Goodbye to Some Of That: Upon Leaving New York

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  T.S. Eliot

I spent half of my life trying to get to New York. I then spent a year trying to leave it, and I finally did. This is the story of why. Millions of other people could tell a similar story, but it would not be this story. It is the story of starting over, of courage to dare, of loneliness and loss, of vulnerability and limits that come with middle age. It is a story of New York, but it’s more importantly, the story New York allowed me to tell.

Leaving LA

Five years ago, I left Los Angeles because the City of Angels had become a city of ghosts that haunted me as I tried to create a new life. The cobwebs of a year- long unemployment, my mom’s unexpected death and the loss of work during the Great Recession hung around my neck like a mighty weight. I had lived my twenties in my thirties in LA, and it was time to grow up and focus on my career. I loved so much about California and Los Angeles, but I needed a new start.

There was one city that always had been present at the turning points of my life, and that city was the greatest of them all, New York City. I always had returned to New York like an old lover when I needed an expanded vision and a clearer sense of who I am. My instinct to leave LA for New York City turned out to be exactly the right decision. I loved it, and I shared that love with so many people who privileged me with their visit during these five years.

If I loved New York, and spent a lifetime getting there, what happened? I did love New York, and I always will as one secretly loves a lover whose time has passed. In short, I hit an expiration date on my passion for the city, and my tolerance for its foibles. Over a year ago, I realized that I was happier when I was away from New York than when I was in it. I was happier anywhere but New York, and that told me that it was time to leave.

If You Can Make It Here

My love affair with New York began as a teenager when a Greyhound bus first ushered me into its bustling streets and avenues, and I felt something come alive in me that I had never experienced anywhere else. My love for the city continued because I resonated with its “city that never sleeps” attitude. When I moved to New York, I still felt like a young man with a lot of energy and desire for the “work hard, play hard” ethic of New York. I was ready to work hard and create a new career based around lifestyle and professional goals. I pushed my professional schedule to the brink. I traveled to three countries, thirty states and countless cities forging this new career in learning and talent development. I worked 12 to 16 hours per day for five years. I have spent more time on flights than I ever dreamed. I barely slept in my own bed. My suitcase lay packed on the floor, ready for the next adventure.

The hard work and dreams paid off for me. I came to New York in 2012 with one major client. I am leaving with about ten, and they represent the most prestigious companies and organizations in America like JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, Blackrock, Deloitte, The Kennedy Center and BMW.

I worked hard, but I played hard too. I have come home in a taxi after a fun night on the town to see the sun coming up over Brooklyn. With the exception of Hamilton, I have seen every major play and musical on Broadway in these five years. I met an untold number of celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal, James Early Jones and Sigourney Weaver. I happened on Justin Bieber in the pouring rain one early morning in midtown while he prepared for a TV appearance. I watched mesmerized from the front row as Glenn Close and Alec Baldwin acted in dramatic roles just inches from me. I saw my childhood favorite Carol Burnett on stage. I sat on the second row as Beyonce danced and sang to perfection in front of me.

I was privileged to see Dame Helen Mirren perform as Queen Elizabeth. Martha Stewart even stared me down at a five star restaurant because I was wearing flip flops. I was in Central Park to welcome Pope Francis when he came to New York. A dream came true when I saw Meryl Streep at her movie premier for August Osage County. Willie Geist from Today and Morning Joe became an acquaintance, and I was honored to count producers and guests on those shows as friends. I stood in a New York hotel ballroom as Hillary Clinton celebrated her New York primary victory in 2016.

There were many times when I realized that I was living a life that I could never have imagined as a child in a small town in rural Tennessee. When I first visited New York in the heyday of Wall Street, I remember being entranced by the well-suited men and women, the black cars and the ambition. Last year, as I was on my way in the subway to my first day as a trainer at JP Morgan Chase, tears streamed down my face as I realized that the boy who once was so mesmerized by those on the Street was going to work there. That experience was repeated many times when I worked for numerous banks and finance companies. Just seven years ago, I was sitting alone and despondent in my Los Angeles apartment, having lost my job during the financial crisis and feeling that I would never work again. I came along ways baby.

