Three and a half years ago I made the move from Pittsburgh to New York City. My decision was made for the same reason almost everyone moves here – money. I did not come to New York dreaming of becoming a famous writer. I did not come to New York to soak up its culture or because it is a “global creative hub” or whatever pop-sociological catchphrase Richard Florida is hawking this year. The fact is that New York is where ideas come to die. Right now, all over the country, in places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Oklahoma City and Mobile, Alabama and Boise, Idaho there are lonely, isolated, disaffected kids making wonderful things – books, movies, songs, videos, paintings. Maybe they make these things because they’re restless and bored, maybe for the feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing an idea brought to life through hard work, or maybe just because it was other people’s books and movies and music that provided their only means of escape from a hometown they hate. Most of all, they do it to differentiate themselves, to say to the world, “This is me, and this is what I can do”. They aren’t worried about selling anything, because no one is buying anyway. So they do what interests them. They experiment. They take chances. Oftentimes they fail. But every so often, a bit of magic happens. They create something – something with identifiable influences, perhaps, yet undeniably unique. People begin to take notice; they’re interested. So these budding artists continue, build off their past successes. They create new things, begin to form an identity. Their work appears in local shows. They build a regular audience. Now the newspapers are doing a story on them in the Local Interest section. They’ve even started to sell some works and make a little spending money on the side. Then comes a mention in a national publication – a small mention perhaps, just one of a dozen names rattled off in a paragraph about “up-and-coming talents” – but the implications are clear. Their time has arrived. They are on the precipice. The town that has nurtured and developed them is no longer big enough. If they are going to take the next step, become a capital-A “Artist”, they need to go where all the Artists are. They need to network, to see and be seen. And so they grab their bags and ideas and stuff them in the bottom of a Greyhound bus bound for New York, never to look back. Ideas come to New York because that’s where the money is. And the money is what everyone is chasing.
Problem is, New York doesn’t care about your ideas. Your ideas have no built-in market, and nobody knows who you are. For all the talk about looking for “the next big thing”, no executive – be it publishing, music, or film – wants an unknown entity. What they want is a facsimile of the last “big thing”, only younger and cheaper and preferably better looking. They don’t need you, because there are a million other kids here who are just like you. You will go to each other’s readings and DJ nights and open-mic sessions, drink shitty beer and bottom-shelf liquor, and generally have a wonderful time as long as your bank account holds out. There is no time limit, no expiration date. There are sixty-year-old drunks slurring their way through ‘More Than a Feeling’ at their local pub’s karaoke night right now who still believe their big break is right around the corner.
I’m lucky in the sense that I moved to New York for a job – an actual job, in an office, with a regular paycheck every other week and benefits. Therefore, I never had any illusions about what to expect when I got here. I wake up five days a week and take the R train to Lower Manhattan. I walk into an office, sit down behind a desk and work a nine-hour shift. Then, in the evening, I take the R train back out to Queens. I eat dinner, put my daughter to bed, and finally, when all the other minor chores of the day are done, I sit down for an hour to write. Not any different, really, from what I used to do in Pittsburgh, except I’m being paid a whole lot more. I write because I enjoy it, because sitting down in front of a blank screen to craft a story is a terrifying and exhilarating experience, and the joy felt when the final period has been placed at the end of the final sentence is more than commensurate to the challenge. I will never make a living from writing, and that’s okay. I have been lucky enough to be published, a thrilling and rewarding experience. No one will remember my name, and that’s just fine.
New York is a desperate city. It’s palpable, walking down the street. Everyone is trying to be noticed, yet going to the greatest lengths possible to ignore everyone else they pass. It is a city where ten-thousand people live crushed together on a single block, yet no one knows their neighbors. It is a city of perpetual delusion, where a paralegal in a Downtown law firm is not a paralegal but an “aspiring actress/model”, and the guy who just poured your vodka tonic is not a bartender but a “poet” who just happens to tend bar a few times a week to pay the bills. It is a way-station on the path to something better. It is a city of expats, a fleeting, transient, temporary city. Everyone who moved here just a few years ago already speaks incessantly of getting out, someday. And yet they stay on, chasing some indefinable dream, wanting in vain to be adored in a city that cares for no one. It is a minnow trap, Narcissus’s pool, into which we all stare dreamily seeing a self that exists only in our minds. It is a prison without walls. And, for now anyway, it is home.
Photo by Daniel Schwen
Man, Randall, you nailed it. Everything from your take on the city and its people to your perspectives on your own writing and your place in the “literary” world resonates with me. A film you (or anyone who can get to what you’re saying) might like: “The Last Big Thing,” Dan Zukovic’s brilliant take on the human gravitation toward celebrity and recognition in the face of the pop culture grist mill. He swaps NYC for LA, but the truth at the heart of it remains.
Thanks for the good words.
This inspires me to write one about my literary existence in suburbia–where all bookstores have gone under and where the library is closed several times a week as a result of county budget problems. Great piece.
Thanks for a great glimpse back into “the City”. I commuted daily from NJ for years. Interesting that even though New York is so fast-paced and always looking for the next big idea, its personality, that you so deftly describe, endures, generation after generation. I really enjoy the clear honesty of your writing.
This is a beautiful take on a hazy dream many have. So many look for a sense of dreaminess in New York, an escape of their mundane day-to-day life with a dog and a yard. But what they get is grit and even more mundane piled high with stress and helplessness. This is a great alternative to so many pieces about “making it” in New York. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks everyone for the kind words. The longer I’ve lived here the more I’ve been impressed with how many people conflate “place” with “importance” or “meaning”. A band you wouldn’t have crossed the street to hear if they were playing your local bar in Akron, OH suddenly become your new favorites because they happened to book a Tuesday night at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. Nothing changed but the venue. Which was really frustrating coming from Pittsburgh, a place I love more than any other, seeing all the best musicians, painters, writers, etc. leave town for New York the second they started getting recognition. It drove me nuts that they couldn’t look around and recognize all the great things going on right there.
P.S. – Matt, I will definitely check out that movie the first chance I get (meaning, whenever I decide to renew my Netflix subscription).
Here’s a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about: