Thanksgiving in Palm Springs, again: dinner at my father’s friends’ house on the edge of town. Outside, a rented table and chairs near the pool which was lit with colored lights. Over the fence, the mountains in the distance. Twenty, twenty-five people, family and friends. After dinner the straight people went inside to watch the game on the big flat screen hung over the fireplace. Seven gay men, myself included, stuck it out by the pool. The sun slipped behind the mountains, and Terry found fleece jackets for us as the desert air turned cool. Three couples, all in their forties and fifties and sixties, and me. Someone told a story of a road trip that two of the couples had taken together last year, on which they played a card game fashioned after Truth or Dare: how many sexual partners have you had?
“Um, twenty,” Steve had said.
“Fifty?” said Craig, thinking back.
Allen cleared his throat. “A thousand.”
All heads turned. Peter, Allen’s partner, was driving, and the car drifted towards the shoulder. “Excuse me?”
By the pool, in Palm Springs, everyone began offering, again, their own sexual mathematics. I looked over at my father, who hadn’t been on the road trip. He looked back, and at the same moment we said, “I don’t want to know.”
Over those three days I interviewed him and his partner on tape, five hours total. Later, after dinner, we headed to the movie theater for Capote, which I had just seen in New York. Half-way through, around the time that Capote decides to sell his interview subjects down river for the sake of art, for the sake of his book, I glanced over at my father and his partner and thought, “Why the fuck, of all the movies open, did I bring them here?”
As we’re leaving the theater his partner turned to us and said, of Truman, “What a piece of shit.”
Christmas in Indiana. The hotel room was about twice the size of my apartment.
My grandmother is now 88 and weighs 82 pounds. Sitting together in the living room, I ask her what kind of kid my father was. She thinks for a moment. “You know how he has a bit of wander-lust?” I nod. “Well it started early. He wandered away so many times that we finally put a harness on him, and tied him to the clothesline in the backyard.” Later, going through some photo albums, we find one of him, three years old, sitting on the grass in the backyard of their home in Gas City, Indiana. Over his t-shirt he wears a harness, and a leash trails off behind him. “That didn’t last long,” she said. “He took his clothes off, came around to the front door, and asked me if I had any cookies.”
Among the photo albums is a stack of papers: someone had done our family tree; it went back into the 1800’s. This is how I come to find that I am related, distantly, to homesteaders, and to people named Jimmy and Beulah Lee Turnipseed.
The last six weeks of the semester I became obsessed with San Francisco. Images interrupted my day, certain views I knew well: the Marin headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, the houses on the hills from my bedroom window, the Castro Theater marquee from the museum parking lot at the end of my street. I daydreamed about my old car, my foot on the accelerator, driving somewhere, anywhere on my own volition, somewhere out of the city, surrounded by the colors green and blue, mist, air smelling of sea. Walking down sidewalks that I shared with a couple dozen people, rather than a couple of thousand. And light: through my bedroom window, through the skylights of Gold’s Gym. I dreamed about space, and light, and the sight of green things blooming all year. I pulled on my parka and slipped into the crowds on Broadway, and remembered the sound of fog dripping from the eucalyptus trees on my old block.
I began to feel like an animal in a zoo, and spent most of my time in my apartment, just recovering from the onslaught of New York. Everyone knows this is a hard city. And people who live here strike that bargain because they get something back from the things the city offers. I began to realize that I didn’t really care so much about those things. I didn’t want to go out to bars and clubs and cool restaurants all the time. I like the museums and plays, and the readings. I saw Joan Didion read twice here. But neither meant as much to me as the book she had written. And what did it matter where I read it? What if, at heart, I’m one of those people who say it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there…
I’ve been struggling here since day one. Struggling to stay on top of everything, struggling with my depression, struggling to find some kind of balance. I know that grad school is part of the problem, and most of my friends here have said that if I just waited till after school ended, and maybe moved downtown someplace, then I would really come to love New York.
I try to imagine an ideal New York life, with an amazing apartment in a great part of town, with enough money to take part in everything, but it still doesn’t solve the essential problems for me of living here: having to share the sidewalks and the subways with millions and millions of people, all of us in each other’s way. Weather (gross summers, cold winters) that drives you inside for much of the year. The difficulty of getting out of town without some major planning.
After Christmas Bearbait picked me up from the airport in San Francisco, and dropped me off on my little dead-end street on the hill. And when I stood on the sidewalk outside my old apartment, all I could hear was the wind through the trees, and I breathed in the smell of damp eucalyptus leaves, and that moment mattered more to me than just about anything I’d done in New York.
