothing holding me back. A sick, twisted combination of the city pushing me away, and that magnet across the ocean, 3,635 miles away, pulling me closer, and closer, and closer still.
I cannot for the life of me remember when my love affair with New York began. There is no particular day, as far as I can remember, no movie that I may have watched, no book, no story that made me fall in love instaneously. As a kid, I didn't harbor a particular fascination for America. I wanted to explore its rusty Grand Canyon and scream atop its cloud-reaching skyscrapers as much as I dreamed of spying on Russian aristocrats aboard the Orient Express or devouring beignes with canuts in Lyon. [Aside: why are adults so hellbent on repressing their imagination? I know, I know, fear of embarrassment, being called a manchild. But then the insult moves on to "angsty teenager," doesn't it? It's a shame grownups aren't allowed to have dreams beyond a promotion and a bigger house. Seriously. You're allowed to like Kerouac even if you're older than seventeen. Different thought for another day.] When I try and decode (HENDIADYS!!!! Sorry, this paper on Hamlet is going to be the death of me) my memory, I think it may have started with the language, that tongue that spurns law, that I gleaned here and there from song lyrics to movies and TV shows, then books and magazines, eventually writings of my own. Over the years, for some reason that maybe only those who feel similarly will understand, I acquired and cultivated a strong sense of attachment to America, that big continent you're insidiously taught to hate here — ugh, putain de uncouth Americans, these uncivilized, uncultivated, loud-mouthed Yankees, with their imperialistic policies and cultural octopus threatening the very foundations of European artistic identity. Oh, well. Rat me out to the House Committee on Un..Françaises (???) Activités, then. But then came New York, overwhelming New York, magical New York, in all its inexhaustible, intangible, indefinable, wonderful glory. I was doomed.
I was sixteen the first time I saw New York, and I had unreasonably high expectations, which, in any other case, would have been shattered the minute the airplane hit the landing. Most of your childhood dreams, should they ever come true, will be disappointing and flawed, because there's no way you could — or should — know as a kid how disappointing and flawed life is. You can only dream, and hope for the best, and find a way to somehow nurture those hopes and dreams as you grow older and see all those million little roads you thought you'd one day have the possibility to explore disappear one by one with every setback you encounter. But one morning in early, freezing, snowy February I found myself on the 11:45 a.m. flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Washington Dulles and, a couple of hours minus some six hours offset later, on the 5:00 p.m. from Washington Dulles to JFK, New York City. I felt so much pressure on the plane for my first encounter with the city to be perfect that I unwittingly manufactured the moment. I put my favorite, favorite song in the whole world on, pressed my forehead against the window, cried happy tears when the first few buildings of the skyline and the million little twinkly lights appeared off the left wingtip. You and me and the satellites. Do you ever get homesick? Remember that night among those same stars. It was already dark when we landed. We'd missed the main part of the snowstorm but there were still heaps of snow hugging the street lamps and slush covering the sidewalks, my Doc Martens making sploish-y sounds with every step. We waited a while at the baggage carousel and by the time we walked out of the airport into the night to find a cab there was almost no one left. Everything was still. Quiet. Eerily so. I remember not feeling my cheeks anymore. The wind had virtually numbed every inch of exposed skin peeking out from under my parka. For all the careful mental preparation I had done, I didn't think of the cab drive from Queens to our appartment on 35th St. as a second opportunity for an epiphany, what with the vicinity of other people and the somewhat obstructed view framed by smelly car seats and the unwashed windshield, but it was without counting on my stupid soft spot for anything remotely roadtrip-related—a thirty-minute drive that includes driving through a tunnel and landmarks like the Manhattan skyline and the New Yorker Hotel (which was, to me, the most exciting part of the affair since I was at the time convinved it housed the New Yorker offices because, uhm, dumb) is a form of roadtrip in my book. I watched through the glass windows the city unravel before my eyes, and I thought I was fine, that was, until our cab driver Billy turned down the radio a notch and asked, in a thick and lived Metropolitan accent, "Is it your first time here?," to which my father replied "yes" in a timid English. "Oh, you're gonna love it. You're gonna love it. There's just something about New York. Everybody loves New York.”
