Walking home from dinner last night I was reminded of my enormous, embarrassing crush on New York City, and the peculiar ways in which New York is different from the West I grew up in.
One of those ways is that back in California, I’d never refer to anything as “the West” unless I was talking about capital-W Western Civilization; on the other hand, God knows I haven’t referred to this blurry lump of tiny states and good seafood as the East Coast since I moved. Here in New York, though, the West is not so much a clear picture of California-Oregon-Washington-Nevada as a vague dream of deserts and long winding roads, skies that stretch on forever, endless sunshine and, like, cowboys.
This despite never having lived in that kind of West, and this despite knowing very well that kind of West hasn’t existed for over a century, if it ever existed at all. Growing up in a place tends to make your ideas of that place very small and specific; I can tell you every minute difference between Oakland and Berkeley and Hayward and San Ramon right down to the average weather, but when someone here asks where I’m from, I’ll say “Oh, Bay Area,” shrug, smile, let it go.
Living somewhere is like looking at it through the lens of a camera; it’ll focus to the smallest detail wherever you’re looking, and the background is just a blur. Move the camera somewhere else, and the place that you used to understand so well dissolves into pixels.
And then there’s the thin line between that pixellated, flattened version of the place and the easy self-identification that comes with the two-dimensionality. People from the San Francisco Bay Area are all left-wing gay hippies with a fondness for pot, yeah? Well, I am a left-wing hippie, even if I’m only half gay (and a little too squeamish for pot). Go on, make your assumptions– it’s simpler that way.
Or take an incident about six weeks ago, when I was trying to get to class in the snow. I fractured my ankle in late January and I’ve been on crutches ever since; the gloves I was wearing were giving me blisters on my hands, which is a pain at the best of times and downright debilitating when you’re bearing your entire weight on them.
So, after a frustrating encounter with Public Safety’s car service and a moment of fairly overwhelming despair (and physical pain) I more or less burst into tears in the lobby of my own dorm, like I hadn’t done since I was nine. At which point the staff of my dorm, like the heroes they are, came to my aid and hailed a taxi for me (and even offered to pay for it); at which point, climbing into the taxi, the man who’d hailed it for me said, “Well, good thing you’re in New York, huh? You gonna be tough!”
Which was, after a long and exhausting and awful week, more or less a revelation. I was on crutches, but I was on crutches in New York; New Yorkers were tough; I might be tough, I could be tough. I was tough. Yeah.
After which I had a very Empowering Movie Montage!! day, during which I reminded myself multiple times that I was in New York, and if I’d gone to UC San Diego like I’d planned I wouldn’t be in New York, and New Yorkers were tough, and I was tough. (More or less discounting the fact that if I’d gone to UC San Diego, the sledding accident that fractured my ankle probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s far more empowering to be Tough Through Injury!! than to have not gotten injured in the first place.)
So that’s how the West was lost, or at least how the West lost me; and as it fades into blurry pixellation in my memory, the day comes nearer and nearer when someone will ask me where I’m from and I’ll say “New York.” They say you can’t go home again; but you can go home for the first time, and home will come soon enough.