"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 pizza1, 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.