"Don't you miss it here?"
Going back to somewhere I once swore I'd live forever, things feel different.
“Don’t you miss it here?”
I visited New York City this past weekend, my first trip back to a city I love dearly in nearly four years. A lot has changed in that time period, of course. This would be my first visit since the pandemic hit—the streetside “outdoor dining” sheds and pop-up COVID testing sites virtually everywhere we went were an ever-present reminder of that—but also the first time I’d be taking my kids since they were babies.
My wife and I had lived in the city for nine years.
We didn’t move there together—in fact, we wouldn’t meet until three years into our times there—but by sheer coincidence we had moved there on consecutive days in 2006, wide-eyed Midwestern kids both choosing to start our adult lives in The Big City. We came in as broke kids with just a few items in tow, and moved out nearly a decade later with a whole life together and a baby on the way.
The trip—planned to celebrate her 40th birthday—was only for a long weekend, and so of course we tried to cram far too much in, both in schedule and in body.
I’ve long said that my mental map of anywhere is oriented primarily around food, and I had a lot of catching up to do—hot dogs from Gray’s Papaya, chicken and broccoli pizza, a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich on a proper hard roll, a quality bagel with cream cheese, a real diner breakfast, and my highest personal priority, chicken and lamb over rice from a halal cart (with white sauce and hot sauce, of course.)
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The kids seemed to quite enjoy their first real visit to the city; my seven-year-old son constantly forging ten steps ahead of us on busy sidewalks (much to my chagrin), and my five-year-old daughter quickly becoming an expert on which dogs to pet (all of them) and when we should just take a cab instead of walking (always). We showed them museums and theater and the park and skyscrapers and pointed out all the places we used to frequent.
By the end of the trip, my belly was full from trying to cram a week’s worth of can’t-miss culinary memories into four days, and my heart full from the chance to reconnect with dear old friends and watch our kids play with theirs. Though completely exhausted by the time we settled into our seats on the plane home, I found myself wistfully staring back at the distant skyline from the window.
I do miss it.
In the half-century-plus since Joan Didion wrote her timeless New York farewell essay, “Goodbye to All That”, the leaving-the-city diary has become a lamentable trope, full of self-important writers pretending that their reasons for moving away from the city are somehow special and worth memorializing.
I moved away from New York for the same reasons most people move away from big cities: it’s expensive, noisy, smelly, crowded, and a gigantic hassle much of the time.
Those things don’t outweigh the positives when you’re 24 years old and willing to live in a shabby fifth-floor walkup, but they can start to when you’re in your mid-30s, married, and thinking about how you’d rather be close to family when the baby comes and rather have a separate room to put that baby in instead of squeezing them into four hundred already-crowded square feet of drafty, occasionally mouse-infested apartment.
Petty annoyances popped up during the trip, too, just enough to remind me of the trade I’d made; the kids complaining about having to walk everywhere, the less-than-sweet smells of summer in the city, the traffic and noise and cost of everything.
I don’t miss *this*, I’d reassure myself, as though I was still litigating a decision to leave made seven-plus years ago.
In reality, though, the reasons I left haven’t changed; they’ve only grown deeper. I’m a different person now than I was then, and a world away from the kid who first moved there.
I don’t miss the city; I miss the time.
The New York that I knew doesn’t exist anymore, even if big parts of it still look mostly the same. It is a place and time in my life that cannot be recreated and would not feel the same even if I could. This isn’t true only of New York City, either; it would be just the same if I were talking about Chicago or Los Angeles or Manhattan, Kansas or anywhere else in the world that someone has lived in and loved and then left.
The place I knew and loved is gone, replaced by something similar in appearance but fundamentally different. It existed only for me then, even as it exists both then and now in a million parallel-but-different ways for other people, their places intersecting and overlapping with mine at some points and diverging wildly at others. My version of the city can’t exist without that version of me.
There’s a joy in accepting and embracing this.
You can’t go home again, but you can conjure it up for a few minutes if you squint hard enough, something I realized as we dragged the kids around to our favorite haunts, telling them all about the life we had then.
There’s our favorite grocery store, we used to go there all the time.
There’s the toy store where your favorite stuffed monkey came from.
There’s our apartment that burned down. Don’t worry, that won’t happen to our house.
There’s Holly’s favorite dog park where she used to run and play.
There’s the spot where I asked Mommy to marry me.
There’s where I met your mother.
There’s where an earlier version of me lived. I was dumb and broke and lost and lonely and had no idea what the heck I was doing. I was a long way from home and thought I was going to live here forever until then suddenly I didn’t. I loved every minute of it, even the ones that I hated.
It was a special time in my life, but I wouldn’t re-do it even if I could, because I’m here with you now, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Tell me about a place that you once lived in, and what you miss (and don’t) about it.
I feel like this may raise some eyebrows but this combination is nearly-universal at the mediocre-but-wonderful pizza-by-the-slice joints that define my image of True New York Style Pizza, and rare outside of that context. It’s delicious.
I will note that perhaps the most jarring "things have changed" part about going to NYC was flying through the new Terminal B at LaGuardia. I used to comment that I'd been through bus stations nicer than LGA, quite seriously, so I was shocked to find that instead of a dank, crowded hole with tarps hung from a grid ceiling to catch the leaks from above, I was flying through a legitimately beautiful airport terminal. Wonders never cease.
Also, i brought back three pounds of Zabar's coffee beans and it earned me an extra 20 minutes in security, a full pat-down from the TSA, and an inspection from the explosives expert. It was worth it; it's damned good coffee.
I've lived in Atlanta my whole life. When I was a teenager and pretty much through my early 30s, I was a hellraiser. I grew up sneaking into the city to go to punk shows, telling my parents I was doing a variety of other things.
I would drive into the city and get off at Freedom Parkway and hoof it down Boulevard to a sketchy strip mall venue that had "sound proof" carpet nailed to the walls and was stealing power from the convenience store next door (via an extension cord running through the ceiling panels). At the time, it was called the Neutron Bomb. Now it's a very well-lit self-storage space right near the Beltline (for fellow Atlanta folks, it's at the corner of Boulevard and Dekalb Ave).
I would meander around the gravel parking lot of the Masquerade carefully avoiding the broken bottles and dirty needles waiting for the gigs to start so I could promptly walk into the band entrance past security like I was part of the band. Sometimes fights would spill outside and I'd hustle out there to spectate. One time I was involved in a brawl that spilled out from the "Hell" part of the venue into the street where a couple of cops were waiting as security. Some dude got hit with a baton and I took off (lol). The Masquerade lives on as a part of a "revitalized" Underground Atlanta, but that building with the historical pedigree is now a mixed-use apartment complex.
The MJQ was a dance club where my shitty hardcore punk band played our first show with all of our degenerate friends. The whole block was recently bought by a developer and is set to be flipped next year, sometime.
Eats was our pre-gig staple. Used to be filled with legit weirdos, homeless people, and punks (I would wager at one point there were more face tattoos per capita in Eats than in anywhere else in the world). Now it's filled with yuppie tech bros who work at Ponce City Market ironically wearing their Reagan/Bush 1984 shirts.
Sorry to be long-winded, but Atlanta has always been home and while I realize that objectively it's probably better today than it was then for 90% of the residents and visitors -- myself included -- I'm still very nostalgic for the old days when it wasn't for everyone. Not everything should be commoditized to be appreciated. But I still love Atlanta and always will.