I Left My Troubled City Behind. Now I Feel Guilty.
Updated: Sep 15
My adult son, worried about my health, urged me to flee. But New York doesn’t let go easily.
I didn’t want to leave the city.
If the thought had entered my head in early March, I wasn’t aware of it. But CNN, The Times and NPR were in agreement: New York would be the next epicenter of the pandemic. Neighbors suddenly crowded the hallway with packed valises for “weekend” trips to their summer places. Even friends in Europe, New York-lovers all, were nervously Skyping me about my plans.
But it was a late-night phone call from my son that did it. He urged me to get out with an authority that I hadn’t heard before. In a split second, the generations had shifted, and the 30-something was in charge. I’m in my 70s. It was the first time I truly felt old.
I knew that I was joining an exodus of the privileged. David, one of the porters in my building, looked at me wistfully the morning I left. “Don’t desert us!” he said, only half-kidding. David’s neighborhood in the Bronx would probably be a lot harder hit than the Upper West Side.
But the worry in my son’s voice was unavoidable; like it or not, I was part of the high-risk group that would soon be filling hospital beds around the city.
It has been two months since I fled. I’m living an hour north of the city in the most luxurious hide-out any fugitive could desire. My ex-wife and her husband invited me to hunker down in a large, light-filled room that she uses as a painting studio; they couldn’t be more generous. It may not be the strangest ménage a trois in these strange times. As my daughter says, “It’s a divorced child’s dream: all three loving parents under one roof.”
But I miss the city, deeply. As a native New Yorker, I’ve never been away from it for this long. I miss the comfort of the absolutely familiar — knowing that my college friend lives in the building across the street, my cousin directly across the Park, and that my feet can find their way to the diner even in my sleep.
I try to give my hosts the privacy that they deserve. After our years together, Lone, my ex, knows my habits: there’s a good supply of dark chocolate in the house.
Otherwise all is unfamiliar. Out here I’m like a baby rattling the bars of his crib, frustrated that he hasn’t learned to walk. The other day I had to get something from the Walgreens down the hill. I lost my way and came puffing back. I felt like my brain was saying, You’re not where you’re supposed to be.
Like so many New Yorkers, I’ve been lured by other cities, but always realized in my gut that I couldn’t leave. Manhattan’s claustrophobic grid drew me to Paris’s winding streets. Skyrocketing rents made me yearn to live in a cheaper but no less intellectually stimulating city like Berlin. Los Angeles seemed so wildly eccentric that maybe it was a place to start a new life.
And then there were the rural settings that made the pollution and daily costs of the city seem absurd, even offensive. Yet all the other places seemed unreal. For better or worse, New York is my reality.
I’m not the only one. I had a friend who hadn’t stepped off Manhattan Island in 30 years. “You can have the rest of the world,” he’d say. “If it even exists.” Which is a strange thing to say, since historic buildings are torn down in the city at the drop of a developer’s checkbook. By the age of 30, most native New Yorkers have begun to realize that the city where they grew up doesn’t exist anymore, except in their imaginations.
But it’s right there in the individual imagination where the real New York resides. There are as many invisible networks — geographical, empathetic, practical — as there are people in the city. These networks take patience and cunning to construct, and in a real sense are the city dweller’s major achievement, his way of carving out of the chaos a small, personal sense of order. Only with a network can one track down the best physiotherapist or computer repair-person, know where to get real Danish butter or a decent egg-cream.
At first it was the anonymity of the city that drew me down from the Bronx, where I grew up, to Manhattan, where I could reinvent myself. I had my Bohemian Period, my Bourgeois Period, the Desert Island Phase, where almost everybody I knew left for the suburbs.
But being away from New York for this long makes me aware that the web of human connections that took me decades to construct — Rosa and Ivanka, the motherly waitresses at the coffee shop; Ivan the pharmacist, who fills my prescriptions without being asked; Diane, a homeless woman on 96th Street, whose witty stories of urban survival are testimonies to her resilience — has kept me warm in what could sometimes be a cold setting.
After I left in March, I pored over news accounts of exhausted health care workers and grilled my friends who had stayed behind to get a sense of how New York had changed. I envied the 7 p.m. orchestras of clappers and pot-bangers. I fantasized about taking hikes from one end of a becalmed Manhattan to the other the way I did on Sundays when I was a boy.
But I’ve also felt guilty. Not about finding a safe shelter — as far as I can see, it was the wisest move for all concerned — but about having to leave my friends and neighbors.
Now I want to reclaim my citizenship, which at its deepest level means caring about other people.
I should be sitting in my overstuffed one-bedroom, worrying as ambulances scream by, or nodding a restrained thanks to police and firefighters as I walk past their twin stations on 100th Street. I should be cracking jokes with David and the other porters in my building, and joining neighbors in the lobby to mourn when an elderly resident dies.
New York’s reputation for being tough and unsentimental is well-earned; connections between people are tenuous, provisional. But in a time like this, it becomes clear that we’re united by emotions that, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy aside, are not usually touted in New York: helplessness, fear, bravery, self-sacrifice.
The other day I spoke on the phone with a dear friend who works in the city for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I told her that I was feeling guilty about leaving New York even though I wasn’t sure that the city needed my guilt.
“Oh, but we do,” she said with practiced New York irony, “we definitely do.”
Originally Published in the New York Times and on NYTimes.com