I've never felt more important than when I lived in New York. I was poor and my work was neither very good nor very well-read, and yet every day I'd wake up in my 10-by-10 room, its window looking out over my building's rusted trashcans, and somehow think I'd achieved another great victory.
I'd known since I was seven that I would one day live in Brooklyn. That's when I first heard and fell in love with Rosie Perez's semi-torturous whine in Do the Right Thing. Seventeen years later I was there, though not anywhere near the catty Puerto Rican women from my childhood fantasies. I lived in Greenpoint, above a bar whose all-Polish staff and clientele did not look amused when I went there for the first and last time.
"Is whiskey included on the happy hour specials?" I asked. "Vodka only," the bartender said in a thick accent. "Vodka, vodka, vodka."
I drank a lot of vodka in those days. Tecate, too. Harrisons at Enid's, and Budweisers and shots of well whiskey at Matchless. I hung out with jazz musicians, architects, and furniture designers, most of whom, like me, had left behind their families and friends to come to New York. I saw art and movies that wouldn't be in other cities for months or years, if ever. I casually lit cigarettes in Lit's basement, not for a moment considering the smoldering death trap that place would become in event of a fire. At a small dinner party celebrating a friend's friend's Oscar nod, I talked pot quality with the actress's father, who would later reject the joint being passed around. I had sex in the bathroom at Union Pool and walked out feeling rebellious while my girlfriend adjusted her bra. In the summers, when others fled to Montauk or the Hamptons, I would buy to-go margaritas from a little place in the Lower East Side and drink them while walking home across the Williamsburg Bridge. I'd stop halfway over the East River, sweat forming a Rorschach pattern on the back of my shirt, and let the breeze give me goosebumps.
Sometimes I was so broke that a $3 falafel from Oasis on North 7th was all I'd eat for a day. Other times, when a check came, or, better yet, when spring came, I'd feast. On a whim on St. Marks one night, following a six-hour brunch in SoHo, I got the word "bro" tattooed on my thigh in my friend Rudy's handwriting. He got "bro" in my handwriting on his neck, and I cried a little bit after I hugged him goodnight and watched him amble off down a Chinatown street littered with fliers for massages. One snowy night in December, I got a ticket for cracking a beer in the L stop at Bedford, but the officer let me drink it while he filled out the paperwork. "You're already getting fined," he said. "Might as well finish what you started."
I always relayed the sensible nature of that cop to friends from out of town who would ask me about New York. "It's so great," I'd say. "It makes so much more sense than other places." I'd go on and on about the city the way someone might go on about his new baby, giving lots of insignificant details that are of no interest to anyone but the parent himself. As sick as it is, I sort of liked making people feel bad about how boring and common their home was when compared to New York. When people would come visit and complain about prices, crowds, weather, fast-pace, or rudeness, all I would hear is, "You're tougher than me. You're tougher than me. You're tougher than me."
Eventually my fellow New Yorkers started to feel more like teammates than neighbors. The tumult the City throws in your way daily engenders a sense of community the way getting its ass kicked on a rink might galvanize a hockey team. Stuff like complaining about real estate—the price of it, the rotten brokers, the changing neighborhoods—is like a secret handshake for New Yorkers, thrown out quickly to differentiate between those in the know from everyone else, who probably talk about reality television at dinner. Then there's the knowing nods from strangers on the street in times of extreme heat or cold, their meaning being "This shit again." In the cases of literal shit, like when I saw an old lady pooping on the street by my office, there's the "What are you gonna do?" shrug New Yorkers give one another. At the sight of the pooping woman, I heard a man to my left say to his horrified companion, "It's, like, New York, y'know?"
Irrespective of race, religion, political affiliation, borough, or class, we were citizens of New York City, the moving parts of the greatest place on Earth. The camaraderie built while feeling a stranger's breath on your neck on a packed rush-hour train is very real, as is being mashed together in tiny apartments stacked atop one another into the sky. New Yorkers are often close enough to smell each other's sweat and see each other's dandruff, close enough to hug each other or, conversely, strangle each other to death.
A lot of kids, me included, aspire from early on to live in New York because the crushing smallness of their birthplace pains them. They're the town faggot or the town dreamer and they stand in their backyards and look into miles of desolation and quiet, knowing with bitter certainty that nobody—at least nobody they think of as significant—cares about them. They feel trapped in a tiny town beneath a massive sky full of stars, and they know they'll be gone someday.
In New York you can't even see the stars. And not only do you feel like hot shit because of all the big things going on around you, the city itself makes you feel literally large, like you're living in a filthy dollhouse. Your feet hang off your too-small bed. Tourists and brown nannies with white babies are constantly in the way of your giant steps, keeping you from getting to all the great readings and gallery openings you need to attend (often it seems as if New York has no parties, only "events"). On a nice day, even massive places like Central Park can feel downright claustrophobic, cluttered with Frisbees, joggers, and more nannies. In your home, your concept of "alone" changes, as even while naked and masturbating in the shower, you can hear people fighting, cooking, crying, watching Maury, playing guitar, fucking.
