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Bookshelf Project 2016: #2 The Colossus of New York

2016 January 31


I deviated a little bit from my original Bookshelf Project plan for this one, but New York’s been on my mind this week, so I decided I needed to read about it.

I picked up Colson Whitehead’s essay collection about New York City, The Colossus of New York, at a thrift store in Jamaica Plain this fall, during one of my parents’ weekend visits where we stroll up and down JP’s main drag, visiting the shops and getting ice cream.

I actually met Colson Whitehead once, at a reading at McNally Jackson, my favorite Manhattan bookstore. My husband, at the time, worked for Doubleday and introduced me. I told him I liked his shoes.

Tomorrow marks my second year anniversary of living in Boston, having left New York City and my life there in the rearview. I’ve been back a few times, but visiting is not the same as living there. Not by a long shot. In fact, I’m pretty sure the expression, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” was inspired by New York. That said, I still miss it sometimes. Or maybe I miss what my life was while I lived there. I’m not sure I can separate the two. Which is why I had to leave when it all changed.

It seemed fitting that just as I opened the book for the first time, on the orange line T platform on my way to work, I ran into a friend–someone I met in the two years since I moved back. It was a good reminder of all the things I love about living in Boston, and Jamaica Plain especially–frequently running into friends, a commute that’s 100% more pleasant than the one I had in New York, a place that feels more like a community and less like a juggernaut set on destroying you.

It sounds like I hated living in New York, but I didn’t. Not most of the time. It was only after I moved away that I appreciated what a toll the constant stress and anxiety had had on me. But even despite that grinding stress, it was also the happiest time of my life in many ways. But it becomes apparent reading Whitehead’s essays that most people who’ve lived in New York share this complicated love-hate relationship with the city.

The book is separated into 13 essays, each named after a different New York landmark: Central Park, the Port Authority, Times Square, Coney Island, rush hour. They’re short and written in a kind of scattered way, as though an omniscient narrator was looking down on the city and narrating the thoughts of every New Yorker as they went about their days and nights. Many of the lines had me nodding or shaking my head in recognition. From the long bus trips I used to take every other weekend (“Across three states the empty bottle of juice rolls up and down the bus between shoes and bags. No one claims ownership.”) to the dreaded subway commute (“It’s just a piece of candy wrapper but no one touches it for fear that it contains the world and so one empty seat on the crowded subway car.”) to the brutality of a rainy day (“Forming an attachment to an umbrella is the shortest route to heartbreak in this town.”) to a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (“Bronze plaques here and there maintain history. But nothing to commemorate the magic spots of people.”).

And that’s the most important point of the book–there is no one New York City. We all, visitors or residents or former residents, have our own version of the city. My version has lines of demarcation on the Valentino Pier in Red Hook, and the coffee shop on Henry Street that closed after we left, and the specific path I would take through Grand Central in the mornings to avoid the crowds, and how Times Square looked lit up that one night from the back of a taxi, and the spire of the church at the end of my block and how it was like a beacon of home from the BQE on those long drives home, and countless other corners and intersections and hallways that mean nothing to anyone else.

And sometimes it’s nice to stop and remember those places,even knowing you will never visit them again, even when the remembering is hard, because you knew those places once, and that’s enough.


4 Responses Post a comment
  1. meghan permalink
    January 31, 2016

    your last two paragraphs moved me to tears… i think we all have a place or places like that. some you can’t go back to for physical reasons, because they don’t exist anymore or are maybe just too off-the-beaten-path or across an ocean… some, maybe you can’t go back to because you’re not the same anymore and the people who were with you aren’t in your life anymore– so that even if you went back it would be like being somewhere different. great writing!

  2. January 31, 2016

    Great post, Jill—it’s a moving one. As I read it, I felt my own version of seeing moments from my past, receding like in a rearview mirror. I am nostalgic for your life in NYC too, because when I first moved here, your NYC was the one that I aspired to attain!

    But I think in some ways that particular NYC only existed for you–in a certain time in a certain place. Each year, the NYC I live in changes drastically. It’s an ephemeral psychological state, owning a tiny corner of the NYC you live in.

    Rock on, gal.


  3. Melissa permalink
    February 1, 2016

    So glad to see you posting again. I too, found this one very moving. I feel this way about many places, and as usual, your words capture those complex feelings so poignantly.

  4. February 1, 2016

    I love this post so much and feel like you really captured the magic, insanity, and all that is NYC so well.

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