(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Six. Day Five is here)
My favorite movie as a kid was “The Wizard of Oz.” I don’t know when it became my favorite movie. I simply came into consciousness so strongly identifying with Dorothy Gale that I insisted on a wardrobe of blue gingham pinafores and settings at the dinner table for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man (and occasionally a few munchkins). I sat in my upstairs bedroom and looked high above the chimney tops and sang “Somewhere of the Rainbow,” as if I might summon a storm to carry me away. And when my mother told how the mountains mostly kept out things like hurricanes and tornados as if to soothe me, I would think, so basically you’re telling me I can never get to Oz? That’s bullshit. Except I didn’t say bullshit, because I was four.
I knew there were better and easier ways to get to Oz. You could fly, for example. You could drive if necessary. Were I not confined to the barbaric wilderness of my hometown, I might even be able to take the train like a civilized person. Getting to Oz wasn’t as tricky as people imagined. It was getting Oz to let you stay there that was tough.
Indulgent adults would shake their heads at me, not sure whether they should gently correct tale or play along. “Where do you think Oz is?” they’d ask.
And I’d say, “New York City,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
My earliest memories date from the last call of the 1970s, an era in which New York was reportedly a dark, trash-strewn wasteland stalked by criminals and forsaken by all but its most steadfast defenders and stubborn resident lunatics. But my own private New York was some combination of Tin Pan Alley lyrics, the indifferent, half-feral luxury of “Eloise,” and the shabby, yet fundamentally good-natured world of “Sesame Street” and “The Wiz.” New York seemed like the kind of place where a girl could scandalize a fancy grandma at high tea, perform two matinees amid a sea of needle-shaped buildings with castles on top, take a turn under a disco ball or two, and then return home to a crowded, congenial tenement next door to a giant, neurotic pigeon and a sentient trash-heap that liked to sing songs about imaginary friends. It sounded, in a word, heavenly.
My father had clients in New York; my parents often traveled there. I’d watch them leave with anguish. Take me with you. Don’t you know even my dreams are architectural? These vast cityscapes with spired skyscrapers and gargoyles, art deco arches and domes. My hometown was defined entirely by its relationship to Gilded Age New York, a scenic corner of Appalachia colonized by Robber Barons and built in their image by the same architects and artists that designed some of Manhattan’s greatest monuments to ego. Was it any wonder it felt as if I were already halfway there?
My friends all talked about DisneyWorld. I could not give a shit about DisneyWorld. I wanted to see Central Park at dusk. I wanted to walk down Broadway. I wanted to stand at Grand Central Station and watch the world on their way to their way. I wanted to Take the A Train. I wanted to linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty and let my little town blues melt away. Ideally forever.
My parents said, One day, I promise, when you’re old enough.
I knew I was born old enough. I went to fancy church with Dad on Easter Sunday and asked God to deliver me from my drab provincial existence send me to New York, ideally in technicolor. I repeated this when I visited friends’ churches and temples in the event that God didn’t actually listen to Episcopalians. I wished on stars. I talked to ancestors. I crawled into my closet in my childhood bedroom and scratched out in in the inch-wide plaster hollow between doorframe and wall, PLEASE LET MET GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK over and over again in red ink.
A few days after my eleventh birthday, my mother crept up to my door after she tucked my sister in and gave the series of winks an hand signals I knew to mean, your father and I have something to discuss with you downstairs that is too mature for your sister to handle, so try to get downstairs without waking her. My stomach sank. I tried to figure out which of my parents had been diagnosed cancer or filed for divorce or lost their job or was secretly on the run from the mob. It was possible an elderly relative had died. I hoped it wasn’t one that I liked.
I shuffled down the stairs on the verge of tears and wound my way through the dim downstairs to the den at the back of the house, where my parents looked confusingly chipper. So probably not a brain tumor. I might have even asked who died, and they told me to sit. This is not bad news. They had a present for me, one they couldn’t give me at the party. And she pulled a plane ticket from the cushion behind her and put it in my hand.
Passenger: Alison Fields
Destination: New York, New York
Reader: I cried.
