At first I feared it meant something when I landed in New York City at shift change hour, that hellacious five o’clock period when all the taxis go off duty and you can’t hail a cab for love or money. As I wandered along Third Avenue in the gathering darkness, walking first one way and than the other, I had a sinking realization: the shopfronts had changed so much I couldn’t tell if I was heading north or south. I was walking west along 14th street, or was it east? Down along 2nd avenue, or was it up? The East Village, ten years ago my beloved home, felt strange, crowded with young people clad in ironic outfits from the Salvation Army. I felt foreign, I felt lost. I felt like my hair was too clean. I felt old.
After 45 minutes of hunting for a cab, I finally made it to Brooklyn, where I described my Third Avenue disorientation to a friend. “New York is like riding a bicycle. You’ll get it back,” she told me. I didn’t believe her. After so many years away, I knew New York had moved on without me. At some point, I’d made a choice — Paris or New York? — and I’d chosen Paris. I still loved New York, city of my youthful literary dreams, the place that taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin, the town where I’d met my best friends and, eventually, my husband. But New York was no longer mine. I couldn’t claim it.
Though my knowledge of the city’s restaurants had once been encyclopedic, now I had to rely on the suggestions of friends. Thanks to them, I discovered new favorites like sweet Buvette, a petit salon de thé in the West Village that’s like a fresh-faced American au pair in Paris, where a friend and I lingered over a mushroom croque monsieur and pot of mint tea. I stopped by Dorie Greenspan’s tiny, elegant cookie boutique, Beurre and Sel, to buy Christmas pressies and one oversized world peace cookie just for me. I moaned over Momofuku Milk Bar’s crack pie, and their compost cookie, and the corn cookie, and the bacon-cream-cheese-stuffed bagel bomb, and marveled at their staff’s chirpy, sincerely friendly helpfulness. A friend and I waited over an hour for a table at Mission Chinese, but we were underwhelmed by their modish take on Chinese food — perhaps because we’d lived in Beijing too long, or maybe the food was too spicy, or probably we should have ordered more meat (though I agree with another friend who deemed bacon a “culinary crutch”). I loved madcap Eataly, like a three-ring circus of all the best Italian foods: sausages, and hams, and cheeses, oh my! And I lost my heart to Alimentari e Vineria — or, rather, to their spaghetti carbonara, the crisped guanciale, the al dente pasta, the warmth of black pepper seeping across the sauce of creamy egg yolks — I felt transported to Rome, which is, after all, what New York does best: transport. Or transform. Or maybe both.
And you know what? After a few days of meetings and meals and reunions a funny thing happened. Staying in an apartment exchange in the East Village, just blocks away from my first New York apartment, I kept running into someone I knew: Me. Perhaps the city had moved on but I realized that a part of me was still there, drinking coffee from an oversized cup on Avenue A, hustling onto the crosstown bus at rush hour, tucking into a dark bar to sip vodka gimlets. The memories of my twenties ran on a loop in my head: the nights — sometimes lonely — the days — sometimes hungover — the suffocation of August in Alphabet City, the neon sign of the burrito restaurant that I couldn’t afford, the corner at 13th and 2nd where my husband and I first kissed, the bar where we sat and watched the snow fall before making angels in Washington Square Park. Turn right and you’re heading east, left and you’re heading west. I knew it without thinking. I knew it like it was mine.
I felt so comfortable in New York that at first I was a little guilty, like I was cheating on Paris. But my husband — who joined me for a weekend of bagels, books and movies at Film Forum — reminded me that the two are not in competition. They are, rather, like the yin and yang, the two halves of my personality: the appreciation of lingering meals versus the part of me that craves a to do list and a pen to cross things off. Or perhaps that’s too penny Freud. Maybe they are just two cities I love, two sets of streets that I’ve strolled at 3am, two places soaked with so many memories that I will always know them and they will always know me. Two places on the list of places we call home, an open list that expands and grows.