Sometimes, Love Changes

I’ve been back in DC for almost two weeks, and it has been a mixed bag of wonderful, painful, and bizarre.

I’ll start with the wonderful: quiet. Moving from Spanish Harlem to “Mt. Vernon Triangle” (which I contend is a made-up name for the neighborhood just north of Chinatown) has allowed my ears the best rest from music blaring from cars ripping down the street and people who feel the need to scream randomly while they’re just outside my window. I slept so soundly our first few nights, I didn’t even realize that I still had boxes to unpack. That’s peace, baby.

At the same time, our neighborhood is actually quite lively. It’s a gentrified enclave (and we didn’t help gentrify it like we did Spanish Harlem – “Mt. Vernon Triangle” was that way already, starting maybe seven or eight years ago) with lots of restaurants and bars, so there’s lots of things to do, or at least to eat and drink. But it’s still so quiet, so it’s the perfect combination!

Now, the painful: last Sunday, the week before Christmas, my spouse and I went to our old church in the morning, then went to brunch. When we got home, I was really sleepy, so I took a nap on the couch, and upon waking, had the WORST migraine in the history of the world. I’ve had headaches before, but I don’t know what the hell that was. I couldn’t even eat the Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup my spouse prepped for me because the kitchen light was too bright and made me nauseous. I still felt headachy the next day, and unstable the next day, leading me to think I had a concussion (I’d bumped my head pretty hard in NY, on the day we left). It took another day or two for me to feel like myself. This was definitely not the way I imagined starting off my new life in DC.

Which leads us to the bizarre: DC changed a lot in the past four years (#thanksObama). While many of the changes are good (the city has gotten safer, better lit, etc), real estate prices are unacceptably high and the amount of development is utterly ridiculous. We drove past the Southwest Wharf, where you could see the Potomac from the street and, though the neighborhood was a little run down, it was beautiful; now, three massive apartment/condo buildings are under construction that will block any pre-existing aquatic views.

Gentrification in action: the Southwest Wharf, majorly under construction. (photo from http://www.swtlqtc.com)

This is definitely not the DC I fell in love with in March 2002, when I visited with my 11th grade class. For the past week, I’ve struggled with feelings that I no longer belong in my home, my Washington, DC. I’m now a writer, a profession that’s a dime-a-dozen in New York but makes me different here. I don’t work for an NGO, solving the world’s problems. I don’t work for a company that does consulting for the federal government. I don’t work for the federal government. I tell stories, namely my own, in memoir, and I feel like an oddball. To make matters worse, my spouse and I are Black in a city that’s increasingly less so; diversity is definitely going out the window with each new apartment building that goes up. And we can’t afford to rent an apartment in the neighborhoods we used to hang out in because we refuse to spend that much on rent (though that was definitely the same in NY).

So, basically, the city I love has evolved. When my spouse and I chose to move back, it implied that we would go with that evolution. I, of all people, know that sometimes, love changes, and that can be good thing, as long as everyone involved becomes better. I was definitely prepared to embrace DC’s changes before I got here, but actually being here has made me hesitant. Maybe the excruciating pain from the migraine scared me: I wondered if it was some sort of omen. But I keep telling myself not to be afraid. “Just enjoy the peace and quiet, and make your city home again.”

Advertisements

Honey, I’m home!

I’m still settling in from my move back to Washington, DC, which happened over the weekend. The boxes have died down, but I’m still trying to get my head on straight, so no post from me today. I’ll have a special Christmas post next week. See you then!

Goodbye, NY!

The view from the Skylark bar in Midtown

I have lived a dream.

For the past three years, I have lived in New York City, a dream for so many people. I’ve never seen another location idolized in television and movies as much as New York. So many of my friends told me that they wanted to move there, and after I moved, they were jealous that I actually did. I would shrug, wondering what the big whoop was.