Here’s what I remember from that first trip:
We skipped the Statue of Liberty and headed straight for the Algonquin, where I petted the lobby cat and drank a Shirley Temple while my parents had a scotch and fought about whether Mom’s new dress was sublime(her) or ridiculous (him). I tea-ed at the Plaza. I got stuck in an elevator on the 13th floor even, which was terrifying in the moment, but made the getting out wholly exhilarating. I watched the ice skaters at Rockefeller center and took a carriage ride in the park. I went to Broadway, to a terrible musical and walked way in front of my parents who walked much too slow, and totally freaked out Mom, because I was skipping euphorically past the pimps and prostitutes and peep shows of Old Times Square, oblivious to what was going on around me because TIMES SQUARE. I went to the Met and communed with the mummies. I observed the ornate skyline alone Central Park West. Mom wore high heels. Dad refused to hail a cab. I ate escargot. I went to FAO Schwartz, even though I thought I was too old for toys. We rode downtown with a driver in mirrored glasses who took us past the Chelsea Hotel and tried to tell a story about about a magical lobster in broken English. I stood in the center of Grand Central Station, breathless, while something like half of the known world walked by on their way to their way. New York exceeded even my most elaborate New York dreams in its very New Yorkness. I don’t know that I have ever been so satisfied.
Mom’s favorite thing to visit in New York is fancy department stores. On that first trip, we went to several of them. She bought me a dress at Bloomingdale’s. It was a hot pink, teal-flecked, drop-waisted jersey thing, sleeveless with a polo color, meant to be worn under a matching sweatshirt. The whole ensemble was hideous in a very particular, dark-heart-of-1987 way that, like mall bangs and multiple pairs of contrasting slouch socks, should never be revived.
I would tell you that I wore the dress until the dress wore out, but this is not true. Fashion, especially Juniors Department fashion, changes quickly and dramatically. So do adolescents. Twelve-year-old me wouldn’t have been caught dead in what eleven-year old me thought was awesome. And thirteen-year-old me? By then, she was on a whole other trip. Still, I kept the dress until we moved. I imagined if I closed my eyes and sniffed hard enough I could still make out the trashy, expensive, polluted, overwhelming, opulent, grotesque, lonely, crowded, marvelous stink of Manhattan in the seams. And I would think, my future
So, I don’t live in New York.
I never have.
Childhood me would be so horrified, but she couldn’t have anticipated the false starts, the small failures, the ways life tends to curve in and around on itself and about half the time put you right back to where you thought you’d ever end up.
Sometimes I can’t decide if not going at twenty-five when everyone thought I should was the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done or the most practical.
I suspect I’m too old to go now. Sometimes I flatter myself by thinking it’s still a practical thing or some righteous decision, like, it’s my moral duty to stay in the South and not be the Southerner they expect to be. Sometimes I think it’s a romantic impediment, like I don’t want the City become ordinary and unexceptional, and perhaps if I lived there it would. Most of the time I think I’m still a coward, because it’s comfortable here, and it wouldn’t be there, and I’m less poetic about failure than I used to be. And I’ve had enough unrequited love affairs to last two lifetimes.
New York is not the city it was when I was eleven, nor is it the city I imagined I’d live in throughout most of my young adult life. It is, however, a place full of people and things I love and visit regularly enough that I pretend I’m not a tourist–sometimes even convincingly. I like to sit on the Brooklyn waterfront and stare at the towers across the East River, like I’m Dorothy seeing the Emerald City for the first time. And it never fails to lull me into reverie as assuredly as a field of magic poppies, even if it’s hot as hell or freezing cold and I’m surrounded by crowds and clamor, which is invariably the case. And I always think, this dumb, over-priced, over-hyped, messy, ugly, capricious, uncomfortable place that does not need or want me, that I am in no way rich enough to afford, this is probably my favorite place on earth.
Then, like Dorothy, I always seem to click my heels and come home.
Five days ago, drunk on overpriced cocktails, I sat in my best friend’s apartment in Brooklyn and she posed a hypothetical, if you had plenty of money and you had to live in a place, and it was the only place you could live, where would it be?
I hemmed and hawed. I told her I wanted to think about it. I made arguments for all sorts of places on multiple continents. I knew better than to answer honestly, at least not with any desire. Who was I? Some rube? But I didn’t really have to say anything. She knew me well enough to know that it is now, always, and ever New York City.