Goodbye to (Most) All That
With the distance and luxury of more hindsight, what I'm about to say next will inevitably change, tinged by the hues of perspective and of experience and of contemplation. But I want to write about it now, while the scent of freshly baked nostalgia still lingers, the warmth of a plump bagel smeared with gooey cream cheese still watering in my mouth, as decadent as wedding cake fondant, which I have tasted, although it has never been my own.
It's already being washed away, though, while I sit at LaGuardia airport, sipping a laughably overpriced pale ale. These past five days were my first in New York, New York, strictly as a tourist, a single man without any intention of striking up old flames or attempting to wedge my way into a journalism career that seems to have outgrown me. Or I it. Either way, I don't seem to fit anymore, suffocated by a mold that was never of my making, but rather one formed out of subconscious obligation to follow in my late father's footsteps. I booked this trip a couple of months back, after learning that I had secured a position as a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in creative writing at Georgia State University in Atlanta. This trip, for me, was to be the culmination of what had amounted to nearly eight years of my life, largely and unknowingly spent pouring my own mold to fill in the decades that are hopefully ahead.
I lived in this city for roughly three of those eight years, and one of my ex-girlfriends had a studio here for three more, splitting our relationship between Brooklyn and the condo I owned in Hartford, Connecticut. Six years is a relatively short existence, but it is also two thousand, one hundred, and ninety days that made up most of my twenties, that decade when you're unleashed into the wide world without an instruction manual, or a guide for what to expect should your priorities and moral compass unexpectedly shift.
I didn't have a set itinerary, other than taking a day to drive a few hours north to visit ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, to give hugs and handshakes to the friends and mentors from my maturation there, friends and mentors who are never far from my mind. And I figured I should go as high up in the Empire State Building as they'd let me. Despite having worked in a building on 34th Street between Fifth and Madison, I'd never been inside the lobby, much less to the 102nd floor, about a quarter mile above that vast expanse of steel and concrete known as Manhattan.
Mostly, though, I'd planned to eat good food and drink good drinks at diners and bars that I once couldn't afford, and then I could, and soon I won't be able to again. I ate and drank with friends who've known me since I showed up in New York City with nothing more than two suitcases, friends who now give me a corner to drop my bags and a couch to lay my head, the kind of friends who heighten the senses, who cause the food to taste better and the drinks to seemingly never run out. I also ran into those old flames, and we shared some laughs, and in the silence, I believe there was forgiveness, an understanding that even though fond memories can become tainted with bitterness, the mixture is a taste worth acquiring, so as to not wipe out the sweetness of the thing altogether.
Finally, on the fifth day, I took the 7 train to Jackson Heights, Queens, in search of my first New York City address, a building I hadn't been to in the decade since I'd walked out with the same two suitcases I'd come in with. When you emerge from the subway station onto Roosevelt Avenue, the rhythms of the city alter, spirited away on the strings of a sitar and the gentle slaps of a tabla. There is lamb on kababs and samosas sold in dozens as if they were donuts. There are women in saris and men speaking in what sounds to the untrained ear like a garbled staccato of p's and b's, some of them wearing turbans and others in Yankees hats, although you wonder if they even know how many strikes equal an out.
This was my neighborhood for nearly all of my inaugural three hundred and sixty-five days in NYC. But I would eventually choose alternate paths to the 7 train, avoiding the spectacle on my daily pilgrimage from Queens to Manhattan. There was not a moment to waste then on my morning commute, not a dollar to spare, this sliver of the United States just a cheap place to sleep until the weekend, when I would walk hours or ride multiple trains to get to the places that were hip, where people looked more like me.
On this Sunday in Jackson Heights, the sun was hot but not the kind of heat that bubbles off the pavement or beads sweat on your brow. The cross breeze between the rows of brick was pleasant and swayed the trees, which shimmered an emerald green in the golden rays. People who have ever called New York City home would consider it a damn-near perfect day, and having been pelted by the rain and having sloshed through the snow, I would not nit-pick at their hyperbole: low humidity, clear sky, smoke billowing from shimmering metal food trucks, the stench of trash gone until the next pick up, allowing the char of exotic meats to permeate the air and pool saliva on your tongue. I bought a kebab, morsels of juicy lamb stacked one atop another. I paused in front of a window displaying white mannequins in brightly colored saris. I shut my eyes and did my best to separate the syllables of the men peddling whatever it is they peddle, their words fading in and out of my native language, as if they were wind chimes that hadn't been properly tuned.
