Although you’d never know it by looking at me in my minivan, the soul of a city girl lurks beneath my suburban life.
Over the course of 16 years in my 20s and 30s, I lived in four of the five boroughs of New York City (sorry, Queens). In seven different apartments. I got my first real job there. I lived my dating life as a single girl there (though Carrie Bradshaw, I was not). I witnessed 9/11 there. I was engaged there. Got married there. Had two children there.
I loved New York. Really, truly loved it. But the time came, after two kids and very limited space, to leave it behind. For the suburbs. My husband swears you can still see claw marks at the entrance to the Jersey-bound Lincoln Tunnel from the day we moved.
It has been four and a half years since the moving van was unloaded at our house. Many days, it’s like we never had that other life of subways and taxis and bodegas and laundromats. I can barely remember it. Until I go back, like I did last Sunday.
We went to visit my sister and her boyfriend in Brooklyn, and our older two kids had a fabulous aunt & uncle date with them at the museum. It was about 60 degrees outside, the sun was shining and the foliage was gorgeous. My husband and I had the baby in the stroller with about 90 free minutes until we had to meet up with everyone for brunch. We walked and walked, stealing glimpses of our former life there. The one that seemed both like a million years ago and like yesterday.
I lived in Brooklyn just as it was about to be cool to do so. But back then, we all wanted to live in Manhattan, and Brooklyn was more of an obligatory step on the budget ladder to get there (I had already done my time in Staten Island and a brief stint in the Bronx). The first place I shared in Brooklyn was on an amazing, tree-lined street near Grand Army Plaza, which was beautiful and majestic and almost European. Even on our tiny budget, we had a real two-bedroom, a modest kitchen, living space and a roof deck with a neck-craning-small-slice-view of Manhattan. When the owners told my roommate and me that they were selling the place and we’d have to move, we were heartbroken. They suggested, that as two (very) young professionals, we try to buy it as an investment.
“BUT HOW CAN WE BUY AN APARTMENT THAT COSTS $120,000? WHO THE HELL HAS THAT KIND OF MONEY?”
Yeah, perspective and time change things, don’t they? Had I known anything at all about anything at all back then, I would have found a way to borrow the down payment. Because I’m pretty sure that apartment is worth well north of a million dollars now. Where the hell was HGTV in 1998?
There were other apartments, too.
The one on the Upper East Side with the person-I-never-met-before-turned-roommate, where we found strange, fly-by-night companies whose sole purpose was to build temporary walls so that you could divide already-small bedrooms into two or three more. Like highly overpriced residential cubicles.
The one in Murray Hill where I lived alone for the first time, up until a certain pug moved in. Where I learned that anything labeled “rent-stabilized” has that designation for a reason. The kitchen window facing a wall in an alley comes to mind, as does the need to use my oven as makeshift clothing storage.
The one on the Upper West Side where my husband and I lived just after we got engaged. It had a tiny kitchen that allowed you to be simultaneously touching all of the appliances at once and a spiral staircase that, two years later, I could no longer navigate at eight months pregnant.
And yet, I miss all of it. Less so now, but intensely for a while after we left. Mostly, I missed this:
- Walking. More specifically, not needing a car. Of course, I can walk in the suburbs — it’s permitted — but the car is usually the more realistic option. And along with that comes the endless in-and-out-of-the-car seats nonsense that makes me just a little more insane every day. (“Are you buckled in yet? Are you!!??”)
- Anonymity. In the city, there wasn’t any small talk or chit-chat with strangers. And that was fine by me. I’m not anti-social, but I’m terrible with small talk. It was perfectly acceptable to stand in your building’s lobby and stare straight ahead while waiting for the elevator. I did have some very sweet, older widows who lived on my floor, and it was nice that they stopped to check in on me when I was very pregnant (though there was a certain “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe that I tried not to overblow) — but they stayed largely out of my business. I’ve since had to re-learn social graces like inviting someone in when they knock on my door. The week we moved into our house, several families stopped by with trays of cookies and cakes to welcome us. It was so, so nice, but if I’m being honest, it freaked me out a bit. I just wasn’t used to it. And, in full disclosure, I remember wondering if I’d have to bake every time someone moved into the neighborhood. (Turns out that a bottle of wine says “welcome” just as well.)
