You’re hard-pressed to find any Italians in Little Italy, which as we all know is just a differently decorated part of Chinatown where the most spoken language is actually Spanish and nobody seems to understand how sidewalks work. But there’s a beaten tin café on Mulberry Street where an old Italian man boxes up cheesecakes and ties them with looped twine, and I learned early on it was cash only, and to buy the ones with fruit on top because they’re the same price as plain, and that it’s quietest near midnight when everyone figures it would be closed by now. And I’ve never seen Italy, and I doubt I ever will, but when you’re in this little café and the only lights are dim street lamps and you haven’t heard English in miles, and you’ve brought a visiting friend or a sister or a mother and you’ve got all night to chat, it’s only the distinctly New York excellence of that cheesecake that reminds you where you are. It feels like anyplace and this exact place; Mulberry Street’s Mulberry Streetness is its ability to make you feel like you’re in Shanghai and Rome at the same time. I like things that are both and if New York is anything, it is both: it is both the world in one place, and unlike anyplace else in the world; it is both an enormous and anonymous metropolis, and a small town with repeated streets and faces. It is both Italy and China on that street, and that café is both a tourist trap and an old family business.
All of that is what I’ve come to find really enchanting about New York City. And I never thought I’d have a chance to write that sentence. I spent New York missing London and anticipating Buenos Aires and if that doesn’t describe my whole problem right now I don’t know what does. But there’s nothing to be done about it, really. I did what I needed to do to survive this place.
And I will say that New York grew on me in the end. I don’t mind that it was too late, I figure that’s every second love’s destiny even if they may have deserved better. I’ve seen this in movie after movie: after the love of your life isn’t around anymore, you just get mad at the next person to come along for not being them. I missed a lot of what’s uniquely good about New York because I was so disappointed in it for not being London, and it couldn’t help that. I know that now, and I know other people will go on to be happy with New York, and I’ll figure out where I’m meant to be in time. But New York put up with me in the meantime and there’s a great deal more to be said for that than anyone tends to realize, in places and in people. This may be the only opportunity any writer has to call New York City patient. I’ll be damned: it was patient with me.
Going to that café for the last time was one of many, many goodbyes I said yesterday. I’ve come to really hate that word, goodbye. We use it so rarely in English, much like we so rarely use adiós in Spanish. It’s so rare that finality feels appropriate. And yet when you move every four months, like I do, you’re constantly finding yourself saying it.
I said goodbye to my parish yesterday morning. It’s a little like going off to school for the first time. That’s what they’ve been preparing you for, you know, but surely you’re still too little to go out there on your own, surely you can stay back just a little bit longer…you’re not ready! And then you go, and you’re fine, of course. We all are. But that’s the second time I’ve said goodbye to a parish now, and it’s hard to explain what a sadness that is. In a faith that relies greatly on stability and community, perpetual uprooting is the hardest thing.
The priest said to me today, we are going to miss you. It’s always touching to hear, but it reminds me of when I was in first grade and my friend’s family had been reassigned to a naval base across the country. I told my mom I was going to miss her, and she said that’s true, but just think: you’re only losing her. She’s losing everybody she knows here. My mom was right and I didn’t know just how right until I was the one crossing countries and losing everybodies. I enter into and vanish from people’s lives very quickly these days, but the fact remains that I am in the singular and they are in the plural. Even so, I gain so much from knowing all of them, these eclectic New Yorkers, these colorful Londoners, that I can only bring myself to lament their absence for a little while. It’s their presence that mattered, and it’s with me every time I pray, for in London they convinced me such a thing was worth it and in New York they taught me how.
I said many other goodbyes over these past few days that I don’t even know how to write about. Classmates, campus, favorite restaurants, the bagel boy I won’t marry after all, book club, the soccer café, the ragtag scholars, every last street of lower Manhattan. I don’t know how to express what it’s like to watch your sense of place disintegrate in front of you. All college students experience this transience to some extent, really, I’ve just got it in spades. I am learning to live with my greatest flaw, being rooted in this restlessness. If there is one thing I don’t worry about it’s detachment. I’ve been very consciously aware during these goodbyes that I will likely not see many of these people ever again and that is no casual thing for me. I miss people fiercely that I’ve only met a few times, and I’ve forgotten people I grew up with. Time doesn’t dictate connections for me. It can’t. I have so little of it anymore.
New York is going to be a strange memory, though, I admit. I didn’t get to know all these New Yorkers well enough to miss them acutely and individually, but as a collective I’ll miss them very much, and maybe place is just an aggregation of those little connections, maybe New York was just an exercise in slow and constant addition, until time goes by and multiplies everything by zero. We’ll find out, I suppose.
With New York as with so many people and places these days, the timing wasn’t right. The timing is never right when you move every four months and you fall as hard for places, and people, as I do. I was dreaming of a different island this whole time, and everybody around me knew it. So when I go home this time, and people ask me how I liked New York, I won’t give them that disgusted face anymore, that speech about how tired and busy it made me. I would have been like that anyway. I’ll tell them what I’ve come to know is the truth, that I don’t really know, but I learned a lot. And that was the point, after all.