I meandered beyond the bazaar, where the blocks and parallel streets spread like capillaries from the pulsating subway tracks. In the nooks and crannies, there are other ethnicities and quieter cafes. I craved one last bagel and one last cup of coffee. I entered a deli with a quaint seating area and had a plain with heavy schmear, surrounded by women who I assume were Vietnamese, sipping hot tea and speaking swiftly, a swirl that I could not decipher but was comforted by. For all I knew, they could have been talking about the weather or about old men, same as the Randy Travis song. I slurped my paper cup empty and crumpled the parchment paper dotted with cream cheese, which had oozed from the sides of my bagel. I tossed them in the trash can, then continued my hunt, considering the nearly impossible notion that I might bump into the woman or the man I'd once lived with, or that I might possibly catch a glimpse of the young man who'd lived with them, as if there were actually two of me, the duplicity of my youth manifest.
But none of us were there, nor was the apartment building. I recognized a concrete court (what passes for a park in Queens), although it was half the size of what I remembered, the basketball goals where I used to play with neighborhood kids now gone. Maybe I was over one block too many, or maybe the building was there and I just couldn't locate it in the files of my memory, a fuzzy photograph never fully developed. Nothing resonated, and I realized that I hadn't ever truly taken an accounting of the exterior of my first New York City home, how many floors it had or what type of handle or knob I'd grasped to open the entryway. But these details did not matter, not then, not to a twenty-two-year old who couldn't have fathomed that his thirty-two-year old self would pass him on the street a decade later, retracing the contours of his life.
That's the beauty in and the sadness of nostalgia: It's a longing for a place and a time and people that simply can't exist. But to simply state the definition does not do justice to the feeling, and that was the impetus for this trip, even if I couldn't consciously explain the initial impulse. I had to see for myself, in other words, to find out if New York City still had my heart.
It appeared that an intermediate public school had been built where the apartment building stood. As far as hunches go, that particular half block did stir in me a semblance of deja vu, as though my body's internal GPS had stored the number of steps from the subway, even if my eyes couldn't register the landmarks. My instinct said it was the spot, and that spot was, perhaps appropriately, lost to history.
I strolled back toward Roosevelt Avenue to catch a shuttle to LaGuardia, yet the energy of the city did not propel me as it had before, or elicit in me the need to rush to the bus to get to the next stop. New York will always be alive with that kinetic pace—I could feel it emanating from tourists gawking up at the Empire State Building, and from people wearing business suits and pant suits on the subway, frantically pecking on their phones, and in young men and women scurrying by me toward the 7 train, in a hurry to get to the next stop. Instead, I inhaled and exhaled the air of my former neighborhood, regretting that I hadn't appreciated Jackson Heights for its culture, and for its relative calm, assuming then that the constant hum across the East River was where my worth lied.
I lingered and took a few pictures. People sidestepped me, some of them huffing, some of them not even glancing up from their phones, some of them with the worry of Monday on their minds, the worry of their worth in this city, and where it lies. And that, too, is the beauty of and sadness in nostalgia: I could not have convinced those people to pause and to appreciate this street and the trees that line it, or prove to them that this time and this place and these people will pass them, just as they passed me, forever out of reach.
I am back in Knoxville, Tennessee, writing these final paragraphs in a coffee shop, the house I was renting now empty, filled less with memories than with the thoughts of a man yet again passing through. Last night, after a Lyft dropped me off from the airport, I sat on the empty floor, waiting for the sun to rise, and I searched synonyms for "regret" and found "nostalgia." But when I searched synonyms for "nostalgia," I did not find "regret."
That seems like a feeling worth striving for in the next new city, between four more new walls, nostalgia without regret. I just hope my friends up there come visit—and bring bagels.