My sister put together a hasty scrapbook of the trip, with Polaroids and museum tickets and scribbled memories. As I flip through the pages I realize that as much as I wish I could magically inhabit the spirit of Joan Didion and recount everything that happened during those blissful two weeks in poignant and affecting prose, my mind is too jumbled for me to make any sense of it. It was three years ago and I still cannot find the right words. I melt into a babbling mess of spazzy hand gestures every time I try to talk about it. I look to Didion's Goodbye To All That, to E.B. White's Here Is New York, to Joel Meyerowitz and Saul Leiter's vibrant chronicles of the city from its crime-ridden days to the post-9/11 landscape for guidance. It seems that everybody who's ever been to New York has a specific experience of that first time, and even if I recognize myself in these accounts, and there is a common thread linking these stories almost as a common experience, the immigrant experience— this is their story, and this is mine. The second we stepped off that train, or walked out that airport, or passed through the gates of Ellis Island under the watchful eye of Liberty, elbowing our way through the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we all knew that nothing would ever quite be the same again. I'm being silly. It's obviously ludicrous to compare my visa-waving tourist self to Polish immigrants looking for a better life across the ocean, but there is something about New York that is distinct from any other place, as fancy or adventurous as they may be. A sense of welcome. A silent acceptance. (A DARK KNIGHT!!! Ahem. Sorry.) The luxury—or the curse, perhaps—of anonymity. Here, you can be as creative as you want, as famous as you want, as invisible as you want, as miserable as the city will let you be. New York City is a riot. It's an endless conversation, a fragmented community of communities, a labyrinth of streets and sensations, a kaleidoscope of giant failures and small victories. New York City is a perpetual countdown, it's the anticipation before an explosion of blinding lights and confettis and colored smoke, the blood pumping to the brain, dizzying, heart rates threatening to burst out of your chest to the rhythm of Berlin, Sinatra, Joel and Jay-Z mashed together, the fireworks beating on, display after display, a panorama of colors, a new beginning. New York City is a rollercoaster begging you to hold on, a light at the end of a tunnel pulling away as you get closer, just out of reach, a reflection of your deepest fears and most private desires. New York City hits you with cumulative force born out of repetitive patterns of highs and lows made recklessly powerful and not the least monotonous, thriving on an undercurrent of eternal dissatisfaction and new opportunities. New York City is too much going on. New York City is being on the outside looking in and inventing your own party to get invited to. Most importantly, New York City is home. It is a home to millions of people, whether sleeping on a mattress under a concrete roof or newspapers laid over a steam vent, or simply passing by. It is home to me. It is home to me.
I never wrote about this trip nor did I keep any semblance of diary or notes. I have photographs and dated receipts, but mostly, I have my memory, with all its defects and problems — the way I tend to glamorize certain events in retrospect, the way I transform moments of shame and embarrassment into hilarious (ahem) anecdotes over time as a defense mechanism, the way I tend to forget, or rather dismiss into the deepest abysses of my brain, the loneliness, the disappointments, the frustration. I feel like old-Kate Winslet in Titanic whispering in her voiceover, "He exists, now, only in my memory." But in my experience, the way our flawed memory works is a sign of our survival instinct, and we would never be able to live on without softening our failures and sweetening our humiliation. I cherish those memories, however adjusted or retroactively embellished they probably are. The mandatory tourist-y stuff, standing atop the Empire State Building getting a free blowout from the wind and feeling as alive as ever, Coney Island boardwalk and ferry rides across the Hudson River. Skateshop clerks thinking we were weirdos for buying extralarge hoodies meant not for boyfriends or brothers but petite Asian Frenchgirls. The infinite trips to Duane Reade—multiple times a day. The one too-short visit to the Strand. Giggling before celebrity sightings, pigging out on takeouts, strawberries in winter, cupcakes galore. Salivating before the purple flags of the Tisch buildings. The piano man at Washington Square Park, music stores on Bedford Avenue, feeling invincible and vulnerable at the same time, like I told the city too much, too soon, too fast, like I have nowhere to hide anymore, but I know it will keep my secret.
“Where to?” “3,635 miles West. I'm going home.”