On Moving to New York in One’s Thirties

The first time I came to New York on my own, was on or slightly after my twentieth birthday, 03/17/2003. Historians will note that on or around that date marked the beginning of the long-awaited American-led invasion of Iraq, “operation shock and awe.” It felt gratuitously horrifying, and “the war” was lavishly splashed over every television screen, including some that had been wheeled out of nowhere seemingly just to display VT of embedded reporters on the front line. I was on a short-term exchange fellowship to Sarah Lawrence College, starting around that time. My loathing for Americans and America was intense, and I didn’t know why I was there. The night our contingent of exchange students arrived in Bronxville, a day or two before the bombing campaign escalated into carnage, the college had  organized an event, for some reason, entitled “Why Do They Hate Us? The Roots of Global Anti-Americanisms,” in which a French professor, a Middle Eastern Studies professor, a British studies professor, and a couple of others, offered some platitudes about the meanies around the world who did not find George Bush personally charming. Sarah Lawrence, I had been led to believe, was a left-oriented institution - while I was there, one of the faculty told me “this is the most benign place on earth, so the fact we’re all united against anti-Americanism means you know it’s a dangerous ideology.” Everybody was utterly deranged. A man named “Wolf Blitzer” was suddenly ubiquitous. 

I understood so little of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that it was hard for me to say anything about it. It still is, in some ways, but having lived in the United States most of my adult life I can confirm that there is a surprising amount of truth to an explanation I found utterly unsatisfying at the time: that the dominant American public culture is more at ease with itself when invading places. Only that sheer taste for death has endured as an explanation: the theory that the war was instigated by Kuwait appeared to my conspiratorial side, but I couldn’t quite land it; the idea that the purpose was to secure a cheaper oil pipeline seemed misguided, as it turned out to have been (the price of a barrel went up). And of course the three official explanations - 9/11, WMDs, and the threat to the Kurds - were all so conspicuously, almost deliberately, unconvincing, that nobody I knew took them seriously at all. Yet here was a group of Sarah Lawrence faculty, all of whom presumably thought of themselves as left wing, asking why everyone else hated them. It was just like, “you know absolutely nothing about yourselves. This is pathetic.” I spent most of the days in a dark room above “The Pub” (the Sarah Lawrence hang-out) examining this Blitzer character to see if he would corpse, and the nights drinking and getting fucked up with the students, who mostly did understand “why do they hate us so much” but didn’t care, or didn’t care to talk about it anyway. I watched porn for the first time, in a group: a movie called Edward Penishands, in which Nikki Sixx, the bassist from Mötley Crüe tucked each of his hands, while, into a dildo that had been constructed for the purpose, and adopted a listless, Deppish expression while fisting people with one or both of them. The camera seemed to love his face, I remember.

On or around my birthday, I went into the city for the first time. I was wearing skinny jeans (I was thin, then), a little glittery make-up, and a tight black crop top with a silver print of the silhouette of Brigitte Bardot, with the caption BARDOT. I had a discman and was listening to “Miss E... So Addictive” by Missy Elliott, repeat playing “Get Your Freak On.” I sashayed into the MOMA, the bhangra-inflected opening of the track rattling around my hips, and stood in front of that big Pollock canvas, shaking my skinny ass to the beat. I did this a couple more times: a few weeks later, I met an American friend from Oxford downtown, he took me to a gay bar in the village and I think we made out a bit. I only heard Missy Elliott. That same month, New York had introduced a smoking ban, which annoyed me, since I smoked a lot and thought about my immediate physical needs almost constantly. At some point I realized that American girls liked to kiss British boys, and that was fun too - I realized I had a kind of gift here that didn’t work back home. Some combination of rage, lust, and self-regard - I felt sexy in my jeans, with my art, and my freak on - and, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted sleepovers with porn and kissing with American girls, gay bars and kissing American boys, and art and music and rage rage rage rage rage. The feelings didn’t hang together, but when I left I was still not fully convinced that “Wolf Blitzer” was a real person’s name, let alone that real person’s name, that offbeat war-describer, obsessed with graphics and seemingly utterly unable to feel any sympathetic connection with those being battered, murdered, displaced, and vilified for, as far as I could see, no credible reason whatsoever.

