I live in New York City. I’m not entirely sure how it happened. You know, they say young people these days move around so much they don’t know their heads from their tails, and of course for us – the “young” – the looming danger is of getting “stuck.” I most definitely feared getting stuck, shivering, in midwestern snowstorms or sweltering in southwest deserts or stuck rigid in offices beneath piles of paperwork, phone calls, and half-empty cups of coffee and yet here I still am, in New York. But I don’t quite feel stuck.
When I first showed up, I was a runner. I had run from Minnesota, trailing memories of my single mom on anti-depressants, carrying remnants of paperwork and court sessions and group home visits for my sister with special needs, trying to hold the shards – all that was left – of a glass statue of family and the American Dream together with crisis phone calls and checks when the rent was past due. The thought of being stuck there was asphyxiating. Then I ran from Arizona to aspire to greater than $10 an hour and manual labor on properties whose houses would soon collapse with the bubble. (And maybe me inside them?) And I ran again from Washington DC because I wanted less work than 14 hours a day and more music than the clink of black strappy heels along marble floors. I needed to run, to expand, and discover. I needed to breathe, sleep, and find peace, elsewhere. Anywhere but here.
So now I’m in New York. I’m here, among the endlessly rainy days, the alienating graduate school classes that confuse my sense of purpose and suck on the bones of my still small bank account, the facades of friendships that left me hugging flat cardboard smiles, putting my faith in false advertising. People are busy, they say. Who needs friends when you’ve got an impressive resume and all the bars in Manhattan? Then I entertained the hope that I could blend in with folks living in the Heights or Harlem, as a child of an immigrant but who had been raised in Middle America, as a daughter of an entrepreneurial family but of massage therapists and mechanics rather than storefront owners, and as a black woman with natural hair but with a slight, somehow foreign accent and an “unchurched” faith that foolishly believes in the right to choose who you love and what you do with your body and who knew nothing of Coming to America or Nina Simone or Erykah Badu (yes, really) before college.
So, when some mobile, modern-world-upturning Columbia grad asks me Will you stay?, I smile and let her discomfort linger in the absurdity of the question. Because staying is as much the choice to stay as it is having nowhere else to go. And maybe staying is just what happens, a decision that was made and you were not informed, not because of any profound discovery of self worth or belonging or love of a fantastic location, but just because. Maybe it’s the random greeting of a friend, brightening up that street that was cold last week, but then again, it’ll be damn cold tomorrow. Its maybe the thought of spring, the reminder of strange smells it will unleash near trash cans on the corner… but also the buds on trees outside our front window that I see now for the second time and the comfort of being able to watch transition like a favorite old movie, having memorized every line, knowing how it ends, laughing before all the punch lines, annoying the hell out of everyone else in the theater…
But then there’s also knowing the awkward looks I will inevitably cast toward that one neighbor I can’t seem to gel with (I just don’t get it!), all the averted eyes on my way to work, my blood pressure spike when the train conductor looks me in the eye and closes the doors in front of my nose after watching me sprint down the stairs and to the car. ($#&*^@!) It’s the daily carving out of a small spot of my heart when I walk past the homeless man washing in the drinking foundation on my way to work. And they say America is free. And then, at the end of the longest day of your life, there’s that random exchange, that timid look from this wrinkled and beautifully chocolate-skinned old woman and when I manage to smile back in acknowledgement, her face breaks out in a broad sigh of relief: Connection! It still exists!
Amid all these things, I must admit it’s possibility that makes me stay. I’ve built a loving, authentic relationship, even if only one, and we have a home that nourishes and nurses my often wounded spirit. With my hands, I’ve built surrogates of sisters, brothers, and mothers out of concrete. I build, and I carve my own memories into this dirt, I exhale my anxieties and terrors into this polluted air, I see my vision for a better life than what my parents had in the cloudy rays of dawn. In this place that is, really, just a collection of boiler rooms, faded street lanes, and old furniture laid out on the sidewalks, I seek not perfection nor solutions nor belonging, but just being. And so I can tell you many reasons why I absolutely love this city, and just as many reasons why I don’t. And none of that matters. Because this is my now. And the more it is my now, the more it will become my later. Because you can always get stuck in a place where you had the choice to run away. But not where you’ve chosen to plant your toes, then ankles, then legs in the earth, where you laid down to surrender and grow.