I loved how life in New York could change on a whim because of someone I would meet unexpectedly in the most unusual of places – in a bar, on the subway, at a birthday party for a friend, or … as my server in a restaurant. It was on the night that I came terribly underdressed to a café in Greenwich Village – the night Martha Stewart gave me a once-over – that I met Troy. Troy was one of the best servers I have ever had, and we immediately developed a great chemistry. We swapped numbers after dinner, and my life changed on a … well, very large dime. Troy was a 25 year old athlete, model and server from Wisconsin who became a close friend. We watched sports together, shared great meals, went to church together, sang country music songs in the car, and we walked the Maine shoreline on a brisk June day. We have now both moved to new lives elsewhere in the country, but Troy healed something deep within me. I believe that may have been because Troy was the person I wish I could have been at 25: confident, smart, driven, athletic and cool. My journey back to California began over a brunch with Troy in Maine. I was expressing some frustrations with New York and my life, and Troy said, “You are always saying you wish you could change things in your life. Why don’t you just do it?” Troy lived by the message he preached, and so we both today are on opposite coasts living out the lives that we both choose. Rather than despair, I have tried to be grateful for the friendship we enjoyed because sometimes, as the Good Book says, we “entertain angels unaware”.

Three days before my birthday in 2013, I was hospitalized at NYU Langone Hospital. I was in Charlottesville, Virginia for work and took the day to visit the home of one of my historical heroes, Thomas Jefferson. I noticed that I was breathing hard, and I thought that perhaps my time away from New York for work had left me out of shape. I returned home on Friday night. I rode a Citi bike around NYC on Sunday to get back in shape, barely able to breathe and unknowingly pushing my heart to the point it could have failed. I booked a tour of Central Park for Monday morning, which I attempted to complete. As we walked up and down small hills in the park’s northern forest, I stopped over and over again to catch a breath. By the time the trip was complete, I knew something more dangerous was going on with my body. I called an Uber to take me to the ER at NYU, and my mother’s favorite bird, a red Cardinal, came and sat down on the fence in Central Park beside me as I waited.

With my mom’s presence assured, I knew everything would be ok. It was ultimately, but after I survived five blood clots in my lung and one in my leg. A taxi took me home after my $30,000 four day stay (the highest rent anyone ever paid in Murray Hill), and I collapsed on the bed in tears knowing that I had been on the brink of death, and by the grace of God and my mom’s presence, I had survived. From that point on, I knew that my life was more fragile than I ever had experienced before, and every day when I pop my blood thinner capsule, I am aware that the day is a gift of God.

I knew that NYC would require every bit of spiritual stamina I had, and I wanted to remain centered in my faith in such a city of so many distractions. I sought out a church home, but my first experiences were disappointing. I went to St. Thomas on 5th Avenue on Palm Sunday, and every usher was in a tux. I knew that was not for me. I visited the church of my childhood faith, but the preacher spoke for 45 minutes on the Greek translation of every word in the Sermon on the Mount, and I knew that too was not going to sustain me. I desired a place that transported me into the beauty and awe of God, and I found that most often in the Episcopal tradition with its music and liturgy that marched to an historically rooted cadence grounded in my British ancestry. It took a few weeks to find a church home where I felt a connection, but I knew that I was at the place for me when I walked through the church doors of St. Bart’s on Park Avenue, the church that historically included the Vanderbilt family. The rector was a Mississippian and a former Southern Baptist named Buddy, and I knew that St Bart’s was the place for me. I was invited to serve as a lay minister at the Eucharist, teach classes with the clergy and serve as a lector in the Sunday service. St. Bart’s is one part of my life in New York that I will miss most because it was the most stable and peaceful part.