When I got back to the UK I refused to wear shoes for - initially the plan was to do so “until all British troops have left Iraq, but I was talked back into wearing shoes again about a year later, after walking on broken glass in the street in East Oxford for the third or fourth time. It was a surreal protest of a surreal war. I wanted to be back in New York, more than anything. I wanted to live in New York, to kiss my way all over town. From the moment that I realized I couldn’t do so, I established a thousand defenses to accommodate the fact. When turning down a grad school place at NYU, it was easy to tell myself that the scene was toxic (which it was, as we all found out) and that I would move to New York after coursework at Penn (I didn’t). After that, and even more after moving to California, I became aware of the provincialism of New Yorkers, who seem to think that only they matter and only they are doing interesting work. Northern California, on the other hand, generously spread out its natural beauty all over, the light and landscape of the Bay Area are so available, and from so many different angles. I’m trying to avoid the settler mindset of “going west to find one’s peace,” but some version of that ideology definitely landed with me, all the most complexly since I didn’t have much choice about moving to California either - the job I took, and still have, was the only one I was offered. It’s a very good one, but I’ve never really chosen it, and I’ve not really chosen where to live since 2008 - I lived in Philadelphia because that’s where the grad program was, and then California because that’s where my job was. Now it’s back to New York, for reasons that aren’t connected with my job, and it feels like a choice. A big, dumb, good, necessary choice.

I do feel a bit belated here. I was speaking with a new friend the other day, who also moved to New York in her thirties (a few years ago now), and we were saying that so much of the idea of “moving to New York” has to do with scrabbling to achieve professional success and visibility, in ways that neither she nor I, at least, quite has to fight for in the ways we did a decade ago. I’m glad I don’t have to do that: it does seem brutal, and it does seem to produce a kind of insularity. I move to New York now and I have people who want to meet me, more even than when I moved to California - and I want to meet them, all of them, and have them all over and make eyes at them and listen to their fascinating opinions. I want to shake everyone’s hand and charm them like the brilliant twenty-six-year-old trans woman I never quite got to be. Though I wanted that more than anything. When I was twenty-six, and living in Philadelphia, I would come up to New York and stay with friends in Manhattan and they were all so fucking cool and happy. I had my first burrito at a probably-quite-mediocre burrito joint in the Lower East Side called Neighburrito, and it was the greatest thing I had ever tasted. I was rightly mocked for this. God, I wish I had transitioned by then.

FUCK, I wish I had transitioned a decade ago, or better two decades ago; FUCK I wish I hadn’t had to transition, and was just estrogenated and pussied from the get-go. All the surgeries I will have to have in New York City: I want them, but I’m scared. I learned from the same new friend that a lot of the hip lesbians have trans girlfriends these days. I assumed she meant trans masculine partners but no. Apparently trans girls are in now, which we weren’t a decade ago. Maybe I could have been cool a decade ago, or moved to New York, or figured out who I was or what I wanted, rather than indulge myself in a surreal protest against a surreal war happening within my own body. I’m afraid I acquired too many resentments to survive without recoil, and I’m afraid that if I write myself out of them, I’ll be left without desires or skills. Still, there are people, and work to do, and it has nothing to do with the mythology or the ideology of New York in the Seventies, in the end. Write the next sentence. Figure out the one after that. Write that. Fuck, eat, touch, love; be fucked, be eaten, be touched, be loved. Forgive, relinquish; be forgiven, be relinquished. I have been held and now my task is to hold others. 

Thank you to those who have reached out to say hi. Danny and I going to be doing an event to celebrate their book being published in a few weeks; I’ll have details of that in due course and hopefully see you there. xoxo