- Quick errands. At times, I miss the corner bodega more than I can express. Like when I just need one easy ingredient to finish a recipe. No problem — I’ll just walk to the corner and…nevermind. Now it’s back in the car, finding parking, going through the whole big grocery store as my children take down most of the inventory and wear me down until I purchase at least 28 additional items — usually in full view of a local teacher or school administrator. Small talk follows. Nothing is quick here.
- Restaurants with liquor licenses. Now we’re really getting into it: The culture shock of the whole BYOB phenomenon. I know that, in many respects, it’s better that you have to bring your own booze to restaurants. It’s cheaper. You get what you want. There are many upsides. Except when you live in my marriage, where neither of us ever remembers that this is part of going out to dinner in our town. And then what — a dry meal? Let’s not be ridiculous. It’s instead this: “You run, as fast as you fucking can, to that wine store around the corner, before they close — quick!! — and I’ll find an appetizer on the menu* to order for you. Go! Now! Run!” (*Translation: an appetizer of my choosing so that I can enjoy half of it).
Perhaps I’m romanticizing my city days. Maybe it wasn’t all so wonderful. And maybe there were some big reasons for our move, after all.
- Lack of living space. Do me a favor. Take your hand and open it up as far as you can. Look at it closely. That was about the size of my bathroom in my last apartment. For a family of four.
- The Sunday night parking dance. You could pretty much bet large sums of cash that, after returning from any weekend trip with the kids, the dog and all of our stuff, it would be raining, sleeting or snowing. And so ensued the divide-and-conquer approach to unloading a family from the car into a 13th-floor apartment in 56 easy steps. After circling for parking for approximately 45 minutes to no avail, we gave in an double-parked, where a game of Beat the Parking Ticket began. One of us would stay with the car to ensure we weren’t ticketed, while the other would unload everything/everyone in about nine trips. This, incidentally, was a great substitute for traditional cardio.
- Being accosted by crazies. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of nutters in suburbia — but they are often disguised in yoga pants. The New York crazies really put it all out there and get up in your face. It’s been awhile since an amateur preacher screamed in my face about the end of days or my sinning ways. Or a one-armed ukulele player spit at my feet for not giving him my half-eaten soup. I don’t miss that so much. If I want crazy, I know plenty of people I can call.
- Planning for the higher education of a child in utero. Pre-school lotteries and interviews — with college-sized tuition bills to match. No thanks. If I told you what I paid in day care costs for two small children in the city…I can’t even think about it. In fact, I had to tell the day care place that I was pregnant with my second child before most of my relatives knew — so that she could have a spot the next year. For day care. Not Harvard. Not even private kindergarten. Day care. Anyway, I felt like I won the lottery when I was reminded that my property taxes in the suburbs cover the cost of a very good public school system. Now I can keep up my Starbucks habit.
But, still. New York will always be my first geographic love. And it’s true that I like my life in the suburbs for many reasons, but on days like that spectacularly sunny Sunday in Brooklyn, I do mourn the death of my city life. Central Park. The West Village. Delicious food at all hours. The energy and the diversity.
It was my other life, before the one I have now with a minivan and a snow blower and a distinct lack of brunch options. When I knew, without hesitation, which restaurant to recommend in which neighborhood and my innate urban compass could point me to the right subway station exit without thinking twice. And I was wistful as hell about it during that Sunday visit. What had we left behind? Would we ever be able to move back, or was it forever in our past? Would our kids ever know the city the way that we once had?
And then we saw it. A family pulling up to the curb, double parked and exasperated, unloading their three kids, their dog and their piles of bags and belongings from a weekend away — a good 19 minutes away from getting everything into their apartment.
And then I thought about that tiny, tiny bathroom we had. The windows that didn’t really close all the way. That not-so-occasional rat running out in front of you on the street. The navigation of the double stroller through the endless winter. The day care tuition bill.
And I knew that my heart would always belong to both the city and to suburbia. Because a girl can have more than one great love, right?