For my first three years in New York, I lived in an amazing luxury high rise on 42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen. It had a stellar view of the New York skyline, and I watched with awe as the Freedom Tower was raised floor by floor until the lights came on and the doors opened on that architectural wonder that represented so much to New Yorkers and to America. I had a lovely Persian roommate who knew all of the city’s characters, and I met them all – from Amanda LaPour to the Naked Cowboy. There was never a boring moment. Because of my view, I always hosted the 4th of July party for my friends. During the 3rd year that I hosted the party, we waited anxiously for fireworks by my windows. They never came. Macy’s moved the barge to the East River, on the other side of the island, without sending me the memo. The party was a bust.

After three years of life at the intersection of luxury and crazy in Midtown Manhattan, I moved to the gorgeous Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens where brownstones, towereing trees and delicious food delighted my eyes. My UT friend Dawn rescued me from 42nd Street by allowing me to stay with her for a few weeks until I found a place in Brooklyn, and I am so glad that her hospitality brought me in that direction. Moving to Brooklyn was the best decision that I made in New York. I loved every bit of it. I’ve always been a bit of an hipster at heart (though unable to wear skinny jeans), loving farm to table food, craft beer and local artisans. I found a lovely place with a roommate named Kate. Kate was Ukrainian by birth, Brooklyn raised and owned two cats Mini and Smokey. I loved Kate, the cats and my place. A stroll through the neighborhood seemed like a lush park, and I felt like If finally was in a place where I could stay a while. In late July of 2016, I same home one to find that our entire deck had blown over to the roof of our neighbor, and it seemed to be a symbol that the party was over for us. Kate decided to move to Portugal and rent the entire apartment, requiring me to move again. This time, I knew my time in New York was over. I would not sign another year lease. I knew the time was coming, and now there it was. It was time to leave New York.

It’s Over When It’s Over

Along with gratitude for all that New York had brought to me, I also experienced a sense of failure in deciding to leave New York. Not in real terms, but I think there is always a temptation to feel one has failed when you have to leave New York. I still ask myself: “Couldn’t I have toughed it out? After all, ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere’, right?” Well, I made it almost five years, and that is more than I ever expected. I had experienced what I wanted to experience. I could not see myself making it home, and I was ready to move in an homeward direction. I was tired, exhausted by the pace, and desired peace and balance now more than the thirst for activity and ambition that once drew me to New York.

For one thing, I had too many acquaintances and friends in New York. That is a wonderful blessing to have, but I had no space in my life for my fitness, health, wellbeing or romance. Well, couldn’t I just cut out the social life and the attempt to seize the experience of the City? Perhaps, but it is difficult to do undo relationships and expectations that come along with them. It was not just the social obligations and the temptation to push myself that exhausted me. It was all of the ways that just existing in New York led to a low level anxiety that always seemed to be on the verge of an internal explosion.

The subway would leave the station just as I come down the steps towards it, and then I would have to wait for twenty minutes for the next train. My subway station would close unexpectedly, which I would discover at 2 am when I so badly need to pee and so eagerly desired my bed. The taxi drivers all go off duty in the midst of rush hour. Uber institutes a 200% increase in fares when it rains, and I badly would need to get to the meeting on time so I would pay it. I trudged through more cold black snowy sludge on streets than I care to remember. I carried heavy bags up and down long stairways at Penn Station and through subways because the escalators never work – if there are escalators. I walked four flights up stairs every night when I arrived home from work – and often with a 50 lb. bag of luggage from trips.

Leaving home without an umbrella for an important business meeting, and getting caught in a flood of rain that ruins my hair and douses my suit. The constant crush of people on the Manhattan streets or on the rush hour F train. The rude people who rush out of the plane in front of you at LaGuardia as if their schedule is more important than yours. Dirty streets, spoiled garbage, soiled subway seats, taxi drivers going off shift at rush hour. None of these things mattered a great deal in and of themselves, but it was their accumulation after five years that left me weary – and done.

