I think now I can call this a tradition, or at least a habit – every spring since I moved to New York I’ve reread Joan Didion’s clincher essay “Goodbye to All That,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. For the uninitiated, this piece is her big adios to the part of her life in which she was young in the big city. Now I’ve also reread “Goodbye to All That,” during certain dramatic Novembers, or skimmed it on a subway in some negligible season…but my big close-reading, the meat of the exercise, always happens in spring. Now I’m still very very green, but each year I seem to get a special kick out of seeing what eighteen and nineteen year old Brittany circled and so found true in this text. I’ve marginalia’d all over my copy, I guess hoping to impress some older self with whatever “Eighteen and candlelight, Union Square, May 17th” could have involved. I actually already don’t remember.
So again – and fair warning, this will get smug – “Goodbye to All That,” begins with Joan Didion getting off a plane at old Idlewild and noticing “[that] the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct.” She proceeds to traipse about New York with all the unflagging gumption she calls definitive of a young transplant. She goes to parties (until she starts noticing that there is never anyone new at these parties, and many of them seem to end “sitting in a lot of apartments with a slight headache about five o’clock in the morning”). She puts up bunches of gold silk in her windows, in lieu of curtains. She worries about money, but curiously “feels like she could always get it” through sheer ingenuity, if the need really arose. She kills afternoons with Bloody Mary’s and good company, feeling no guilt. But most of all she walks the world figuring “it would cost something, sooner or later…but when you are twenty two and twenty-three you figure you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.”
Go figure why I cling to these eight pages like a goblin: it’s me. She’s talking about me! Me and my friends and the things we do and feel and fear. Sometimes I worry I’m seeking a direct life/lifestyle confirmation in everything I like to read or watch (though really, aren’t we all?) and maybe this kind of mapping is not the most empathic or “good” way to understand art…but then I find Joan Didion, perfectly bottling the truth of all my recent afternoons and evenings so perfectly it is surreal to me, and reading suddenly is that perfect conversation the author’s always hunting. The contact has been made. I feel recognized, named and un-alone. Even if I got here (here is city AND mindspace) second. After the fact. Even if I got specifically here in no small way because of this other woman’s book, this other woman’s particular dream.
I’m really talking about the first few times I read “Goodbye to All That” – in Union Square and dorm rooms and late at night between deadlines, on the subway coming home from the party. I’d go to this essay like comfort food. It was like she was encouraging me with her hitting-the-nail-on-the-head; I especially held on to those descriptions of bohemian-feeling poverty and delusional ambition. Everything in this city was romantic and new then, wholly the mirage I’d planned on and followed since twelve. And to younger J and slightly-younger me, there was the pervading sense that any and all problems would ultimately right themselves. Even if we both secretly knew this was a naïve way to think, it also felt perfectly reasonable to be optimistic. Or at least, it was entirely un-dangerous.
Yet take heed, sailors, future selves: in these earliest readings of the essay I was patently missing the boat. I did not get it. I missed the punchline. On only slightly further scrutiny, “Goodbye to All That,” is not quite an ode to kid culture so much as a kind of cautionary tale, which all people older than twenty should be able to see plain. The point is that the just-off-the-jet-and-bright-eyed-n’-bushy-tailed-ness erodes for Joan, it is subsumed by Manhattan. The poverty wears on her, the people wear on her, and in the end she leaves the city she loves for her husband, and Los Angeles. There is a heartbreak to her leaving that I used to look at as somehow giving up, but now I begin to think differently. For we all get older, and we all give things up.
I’m moving into phase two. Intermediate comprehension of what it is to see certain far-away-feeling-abstracts become immediate fact (friends getting married) and certain glamour and magic made mundane (Times Square). It isn’t all the way sad, because it was always inevitable. It’s also intertwined with getting older, which has its benefits (TBD…) This, I begin to see, is the point in time when a few of us are nosing around for greener pastures. If not other cities, amendments to the dream itself – some people I know who used to loudly and horribly introduce themselves as actors and filmmakers and writers at the bar (pfft what fools these mortals be) are instead muttering their maybe-plans for higher higher education, but only when pressed. There is no more ego about working at a desk, as health insurance and job security are what to covet. We all still go out to those parties and expect to find strangers but it is true, the ‘new faces’ thing is a mega-myth. It’s actually very hard to meet people here in a meaningful way, despite the ten million.
But April 9th was the most beautiful day of the year so far in bonny New York; I know because I spent it primarily outdoors. Spent it squinting in a summer dress and drinking on a few different rooftops. I wrote the whole shebang down after the fact, I actually used the phrase ‘feeling to bottle.’ By sunset my face hurt from smiling all those hours. The company was aces, and occasionally strange and new. A frenchman bought me and another Adelphean a round of mimosas after being briefly enchanted by her opinions on Proust. The gentleman friend let me sit on the only empty stool at the bar above Berry Park, moved his head back and forth so I wouldn’t go blind from the sun. There was an excess of burrs in McCarren Park and my new shoes pinched my feet, but mostly Utopia. Gratitude. This winter was so long. Winters seem to get longer and longer. But maybe Scarlet O’Hara logic can yet start to replace whatever undiluted goofiness was enough to get me to the big apple, to start my engine: the weight of the task may increase, but tomorrow is always another day. And heck, it might be the MOST BEAUTIFUL one. (Might be.)
I know not everyone gets so rooted to a place or even an age; rolling stones they roll. Like slightly-older Joan, I spend a lot of time these days worrying about the price of a lot of my present and recent naivete, and lately what might be an inflated sense of ‘Old Soul’ disease. Just because I’ve read this one essay so many times and can imagine my own Joan-like revelation, the moment when I’ll realize that “not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it”…I know I’m still not all the way to understanding. It’s sometimes hard to live in the middle space between feeling the permission of being but a just-recent-kid and the grave responsibility of a sentient, confident adult. Mostly, I don’t want to come off a dick. Mostly, I want to write on a sunny fire escape and befriend lit-loving Frenchmen. Mostly, I want to lean all day on the arm of that new person I managed to find. Some days I want to go to grad school, some days I want to get a haircut, some days I want to be an actor, some days I’d do anything for a few hundred dollars. Of many things, I’m uncertain. A lot of trivia makes me stressed. But I do know one thing, so far: here is home. Chunks of glittery backdrop may keep raining down on my pretty little head as dream bits shatter, like they should. I may say goodbye to lots and lots of things. But I don’t think New York. Not anytime soon.*
*Let us check back in five years. “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.”