"You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another." —Jake Barnes, in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, 1926
No one needs another essay by another Millennial about why they left New York. But I left New York and came back eight months later. It's different.
As often happens, my relationship with New York began romantically. I knew I wanted to live here ever since I saw the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid. The skyline shone with a prestige that Chicago's didn't. Even with less than half a decade of life experience, I understood that the chaos of the city was alluring to me. New York was where I needed to be.
My first visit happened in 1996 when I was seven years old. My aunt, knowing my passion for the city, took me along for a daytrip. I wore a leather jacket, we flew first-class, and we spent the entire trip in Midtown. I mistakenly went to the Chrysler Building thinking it was the Empire State Building. I ate onion rings at the Fashion Cafe. That's all I remember.
The next trip came eight years later. I was 15, and I really wanted to be a VJ. When Damien Fahey, Vanessa Minnillo, Quddus and that whole gang took over TRL from Carson Daly, I was like, "I fucking deserve that job, too." I searched the casting section of MTV's website incessantly and got a callback for an audition tape that I submitted, but the opportunity went south when the casting director learned that I wasn't old enough to drive. The most that materialized of my constant correspondence with the network was a ticket to see Kanye West on Direct Effect. I ditched school, flew to New York on a whim, sat in the studio audience, bought a few CDs at the Virgin Megastore and returned to the Midwest after less than a day.
I didn't get into NYU, which was a blessing because my years at the University of Illinois were indispensable in a way that only four years at a Big 10 school in Illinois can be, but New York never left my sights. Though I was an honors student in the College of Business majoring in accountancy, it was apparent, by my junior year, that writing would be my path. I schemed on ways to get to New York every second that I could.
The nice thing about being young with a car and disillusionment with academia and freedom of choice is that I realized how tangible my destination was. New York was within reach. All I had to do was go there. And that's exactly what my friends and I did during our Thanksgiving break in the fall of 2008. We booked a hotel and drove across the country without a plan, bonded by the hope that something of substance would transpire on the streets of the Big Apple.
It did. We met a lot of people. We made a lot of connections. By spring break, we had returned. I interviewed for the internship that brought me back to the city for a three-month stretch that summer. I went to a real club for the first time. I was 20 in 1Oak and The Box, wide-eyed and optimistic. I yelled to my friend, "This is the type of club Jay Z goes to." One second later, Jay Z walked past us. It was serendipitous.
Still, 2009 had a rough summer. The internship was unpaid. The money that I made from selling my TV and Xbox 360 lasted about a week. I lived in a disgusting, roach-infested apartment in New Jersey. I got cheated on by my girlfriend back home. I lost a backpack with my phone, keys and laptop on the subway on my first day in Manhattan. Then I returned to college for my senior year with a severe case of FOMO. But Summer 2009 hadn't been without its glory. Despite being dead broke and eating dollar pizza everyday; it was fun. I was introduced to the world of industry events with open bars—back when they seemed cool—and the work was exciting, so even through all of the bullshit, my enthusiasm never faltered. And it paid off.
The internship became a full-time position. I made money. I lived in nicer, better-located apartments. I dated other women. I got that backpack back. (Some really nice girl saw my drunk ass puking on the train and emailed the next day to say she had the backpack I left behind.) I moved to New York a week after graduation and the city delivered on all of its promises.
Three years later, in April 2013, I had the existential realization that having everything that I thought I wanted wasn't enough. It's a cliché, but it's real. I felt trapped. My occupation as a magazine editor was no longer a dream fulfilled. It was a job. I had pageview goals and demands to meet. The city's nightlife was no longer stimulating. Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn were no longer inspiring. I was the archetypal transplant who couldn't hack it.
I got really jaded and cynical and I was reading Charles Bukowksi's Women at the time and his animosity toward New York's clamor and crowds fueled my own anxiety on packed subway cars and busy avenues. I'd notice how miserable people looked on their commutes and I felt like everyone in the city got conned. Hubris led me to believe that I was smarter than being sold on the idea of New York. The reality was that the city is unnecessarily stressful, overpopulated, expensive, filthy, and a breeding ground for dysfunctional relationships and drug addiction. It was all trite rationalization, but before coming to terms with the issues within myself, I ran away from them. 2,475 miles away.
L.A. was my escape. I saw it as a distant utopia where all of my problems evaporated. In that sense, my first trips to the west coast were similar to my early experiences in New York. Los Angeles was like another planet. There were mountains and palm trees and beaches. On one occasion, I left a restaurant and paparazzi briefly thought I was famous and snapped a few photos. That's a vapid and superficial incident to judge a city by, but it was intoxicating. That never happened to me in New York. That scene in Swingers where they walk into the party and everyone stops to look? That really happens. People want to see if you matter. L.A. has its own pretense, but it seldom feels like anyone is too detached or "too cool" to hear your story. I liked that.
