How to leave New York
Taken on our last night in our apartment in the McKibben Lofts.
Last night I finished watching How To with John Wilson on HBOMax. Produced by Nathan for You’s Nathan Fielder, the show’s six episodes are brilliant collages of meticulously pieced together footage documenting life in New York through moments that range from the comedic to the absurd to the disturbing.
My friend told me the show might make me homesick, so it took me awhile to get around to watching it. I have avoided other media for similar reasons: I had to take a break from watching the transcendent comedy High Maintenance, a slightly idealized but nonetheless extremely accurate vision of the kinds of people I knew and things I did in the eight years I lived in Brooklyn.
Unlike High Maintenance, which presents a Brooklyn that’s just a little more sparkling and less disgusting than I remember it, How To is a kaleidoscope of both the ugly and beautiful experiences that make the city what it is: rats burrowing in a mound of garbage on the street, the moment you step in a slush puddle you thought was sidewalk, a cryptic, half disappearing sign. The texture of New York life—in which every day is brings new mystery, discomfort, joy and difficulty—is what makes living in the city both so challenging and so special.
I didn’t leave New York on purpose. My partner had to return to Australia, and after six months separated we decided that it would be easiest for me to join him there while we worked out what to do next. That was over two and a half years ago. I expected to be back home by now, but the pandemic and a variety of other events intervened. Now, I’m not sure if I can go back. The US is such a shitshow, it’s hard to imagine voluntarily returning. How do you give up socialized health care and four weeks of paid vacation time to go back to a barely functioning plague state?
Even though it’s located in a country I’ve lost hope in, I miss New York more than I’ve ever missed anything. It sometimes manifests as a physical ache, other times an emptiness that’s feels too deep to navigate. And though missing my friends, the wider community I had there, and the endless art and culture the city offers is a major aspect of this grief, watching How To made me realize that the quotidian experience of living city itself was just as precious to me.
Sunset over the cement factory.
My life in Melbourne is objectively easier and more comfortable than my life in Brooklyn. We have a car. We live a two minute walk from a park, on a cute tree-lined street dotted with Victorian houses. We have a washing machine and dryer in our house. The pace of life is slower here, much less hectic. But I often feel lost in all that space and time. Things are too orderly, too regulated. There’s too much room and too few people. The incessant stimulation and novelty of New York matched the anxiety inside my head—I found it paradoxically soothing to live amid chaos. Now, my thoughts spiral out into the void, with no bizarre subway encounter or narrowly missed pothole to shock me back into the moment.
My deepest fear in leaving New York was that when I returned, it would no longer feel like home. When the pandemic struck, I was bereft, believing this had come to pass. How could the city ever return to its former self? Whenever I’m able to go back to the States (which could be another year from now) will I even recognize what I left behind? I have to hope that the underlying spirit of the city is still intact, even after all that has happened since I left.
I know I’m different now too. Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous to even consider going back, giving up the security and comfort of living here. Whatever we do, watching Wilson’s show reminded me that the city’s rhythm still lives inside me. For now, that’s enough.