When I came to New York for a weekend vacations prior to moving there, all of those things just seemed like First World problems that made New York charming in its own unique way. I thought I could live with those issues, and I did. But near the end of the fourth year, I began to realize that I could not live that way anymore. It was destroying my confidence, raising my blood pressure and stealing my joy. I had to admit it: I’m too old for this. And liberal urban gods forgive me, but I love a car.

I have never been to a city where I felt so alive and yet so alone, all at the same time. Everywhere I looked, the streets seemed to permeate with happy couples stealing a romantic kiss or holding hands as they paraded in front of me. It was hard to be single in a city where love and lust surrounded me.

As I made my way to church through the quiet streets on Sunday morning, I often felt what Johnny Cash described about that feeling of loneliness on a weekend morning in the city:

On a Sunday morning sidewalk,

I’m wishing Lord that I was stoned.

‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday

That makes the body feel alone.

And there’s nothing short of dying

That’s half as lonesome as the sound

Of the sleeping city sidewalk

And Sunday morning coming down.

It was not just external inconveniences or these lonely moments that led me to leave New York. More importantly, and more deeply, it was that I could never see it as home. I was a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps this is because I am southern by birth, and some of my Alabama accent clings to me despite decades away from the South. I could never imagine that I belonged in New York in the first place, or that I could stay. Wealthy Millennials who came from families of wealth in Westchester County, Long Island or Connecticut seemed to be everywhere I looked. Every fashion choice was well curated. They played lacrosse in college and ran 5 miles every day after work at 9 pm because they enjoyed it. Most of all, they seemed to all be the product of well matched parental genes that allowed them to enjoy naturally fit physiques, faces with a perfect jawbone and Ivy League intelligence. If you doubt this, and you really want to induce a sudden sense of loneliness and depression, just take a look at the Vows section of the Sunday New York Times – which, of course, I did weekly to induce further depression – and you’ll see all of the perfect couples with the perfect parents – all of whom seem to be the managing partner of a law firm in Connecticut or the founder of a hedge fund in Westchester.

Now, of course, I am a rational guy. And this surely does not represent the 16 million people who call New York home. There certainly are fat people, average people, homeless people, people who went to state schools, and people who grew up eating fried chicken and green beans with bacon grease like I did. But, being the human being that I am, these are not the people I would notice. The perfect people seemed to be all around me, and indeed I was privileged to have some of them as my friends. And, oh yea, they don’t have student loan payments either. Rent and Hamptons or Fire Island shares are their only expenses. And, by the way, can we all split the tab at dinner after one of these Privileged Ones orders three cocktails and a $60 bottle of wine? I have been privileged too in certain ways in my life, and I can hang with this. For about five minutes. Or five years. Then, when I lay my head on the pillow at night, or when I finally have a moment to reflect on a weekend by the lake, I realize that I will never be that skinny, that wealthy, that fashionable, that debt free, that smart or that hot. It’s too late.

But, more importantly, it is not who I am. Life and the universe did not create those possibilities for me. Perhaps others would be energized by such a challenge, and I have been at times. Perhaps others would work all the harder to show “them”. I tried that too. Perhaps I am weak, or paranoid, or not confident of my own traits – but I don’t want to live another day in a place where I feel like I can never truly be one of “them”. Yes, I should probably see a therapist.

Maybe all of these frustrations and comparisons and the disappointments should not matter, but it does matter when you start thinking about the place you want to put down your roots forever. As one writer said in her essay in the book Goodbye to All That New York City, “I love my New York, but I can’t succeed by its rules, and I can’t live within its limitations.” Somewhere in the recesses of my mind or in the deepest parts of my heart, I knew from the beginning of my time in New York that I would not remain there forever, and I knew it would never be home. I even kept a Tennessee drivers’ license the whole time I was in New York. Even while I jumped head long into the experience of New York like a fish entering the Hudson, California and Tennessee still seemed like home to me. As I leave New York, I don’t feel that saying goodbye is appropriate because I never really said hello.