My heart belonged to Washington, DC, with whom I’d fallen in love as a 16-year-old who was born in the North, desperate to get out of small Southern towns. In college and after it, I traveled to some of the biggest cities in the world: London, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Beijing, Barcelona. But I always came back to Washington filled with longing for its short buildings and clean, quiet streets.

My then-fiancé and I were in graduate school in DC when we got engaged. Planning the future together for real this time, he said that he’d be interested in doing corporate law for a while for the experience and to pay down his student loans. That would likely mean moving to New York. I’d visited New York several times and had great fun with my friends who lived there. I had never felt the burning desire to actually live there, but I figured that it was a city like any other, so I could do it if he wanted to. I told him I could do New York or DC.

But I wasn’t serious. I didn’t want to leave DC. In my mind, I married DC on Saturday, August 23, 2003, when I moved into my freshman dorm at Georgetown. I’d cheated on my city with flings with Paris and Rome in 2006, but Washington forgave me for those and allowed me to remain friends with them.

New York held the promise of one thing for me: Nora Ephron. The writer of many books and movies, including You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron is one of my writing role models. She had such a way of making the ordinary extraordinary and crafting stories about ordinary people into the greatest tales. I wanted to see her in person. She lived on the Upper West Side, so when we decided to move to New York, I was thrilled that she and I would live in the same town. She was the only celebrity I ever actually looked for in the city, but I never saw her. Unfortunately, she passed away in the summer 2012, before I moved to the city full-time, and this broke my heart into a thousand little pieces.

My husband moved to New York in fall 2012, while I was in my second year of business school. We traipsed up and down 95 on DC-to-NYC buses, switching places every other weekend for the remainder of the school year. It was a luxury to live in two places at one time. I was Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair; “I keep an apartment there,” I could say of New York at networking events in DC, and vice versa. But paying rent in two of the most expensive cities in the country quickly lost whatever luster it may have had. I moved to the city full-time in May 2013, after graduating with my MBA. I was set on working in finance, so New York only made sense, although one can find investment management jobs nearly anywhere in the world.

Even though I no longer had the promise of maybe seeing Nora Ephron, I was filled with hope that my husband and I would be beacons of light, shining in the ‘hood of East Harlem. We walked down the street holding hands, 3D models of Black Love for all the kids to see and hopefully one day emulate. I volunteered at a food bank around the corner from our place, literally serving my neighbors because it was the right thing to do as a member of the community.

But, soon enough, the city began to wear on us. My husband worked 20+ hour days, which is standard at white shoe law firms in NYC. The heat in our apartment didn’t always work, and our building manager only offered Band-Aid fixes rather than overhauling the whole HVAC system, which was necessary for it to function properly. I realized that I couldn’t walk down the street without looking down the whole time, lest I step in dog shit. The 6 train frequently ran erratically, making me late for work on multiple occasions. Once on the train, a lady stuck her finger down her throat and vomited in front of all of us passengers; I called out sick because my stomach wouldn’t stop turning after witnessing that.

Our taxes steadily increased over the years, as did the homeless population, which the local government seemed more interested in talking about than actually helping. People constantly stood in front of the doors of the subway trains, even as people were trying to board and exit, which is inconsiderate all around. Some of the business relationships my husband and I tried to develop into actual friendships refused to blossom unless we could make the other person money.

I found myself asking myself, “Why do people want to live here so badly?”

I wish I could say that this essay turns magically positive, as almost all articles about New York inevitably do: “Even though it was tough, I loved it and it loved me, and I never want to live anywhere else.”

But it doesn’t.

To me, New York City is a gorgeous, wealthy man who, when he asks you out, you’re ecstatic about. After all, he’s NEW YORK – everyone wants him and he asked YOU out! But then you realize that, although he is hot and rich, he is the most unstable person you have ever encountered. He is abusive, he is greedy, and he is insecure. He doesn’t really know who he is, so he says that he’s the greatest person on the face of the planet.

