Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nostalgia

I've been reading, and enjoying, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. So many of the essays capture the excitement of coming to a big city--the big city, whose landmarks are iconic--when young and ambitious and starry-eyed.

I know that excitement. I moved to a big city (though not NY) at the age of seventeen. I lived in one-room apartments with mice and roaches. I lived with burglar bars on the windows. I lived with car alarms going off at all hours. I walked over sidewalks littered with the aquamarine glass of broken car windows. I scrounged for quarters to do my laundry. I had a gas stove whose pilot lights sometimes blinked out, making me an obsessive flame-checker. I lived in gorgeous old houses that had been chopped up into apartments, in rooms with fancy ceramic tiles and glass doorknobs and carved molding (and leaky ceilings and questionable furnaces).

For those of us who lived that way for a while, when we were young, there's an inescapable nostalgia about those years. Those were the years we were paying our dues; we didn't mind paying our dues because we thought we would get something back, eventually. Those were the years when we were young enough to go without sleep, unattached enough not to mind working late or traveling on weekends or living in one room. Those were the years when we told ourselves everything was fodder for art, and the grit and the grunge had a glamour to it, and we could write about it someday.

One thing that surprises me a little about Goodbye to All That is the nostalgia for New York's more crime-ridden days. I suppose it is only another shade of the nostalgia I just described. But my fondness for my own grittier days doesn't extend that far. The truth is, I still find nothing romantic in having been burglarized (as I was), or hearing a coworker's story of being held up for pocket change, or seeing a former boyfriend's scar from a stabbing he survived. I eventually moved into an apartment with a front desk and a doorman not because I cared about status or having a fancy address, but just because I didn't want to be beaten up in my own halls, and I could finally afford a safer neighborhood.

But the nostalgia for danger may be just, at least partly, that we love things the way they were when we were young. How we found places is how they "ought" to be. The essayists who loved the NY of the 1970s find the city's current incarnation to be too sterile, too safe. But Anne Rivers Siddons, in her essay, "I Don't Like New York in June,"* was horrified by that same 1960s-1970s New York. She longed for the late-1950s New York of her own youth: champagne, tweed suits, "mist-haloed streetlights," buying a key ring at Tiffany's.

Many of us fall in love with the places we live when we first go out on our own, the places we live when all our options are still on the table. We are alive to every detail around us. The people who come later can't possibly know what it was like back then; they can't know the real essence of this place; they don't know what they're missing.


*from the collection John Chancellor Makes Me Cry

2 comments:

  1. This post is incredibly beautiful, Jennifer. I read it twice. I think I reach back into my memory a lot when I write. Many nostalgic things make it into my books, it seems. Not that anybody but me know where they are, but it's all good.

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    1. Thank you!
      I think of the late teens and early twenties (the "new adult" years) as especially powerful this way; they are years about which we are likely to be nostalgic. And we're often nostalgic even for the tough times.

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