In April of 2016, I took a personal retreat to St. Lucia and stayed in a guest house alone. I read, journaled, prayed, and took long walks on the beach. I knew it was time to make a change. I made an entry in my journal that the Caribbean sun and breezes reminded me that I needed to feel nature, sun and water again in my life. Those things heal me and refresh me at a deep place. By providence or luck, I received several California assignments in 2016, and on one of those assignments in San Francisco, a perceptive colleague said to me, “Todd, you are glowing. You look so happy.” She named it. I was at peace when I was away from New York, and joy returned when I could see the California hills, the palm trees sway in the breeze, and the blue water of the Pacific. Of course, anyone would feel happy in those conditions. But it wasn’t just California. I was happy in the New England snow, in the flat lands of Texas and in the dessert of Las Vegas. Anywhere but New York. When I realized that a different level of happiness was possible elsewhere, I knew it was time to leave New York.

I said hello to California fifteen years ago, and I was ready to reintroduce myself. I’m ready to be on the journey to a place that is home, or at least a place where I can cast a tent knowing that it is the right direction. That place for me may not be the Bay Area specifically, and perhaps that complete confidence of home can only be fully experienced in the heavenly country, but I know westward is home. I longed to be near redwoods, water and palm trees. I missed the beautiful light that exists only in California. I love the happy, friendly and healthy people. The state is clean, diverse and progressive. More than anything, I feel peaceful and whole when I am here. God being my helper, I will live and die in the west, and I sure hope it’s in the Golden State where I will lay my head.

I leave New York at the height of my career and when things are going extremely well overall. I leave with only the most positive of feelings and with gratitude to New York for being exactly what I needed it to be. But as Joan Didion once wrote in her famous essay about leaving New York, Goodbye to All That, I began to feel that “I had stayed too long at the Fair.” The fair was exciting for a while, but I came to the realization that perhaps this middle aged guy no longer wanted to live in a circus. A garden is where I want to be.

New York City has been one of the great lovers in my life, and perhaps the only one that mattered. New York has welcomed me at the times in my life when I most needed it. My aunt Josephine first took me to NYC as a senior in high school, and I would never forget the feeling of being in a place that so matched my desire to have and experience it all. I returned to its suburbs in college, and my trips into the city to experience art for the first time, to see excellent theater, and to eat the foods of lands far away gave me a breadth of vision and a love for culture that has never left me. My time at Princeton was the most formative years of my life theologically and intellectually, and it was the experience of NYC that would sharpen my ideas so that my faith and my life made sense in a global and urban world. I would return to NYC to see my best friend, and I always felt that there was a life in NYC that I wanted to experience while I was young – and I did. And when I needed to launch a new career and expand my client base, I knew New York was the place that would most stretch me and provide for me. It did – in spades. A piece of my heart will always belong to Gotham, and I am lucky to have work and clients that will still bring me back often. I have just returned from my first trip there as a visitor, and it felt so good to visit, and even better to leave.

The City by the Bay

He makes me lie down in green pastures

And leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul.

 As I finish this essay on a warm December morning in Oakland, a month after leaving New York, I look out my window to see the green California hills stretched out before me from Nob Hill to Palo Alto. The water glimmers off the Bay. The seagulls and pelicans soar in the wind outside my balcony. As it all is stretched out before me, I think on the last fifteen years, and where all I’ve been, and all of the journeys that have brought me thus far.

Life already feels more centered, peaceful and whole. I read, write and cook. I am enjoying my time alone, and with the good people who come my way. I go for long walks. I eat good food. I sleep a full 7 hours. I go for a walk at the lake. For the first time in fifteen years, I feel normal, rested and whole. And, thankfully, my clients came with me.

They say that wherever you go, there you are. And I am here. I am back in the state I left five years ago. But this time it seems different. I am different.

For the rest of my life, I can say that I was there in New York. And New York was there for me. I made it there.

Then I came home.

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