Suddenly, it’s not so endearing when he hits you. It’s no longer cute when he leaves you waiting, knowing that you have somewhere important to be. It’s not funny when he drunkenly urinates on your shoes.

What I’m saying is, the picture of New York that so many people idolize is not real.

I was sad to see that so many people crave living here because they think whatever important happening here will rub off on them. It doesn’t. New York is a city like any other. Yes, there are celebrities here, and TV shows and movies are filmed here. Those things are great, but they don’t make this town or its inhabitants worth any more than any other place in the world. Unhappy people who live here are just as unhappy as unhappy people in Topeka, Kansas. Actually, New Yorkers are probably unhappier because they pay, like, 50x the rent.

I’m not saying that everyone who lives in New York has delusions of grandeur. Some people do awesome work here, serving the disenfranchised or creating beautiful art or making markets to keep the economy running. I am grateful that my husband and I had our time here. We made great friends, went to an awesome church, had great jobs (except for me; my work experience really sucked), and saw some incredibly talented people perform in Broadway shows. I unexpectedly met Esperanza Spalding, my favorite singer ever, in a basement jazz club in the Village one night, and that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I will miss the Francophone tourists laden with designer shopping bags on 5th Avenue. I will miss the community of writers I have only recently come to belong to. I will miss the pizza, the deliciously fattening thin pizza.

But I am ready to go home. I’m ready to get back to DC, where the buildings, like the men, are short, and no one takes themselves too seriously. (And, no, politicians don’t actually live in DC, and real Washingtonians don’t take those people seriously.) I’m ready for clean, quiet streets and a subway system that is transparent about not functioning properly. While I am livid that I have to share my city with a horrible man in the White House, I take comfort in knowing that time will push him out, back to New York, where he belongs.

I will still visit New York and re-live fond memories of Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts, autumn walks in Central Park, and Easter brunches in the Village. I will always miss that I never encountered Nora Ephron on the Upper West Side. But for now, it’s time to go home, and I could not be happier.

An Excerpt from “Daughter of the Most High: A Memoir”

I’ve been terribly under the weather for the past week, so in addition to not getting a lot of writing done, I had only super random thoughts. I thought about doing a post on “What writers think about when they’re sick,” but I thought an excerpt from my memoir currently in progress, Daughter of the Most High, would be vastly more interesting. This is the first excerpt that I have shared outside of my classes at Gotham Writers Workshop. For the most part, I am writing the story using the voice of the age that I am at the time. Here, I am five, and the year is 1990/91. This scene takes place in Camden, New Jersey, where I was born and where my parents and I lived with my maternal grandmother (Nana) for a short while after we had moved back to NJ from Rhode Island. Enjoy!

One Sunday, when I was five, Mommy told me that I was going to church with Daddy that day. We didn’t normally go to church with Daddy. Sometimes, I went to the Catholic church around the corner with Nana, but she didn’t go all the time since she said she thought people were looking at her and thinking she was ugly. I knew Daddy’s church wasn’t like the Catholic church, but I couldn’t really remember his church in Rhode Island. Maybe it would be like Reverend Rueben’s church on Amen. Daddy went to the church on the corner, a half block from Nana’s house. It had one of those cross-shaped signs with the words “Jesus saves” going through the stakes. From my height, I always read it as “Jesus Aves,” and guessed that the intersection of Princess and Bradley Avenues were His.

I put on my white lacy party dress and buckled my black Mary Janes. Mommy brushed my hair into tiny ponytails and put barrettes at the ends. Nana went through some trash bags in the closet under the stairs. She pulled out a little white purse and gave it to me, along with a dollar. She said it was for the offering.

Daddy and me walked down to the church. We got there early. The service hadn’t started yet and only a few people were there. Daddy introduced me to a lady and told me to sit next to her. She was younger than I thought she would be, since I figured only old people got to church early. She had brown skin like me and more than one chin.

“You’re Brother Al’s baby!” she said. “You look just like him!”

