When I left New York for Baltimore in the spring of 2007, I’d made up my mind that I wouldn’t be coming back. For years, I’d migrated between a cabin on the Chesapeake Bay and various sublets in New York City, and yet I’d never felt like the city was my home. “I can tell you’re not from here,” a barmaid once told me. “You look too nice.” She told me it took ten years to acquire a New York face.
It also took a whole new wardrobe — Levi’s 514s, cashmere sweaters, a black overcoat — just to meet the minimum public sartorial standards and pass un-despised in the streets. Back in Baltimore, acquaintances, seeing me in my new getup, assumed I had become flamboyantly gay. Or they wondered whether I’d gotten sick, or, conversely, if I had started working out. (All that had happened was — for the first time in my life — I was wearing shirts that actually fit.) In New York, I felt drained at the end of every day by the din of all the creative, ambitious egos clamoring for attention here. I learned that loneliness can physically hurt.
In short, living here, I felt like I was dating out of my league. New York was my gorgeous but cruel girlfriend who knew she could treat me callously because I’d always come crawling back to her. She was like: Where else you gonna go? Philadelphia? Yeah right.
But when I returned to Maryland, an addictive, on-again-off-again relationship with a woman that I’d both dreaded and looked forward to resuming came to an abrupt, unambiguous end. It was not what they call an amicable break-up; there were hard feelings. And so I fled again, immediately, back into New York’s arms, because I had nowhere else to go.
To my astonishment, when I came to her in a real crisis, New York dropped the attitude. Instead of giving me the aw-poor-you or whadja-expect? she was all, do you need to stay at my place for a while? Let me mix us up a pitcher of mojitos! You want me to dress up like a sexy librarian for you?
People shuddered when they spoke of living in fifth-floor walk-ups in August, but I found New York to be a completely different, more approachable city in the summer. I lucked into a cool, airy sublet a block off Tompkins Square Park. All the rich people seemed to have left the city, and no one was dressing to impress. There was a kind of all-in-the-same-boat camaraderie on the street. Special treats had been arranged to reward those of us who remained. I got to listen to rehearsals for The Tempest in the community garden outside my kitchen window every night, and got used to the warped metallic rattle of stage thunder. I went to see Superman: The Movie outdoors in Bryant Park, and when the sound fritzed out at the film’s climax, the crowd rose to the occasion, singing the Superman march, doing the screams of children trapped in the teetering school us, calling out, “Thank you, Superman!” when he saved them. I took up smoking cigars. I could stand in the middle of an empty avenue to take in those city vistas I usually only glimpsed while hurrying to cross – the Gothic steeple of Grace Church echoed by the art-deco spire of the Chrysler Building thirty blocks beyond, the edifice of the Woolworth building vaulting up from Broadway like a cathedral eight-hundred feet high—views that always lifted my spirits instantly, like the unexpected sight of a friend’s face on a subway platform.
Human beings usually try to leaven bad news with good, aiming for a diplomatic balance, but life is notoriously tactless. At the end of the summer, it had the poor timing to follow up heartbreak with tragedy. An old friend of mine unexpectedly died in Baltimore, and I spent a week back there making funeral arrangements for him. I had spent twenty years living in and around that city — an unpretentious, hard-drinking town full of genuine eccentrics and grotesques, compared to which Manhattan had always felt like a city-themed theme park. I’d had some of the dearest friends and best times of my life there. But suddenly, it felt like revisiting my old high school — deserted, dead, and too small, a place I didn’t belong anymore.
My homing instinct had kicked in; once again it was directing me to New York.
The day after we buried my friend, I cancelled plans with everyone who’d wanted to see me and lied my way onto a sold-out Amtrak train back to Penn Station. My homing instinct had kicked in, as it does in times of crisis, and to my surprise, once again the place it was directing me to was New York. I needed to order the Chong Qing dry-and-spicy chicken from Grand Sichuan and watch cable TV and sleep in my own bed that night, even if it was in a sublet that I’d have to vacate in another ten days.
On my first full day back, on the last weekend of the summer, I went to Central Park and sat on the rim of Bethesda Fountain, dangling my feet in the cool water and staring, dazed and spacey, at the angel with pigeons loitering on her outspread wings. I realized that I had been coming here for seven years now, that I was never going back to Baltimore. I walked up a path beside the lake to see if there were any chairs set up for ten-minute back massages, but instead I found a young violinist struggling to set up a rickety music stand in the wind. I sat down to wait for her to begin, because I saw that her sheet music was Bach, and that she was lovely, with shining brown hair to her waist and eyes like topaz.
When she started to play the prelude to Cello Suite no. 1, so familiar and beloved, hovering untouched just above sadness, something unexpected happened: the music split me open. I started to cry sitting there on the grass. It was my late friend John who had introduced me to Hilary Hahn’s recordings of these same suites, and I listened to the girl’s playing for most of an hour. When I went to drop a folded bill in her bag, my eyes were still full, and she seemed touched and flustered. I asked her whether she played in this spot often. She told me that it was her first day playing in the park. “I just moved here four days ago,” she explained.
“Welcome,” I said.
This article originally ran in Nerve’s True Stories.