Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

It would be a long while because, quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage.
-Joan Didion, 'Goodbye to All That'

Joan Didion's Goodbye to All That from her collection of essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem both affirmed and frightened me. It really is quite terrifying to read as a 23 year old new New Yorker, which is the age I was when I first read it. I love it and I hate it but I think I love it more. It changed me, no doubt, and jerked me into a better understanding of self in my current life, however odd that may sound.

Didion writes an account of her love affair with and subsequent fall from New York City. Her words are so familiar that they bite. They were familiar the first time I read them, shockingly so, and even after I read them again today, for what have been the twentieth time, they still bite.

My roommate Meg often tells me that no one loves New York as much as I do. I don't know if that is true, but I do know that few love it in the same way that I do. But Joan Didion absolutely understood what it felt like to be in love- real heartbeating love- with a city. With this city. (Remember how lovingly she phrased it? 'the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again...') The problem is that she fell in it and then she fell from it and she wrote about it with such bitterness. One can only fall that hard and be that hurt if she is in very, very deep. Joan was, and I am.

Didion moved to New York when she was twenty and it was the summertime. She had no idea what she was doing but she thought she did. She dove in and without coming up for air, embraced everything around her. She went to parties and roamed the streets and stayed up all night and never bought any furniture. She talks about the smells, the snowflakes, and the very clear naivete. She writes about her young self not with fondness as most writers do, but with a sort of dissonance. Sour grapes, almost.

Didion has always written with a certain harshness. She can go on about the scent of L'Air du Temps perfume mixing with Henri Bendel soap and the salty smell of the crab markets without getting the least but romantic. In fact, she isn't romantic, not in the slightest. She is a gorgeous, crafted writer--sentimental, even. But her words and sentences and phrasing are nothing but honest. The way that she writes takes you into her world with a clear lens and felt truth. It scares me a little bit. So much that I can't stop reading her.

The 'long while' that she refers to in the passage above is an understanding of what it means to become jaded. It would be a long while before she would fall from the girl not understanding the big joke and not caring in the slightest due to the distractions of Christmas trees on Fifth Avenue, the first snow as seen from a cab, a new party dress, and Park avenue in December. She didn't care to pay attention to the naysayers because she wasn't one yet and that's a good enough reason as any.

Didion started to fall when she began to avoid the city. This is what struck me to the core the first time I read this. I think about it all the time. Everyday maybe. Once she had been here for a few years she learned what spots to avoid... couldn't bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings, couldn't stand Times Square in the afternoon, and stopped going to the New York Public Library all together.

If you live in New York, you understand. These things are helpful and even necessary. But for Didion it started building on itself. Pretty soon you can't leave your apartment because you are paralyzed by all of the places you can't stand to be. And Didion eventually sat in her apartment on Seventy-Fifth street for days, too frightened to go outside. You can see why she started falling out of love. The city had stopped loving her back, or so she believed.

I know that Soho is horrific on the weekends, so is Times Square. The village is crazy after midnight and Prospect Park is a madhouse of buttercream cake, helium balloons, and sticky children every Sunday afternoon. But you have to go anyway. You have to. Didion stands as a warning as to why its so important. My dance class is in Soho on Saturdays and Times Square has the good movie times, not to mention most of the theater.

We go to the Village for its craziness and there is enough room in Prospect Park for all of us. Its a goddamn piazza (as Tom Hanks once so eloquently said). The city as a whole is a place we all can gather and must do so to keep its pulsing streets alive. You can't just love New York as an abstract concept, you have to love its parts too. This is what Didion failed to understand. Its why she had to move and she knows it.

I had a huge party marking my One Year Anniversary with New York... one year from the day I moved into my first apartment on 102nd and Central Park West. I told the same joke over and over-- that my relationship with New York is the longest, most significant, and most rewarding relationship that I have ever been in. New York and I are getting on fabulously, I gushed. Its been a whole year, and I know its still the honeymoon phase but I think this might be the real deal. We're just so in love... It was self deprecating, clearly, but everyone thought I was really funny and they all bought me drinks to cheers my love story. The fascinating part, however, is that its true.

And I am the naive girl, I know that. This entire blog is naive in its tone, right? (Was anyone ever so young, she asks.) This is where the better understanding of self kicks in--I am Young Joan still, not Wise All-Knowing Joan. I know.

Didion lives in Los Angeles now, and has for many many years. She stayed in New York for eight and never regrets leaving. She loved New York (still loves? Its hard to tell...) but her love affair ended at twenty-eight. And that's okay. Its not easy for me to say that, ask Meg. I get harshly defensive when people don't love New York as much as I do. But I'm trying to work on it. To understand that New York has many many stories. Eight million, in fact. And Didion moved on to what some would consider to be a 'more important' love story--take an afternoon to read A Year of Magical Thinking, you'll know what I mean. And perhaps someday I will have a story like that too.

1 comment:

jacquelyn senske said...

Sarah Butler...you are a fantastic writer! And I admire your love of the city. I just found your blog...but have enjoyed reading it. You are living your dream, and for that, dear Sarah, I am extremely proud of you. Thanks for sharing your 'realness' with all of us. I pray your time there continues to be one heck of a ride.