I still didn’t believe people when they said that. How could a little girl look like an old man? I smiled at her like I did to everyone who said it.

Daddy went to the front of the church and sat behind the drum set, while two boys who looked the same age as Kimi picked up some other instruments. A tall lady came out and did the singing while they played the instruments. She held a microphone, but she didn’t need one at all. She was so loud, she hurt my ears. I covered them while I watched.

But it was exciting! The lady next to me clapped her hands, and it made the skin on her arms jump around. This wasn’t like when I went to the Catholic church with Nana. There wasn’t any clapping or happy music there. We just stood up and sat down when the nuns did. I clapped my hands, too, and swayed my head to the beat. It was almost like being on Amen! Daddy saw me and smiled. When they were done, he came over to me.

“And that was just rehearsal!” He said. “Wait for the service. It’s gonna be packed in here!”

I didn’t know what rehearsal meant. Before I could ask, someone called him away to help with something. He told me to sit still because the service would start soon. I sat back in my chair and waited for the seats to fill up. It would be exciting when more people came in. They would sing and clap, too, and it would be like a big show.

A few people came in. The pastor welcomed everyone, and Daddy and the boys played and the woman sang the same songs all over again. I clapped and looked around, wondering where all the people were. It wasn’t as fun the second time. Where were all the people Daddy said would be there? They never came.

When it was time for the offering, I opened my little purse. I wondered if I should keep the dollar. I could buy two whole candy bars with a dollar, a Snickers and a Hershey bar. And Pop-Pop would get me more candy, too. But what if Nana saw the candy and asked me where I got the money? The dollar was why gave me the purse. It was pretty with my dress and was like what one of the rich ladies on Dynasty would wear. I took the dollar out and threw it into the offering plate when it came to me.

The big lady told me that there was a service just for kids downstairs, in the cellar. If it was for church for kids, then Daddy would definitely want me to go, I thought. I put my purse on my shoulder and took her hand so she could lead me to it. The boys who played the instruments with Daddy were sitting at a long table with an older girl, but no one else was there. The big lady left me there and went back upstairs to the service.

I sat at the table. My Mary Janes dangled in the air since they couldn’t touch the floor yet.  The girl helped us make a craft and helped us memorize a Bible verse. The craft didn’t even use glue or popsicle sticks. We just folded up paper. It was stupid. When we were done, we all went back upstairs.

“She’s Brother Al’s baby,” the big lady told the woman standing next to her when she saw me. “Doesn’t she look just like him?”

“Ohhh,” the woman smiled at me. “Yes, she does!”

I looked around for Daddy. When I saw him, I walked over to him and tapped his leg.  Daddy introduced me to the pastor. I hid behind Daddy’s legs because I didn’t know the man, who was tall and very dark skinned. Daddy told me that he had to stay back, but I could go back to Nana’s house. I looked up at him.

“I can?” I said, confused. I got a spanking for going off the porch for Halloween without telling Mommy. I didn’t want to get another one for walking home without Daddy.

“Yeah,” Daddy said. “Just go straight there.” He laughed. “Nobody’s going to take you between here and there, like your mom thinks.”

I shrugged and said, “Okay,” like I didn’t believe him.

I walked out of the church, and down the street. I thought about how I didn’t want to go to that church again. No one came, and they sang the same songs over again, and the craft didn’t use glue. And I could get in trouble for walking home without Daddy.

At Nana’s house, the door was unlocked. I left myself in. Head down, I walked straight to the stairs without saying anything to Mommy and Nana, who were sitting in the living room.

“How was it, Netta?” Mommy asked.

I turned on the stair to face her direction. “Too stupid to be true,” I said.

I kept up the stairs to my room while Mommy and Nana burst into laughter. Mommy told Daddy what I said later, and he thought I meant it as a good thing. Will Smith used “stupid” to mean “cool” on The Fresh Prince sometimes, so I couldn’t completely blame him for getting confused.