The first year I lived in Brooklyn, I was in love with a girl who was born and raised in San Francisco. She hated New York and I'd sometimes hold her while she wept and shivered with homesickness. When she moved back to California, where we'd met, and I didn't, a part of me knew then that her leaving would be the end of us. Soon after she moved, I lost my job, and she thought it would be a perfect time for me to go live with her out west. Her parents had proposed the idea of buying us an apartment somewhere in the Bay Area, and I could look for work at one of the local magazines or alt weeklies. But my devotion to New York was unwavering, especially when the alternative was living in a city and home that weren't mine. Eventually she got tired of me saying I'd be moving to San Francisco "soon." In a very real way, I broke up with my girlfriend for New York.
When I finally left Brooklyn, in late 2009, it was for a job writing about politics in Washington, D.C. I didn't want to move, but neither did I want to continue scrounging for work as a freelancer all day before staying out until 4 a.m. At night I'd meet other people scrounging for work, and we'd all commiserate and buy rounds and promise to meet up for lunch. The next morning I'd have forgotten all their names and be mad at myself for running up such a high tab. (Luckily, New York City bank accounts do this magical thing where they're always stocked with money for some beer even when the rent money is long gone.)
I told myself that I'd be back in Brooklyn as soon as the economy turned around and publications were hiring again. Though the hiring freezes have thawed, I haven't been back to New York since.
I was in DC for a little over a year before I moved to Los Angeles. When I told my East Coast friends I was going to LA most all of them sneered, but those in New York sneered most of all. In Brecht's Threepenny Opera, at one point Mack the Knife proclaims, "One must live well to know what living is." I always thought that might be a good slogan for New York, where people have a tendency to believe life outside the boroughs is a wretched waste.
Milton Glaser, New Yorker and the graphic designer who created the iconic "I <3 New York" logo, told the Village Voice last year, "[A New Yorker is] usually someone who, for one thing, thinks this is the only place in the world to be. Which is to say, you don't think of the other options one would have in life." New Yorkers, especially those who have been there for at least 10 years, the length of time Ed Koch says it takes to be a real New Yorker, aren't surprised when people flee their city. It happens every day and for every reason: money, depression, marriage, work, boredom, school, et cetera. And yet so many New Yorkers still say to their friends who are leaving, "I just can't imagine living anywhere else." That is a lie, of course—they can imagine living somewhere else, and many of them have lived elsewhere. But in New York, like with "alone," one's definition of "living" transforms, too, and nobody else is doing it but New Yorkers.
Just over a year after moving to LA, I still feel a small twinge of shame when I tell people where I live. Los Angeles, despite being sunny, pleasant, and unique, remains a punchline to the 290 million Americans who don't reside here, even other Californians ("Oh, down there is just awwwwwful," say San Franciscans, thousands of whom prove "hippie" and "judgmental asshole" are not mutually exclusive).
According to a 2010 report from the Daily Beast, LA is quantifiably "smarter" than places like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Tampa, and yet none of those locales faces quite the level of international scorn heaped upon LA. In 2007, Forbes found that Salt Lake City, Nashville, Louisville, Miami, and others all had more plastic surgeons per capita than LA, but you never hear anyone mocking all the bleach-blonde bimbos of Utah. Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, John Fante, and Fante fanatic Charles Bukowski all plied their craft here, but nobody, least of all New Yorkers, calls LA a literary city. And for all the very, very deserved hatred the Hollywood machine gets, people seem to forget that Hollywood also gave us Serpico, The Godfather, Beverly Hills Cop, and all the Naked Gun movies. Millions of men, women, and children around the globe treasure the things LA produces while simultaneously calling it "the one North American city I had seen that seemed transplanted directly from the third world," as one Salon reader put it. In that way, to those of us living in LA, it can sometimes feel as if the rest of the earth's population is an anti-gay pastor who bashes same-sex marriage from the pulpit when he's not secretly getting handjobs from a handsome rent boy called "Woody." LA is Woody.
Anecdotally, what every Angeleno seems to notice about all the bile slung our way is how unrequited it is. I'm acquainted with dozens of people who have lived in both New York and Los Angeles, but only the ones still living in New York continue to feel it necessary to tell me that, as one friend said, I'm going to "become a moron with the rest of the yoga obsessives." Another called LA's architecture "pedestrian and hideous." "I don't miss the cold weather," I usually tell them in response, "but I still miss Brooklyn a lot from time to time." Then they laugh at me the way I used to laugh at people who said New York was too cold.