I convinced myself that New York was a facade and that L.A. had the answers. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew L.A. held the solution. It's like that Sex Pistols lyric, "Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it." I knew I could get it by moving to L.A. and the desire to migrate west consumed me. I was obsessed. I watched Swingers and Jackie Brown and Clueless and Barton Fink seemingly everyday. My Gmail password was based on the year that I thought I'd move to L.A. and I didn't see it happening within this decade. It was a long-term goal, but as fate would have it, I received a job offer that would bring me to L.A. far sooner than I'd anticipated. It was almost as if I had willed the opportunity into existence. And I accepted.
I'd drive through the Hollywood Hills at night just for the fuck of it. The bars and clubs closed at 2 a.m. and, coming from a 4 a.m. culture, it didn't even annoy me because I was eager to see what the infamous after hours scene was like. I understood how Nicki Minaj felt when she said, "I live where the motherfuckin' pools and the trees is." I understood why Lana Del Rey called it "paradise." To this day, the concept of L.A.'s infrastructure shocks me. It's art. A week into the relocation and I'm going to mansion parties off Mulholland and it's like, "How did I get here?"
I lived at the edge of West Hollywood off Doheny, close to Sunset. I'd go on runs in Beverly Hills. The suburban aesthetic there and in a lot of other neighborhoods blows my mind. I can't grasp how something like the Sunset Strip is five minutes away from a row of streets that resembles Pleasantville. Then there's this perpetually smoggy, sunny glow to it all. L.A. is surreal. I feel like I'm dreaming even writing about it now: the freeways that look like something out of a post-apocalyptic film, the dozen beaches that are never more than a short drive away, the giant canyons that border city limits. It's the most inconceivable idea for a place and it actually exists.
The traffic didn't even bother me at first. Slowing down on the 405 and looking at the landscape was like sightseeing. I was down to ride anywhere and do anything. Sometimes I'd go out of the way to pass the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room where River Phoenix died or the house on Elm Drive where the Menendez Brothers killed their parents or the condo on Bundy Drive where Nicole Simpson was murdered. I felt like I was living in a history book—the way I used to feel in New York. L.A. has the grit and energy of New York but maintains a shiny surface. L.A. makes losing your mind glamorous. New York makes it cold and bitter. It was interesting to observe. Plus, in a complete coincidence, Randy Newman's "I Love LA" was the first song I heard on the radio when I touched down. Clearly this was a sign. It was all meant to be.
That feeling doesn't last forever. Everyone acts like they're too highbrow and cultured for the ongoing L.A. vs N.Y. conversation but everyone secretly loves the L.A. vs N.Y. conversation because both cities are equally terrible as they are awesome. There's a honeymoon period where nothing about either city seems wrong or like it could ever be wrong and you imagine yourself living there for the rest of your life. Then, slowly, but surely, an acknowledgment of the city's flaws begins to creep in. I was in denial when it first started happening in Los Angeles. But after enough time, L.A. becomes a real place and not a fantasy. Your problems don't evaporate. That Jake Barnes line starts to ring true and it's like, "My God! What have I done?"
L.A. is lonely by design. I had plenty of friends and a thriving social life, but isolation is still inevitable because the city is a massive sprawl where you can't avoid being by yourself for long bouts of time, under any circumstances. New York is a shark. L.A. is a blowfish, and too often is that blowfish in a resting state. That calm is what drew me to L.A. and that's also what made me want to leave. I got back into a relationship with the girl in New York I broke up with before I moved so I was visiting the east coast regularly during my final weeks out west. New York was new to me again. In my absence, my status had surpassed what it'd been before. It made me feel like a rock star. In L.A., there's always an actual rock star next to you in a Ferrari, who gets a better seat at the Chateau Marmont, reinforcing the fact that you are not one of them.
I left L.A. on Christmas Eve of last year and came back to New York on January 1st, in the dead of winter. There was a blizzard on my first day back and I loved it. The snow was like confetti at a Welcome Back celebration. I've always liked the winter more. L.A's perfect weather was, at times, depressing. It was like a movie set, a west coast sequel to Groundhog Day. After a while every day felt the same, and it was terrifying. 70 and sunny. 70 and sunny. 70 and sunny. L.A. had become the facade. Again, it seemed, New York had the answers.
I've been back for seven months and I just signed a two-year lease in Bed-Stuy, so it would appear that some type of statement has been made about where my allegiance between the two cities lies. New York hasn't been perfect since I've returned. But I guess the point of this is that no city is. The next time I get sick of it here, I'll be on the next flight to L.A. It never ends.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter here.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]