Worse than the people who outright insult LA, though, are the ones who do so indirectly by suggesting that LA is just a sad mound of glitter trying desperately to be New York. That slur says we're worse than nothing, because we're nothing with absurd dreams of being great, like a high school laughingstock daring to think he could be the prom king.
A year ago, New York's Time magazine said the revitalization of downtown LA could be dubbed the neighborhood's "Manhattanization," as if New York invented the idea of clustering bars and restaurants to attract crowds. A few months later, writing about Pacific Standard Time, a massive multi-museum retrospective of the best in LA art from 1945 to 1980, the New York Times called the collection "overcompensation" from a city "where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair." "It's corny," art critic Dave Hickey, who also used to direct the Reese Palley gallery in New York, told the Times of the collection. "It's the sort of thing that Denver would do."
When I moved out of New York, I knew at the time that it was the best decision for my career and pocketbook. Only now have I come to realize how important leaving was for my sanity, as well. Not that I was afflicted with claustrophobia or exhaustion or any of the pseudo-ailments with which so many hypochondriac New Yorkers diagnose themselves. Rather, I'd deliberately forgotten that life outside New York is just as pure and valid as life inside New York, which is a hazard of the City just the same as street crime, and one that's far more prevalent.
New York makes it easy to forget that there are millions of people with hundreds of interests—NASCAR, surfing, raising chickens, owning land—for whom a tiny constellation of concrete boroughs that are frozen for half the year is not adequate. New York makes it easy to forget that many Americans would probably find paying $950 for a 10-by-10 room overlooking garbage cans either unaffordable or unappealing, or both. New York makes it easy to forget that the vast majority of people in the world don't read Gawker, The Awl, the Observer, the New Yorker or even the New York Times, and that that doesn't necessarily make those people uninformed.
New York City is a beautiful and thrilling place, and I cherish every wandering night and icy morning I spent there. But I've grown to love LA even more, particularly because its underdog status, and the way people point and giggle at it from their brunch tables Back East, makes it simple for me and my neighbors to ground ourselves. Angelenos have a reputation for being abnormally casual—flip-flops to board meetings and that sort of thing. Perhaps we're not casual so much as we're resigned: It's easy to find the lighter side of life when nobody takes you seriously.
In perhaps the most famous Pacific Standard Time promotional video yet, Ice Cube waxes nostalgic about the architects Charles and Ray Eames, famous Angelenos, before saying, "Who are these people who got a problem with LA? Maybe they just mad they don't live here." I like Ice Cube, but I don't think he's right. I am near obsessed with LA's mild weather, great produce, abundant vegetarian restaurants, interesting music scene, and proximity to my hometown. But I can also understand why people wouldn't want to live here without assuming they're jealous or stupid, which is something I found difficult to do while perched atop my building's roof in Brooklyn, drinking beers and looking down on everything past the East River.
Getting out of New York helped me rediscover the outside world, while living in LA has reminded me to ignore the world if you're happy with where you are and what you're doing.
Late last year, at the invitation of my friend Amanda, I went to the San Fernando Valley to check out the set of Zorro XXX, a porno spoof of the masked-man stories. Amanda was writing a story about porn and I wanted to tag along for the experience, to see what a porno set looks like, to smell what a porno set smells like. "Watching people have intercourse in front of you is like seeing the Grand Canyon," Amanda had told me once. "It doesn't even seem real at first."
It was raining very hard that day, and as Amanda interviewed an actress who said her fans love her because she "did DP right away," I ambled to the back of the studio, which was less a film studio and more a dark warehouse cluttered with props and gear from other porno movies. I passed the craft services table, dotted liberally with small Mylar bags of chips and cheese puffs. I passed the cordoned-off set, dressed up to look like Zorro's secret dungeon lair. I passed shopping carts piled high with dolls, candlesticks, small statues, vases—the flotsam and jetsam needed to brighten up an anal scene from time to time. I thought I'd find myself alone out back; instead I bumped into a cameraman, a sound guy, and the graying goateed actor who was playing Zorro, Tom Byron, all standing at the big back door, which was open and letting in cold gusts of air. Ninety minutes later I'd watch Byron, sweating and exhausted, masturbate in a corner to try and maintain his erection. But for right then he was just smoking pot and talking about video games.
They offered me the pipe but I begged off, and as the discussion shifted to Xbox versus Wii, I tuned out and stared blankly into the alleyway, where an open trashcan was slowly filling up with rainwater. It looked a lot like the trashcans from my old building in New York, the ones I used to look at from on high, staring disgustedly at the rats brazenly waltzing about. Now the rats playing around the trash were my fellow Angelenos and I, wet, laughing, hungover, stoned. I think my New York self would have cringed at the thought of rubbing shoulders with aging porn actors in a musty storeroom in the Valley. I think he would have considered it a life not worth leading. That day, with those strangers whom I'll probably never see again, it felt like a real home.
Cord Jefferson is a writer in Los Angeles.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via littleny/Shutterstock.