I can have that apartment back. My ex, who took over my room, isn’t getting along so well with my old roommate, and told me he’s ready to move on. The roommate misses me. And I saw that I had a one-of-a-kind deal there: a great big apartment on the side of a hill, on a quiet street that always has parking, surrounded by trees, with views from all three floors of the houses on the hills above the Castro, for only five hundred bucks a month, far far less than what I am paying for my dark little studio here in Manhattan.
And though it stormed the entire week I was home, I didn’t care. I sat in the living room looking out at that view, the rain falling across the hills. It took me moving to New York to understand how important a certain balance of city and nature was to me. I never would have thought of myself as a nature boy, but so be it. I loved living in a city where I could hop in my car, and within an hour be at Mount Tam, the Marin headlands, Stinson Beach.
Even with men, I realized that I was becoming more attracted to guys who had some ability to survive out in the wilderness, rather than men who knew the hottest drag queens on the Lower East Side. I don’t really care where you bought your couch, but if you can read a compass, you’re a hottie.
There are less than 800,000 people in the city of San Francisco, a small fraction of New York’s population. And for the first time I saw this as a tremendous asset. I had breathing room, empty spaces, quiet sidewalks, sleepy, foggy streets to drive home with the windshield wipers on low.
I’ve had friends argue that one can live in New York and vacation in these quieter places to recover. I’d rather do the opposite: live in a quieter place, and visit the more rambunctious places.
I would sacrifice some things by leaving New York: some valuable friendships; a greater, truer diversity; an incredible cultural vibrancy. Most of all I could lose out on some professional contacts. But I’ve made a few already, the internet has come a long ways in helping writers stay connected, and though there may be more opportunities for writers, there are also a hell of a lot more writers here competing for them. I’m not convinced that I need to live here to make it as a writer. Most writers, after all, don’t live in New York. I’m going to have to work a little harder to make those connections from San Francisco. But at least I’d have the energy to do so, rather than spending my days recovering.
Most important is the sense of family I have with my friends in SF. One night, Bearbait and Joe the Barber and I were walking down Polk Street when we came across an intersection blocked off, fire engines surrounding an old fish and chips restaurant on fire. Thick black clouds of smoke billowed out into the night. Flames licked up through the windows. We stood with the crowds on the sidewalk, watching the firemen work. Joe bought a slice of pizza and the three of us leaned against a building and watched another burn.
One afternoon Jeff and I took the ferry over to Tiburon and found a coffee shop. I sipped my hot chocolate and pointed out the window behind him at Angel Island, which was wreathed with a low cloud of fog. “I know this is cheesy,” I said, “but that image right there is feeding my soul, dude.” Of course what I neglected to say was that his company was doing the same. Even later that week, after he’d had his accident, I had the same feeling sitting in his hospital room. Good conversation, comfort, none of us having to rush off on neurotic errands. Of course he couldn’t rush off, since he had a couple of cracked ribs and was tied to a few pieces of medical equipment, and I didn’t need to rush off because I was on vacation, and maybe everything I’m saying here is an elaborate justification of a decision I’ve already made. But that’s how I work. I have to justify it to myself first.
Even the Ex and I had fun. Nearly five years apart, we’ve reached a point where we still know exactly how to make each other laugh, but without having to put up with each other’s ugly boyfriend characteristics.
And Louie. If I moved back to SF, the Dogpoet could have his dog again.
Naturally I’ve been mulling this decision over and over and over, and burdening my friends with long monologues about the advantages and disadvantages of each city. A guy who reads my blog, in a stunningly generous move, sent me an email that contained a few dozen quotes pulled directly from my blog, all concerning New York and San Francisco, and my feelings about both. There, in black and white, was the writing on the wall. “Notice here,” the reader pointed out, “that you say you love New York on the days you don’t hate it. I’m wondering if you’ve ever said that you hated San Francisco. I couldn’t find anything on your blog.” He couldn’t find it, because I never wrote it.
I have no regrets. I wanted to come to Columbia to become a better writer, and I wanted to move to New York to see if I could live here, and I’ve succeeded on both counts. I’m a better writer, and I’ve seen first hand that New York is not for me. It’s such a relief to finally realize that I don’t have to somehow “live up” to New York, that I am happier in a smaller, backwater kind of city, and that this preference is something I like about myself. And isn’t it rough, to have to make this kind of decision? Yeah, I know you really feel sorry for me.
“You can’t go back again,” someone told me. But I’m not trying to recapture something I once had so much as putting myself in the place from which I want to go forward. I can move back this summer, and finish my thesis in my apartment on the hill, the view through the window, Louie curled at my feet. And maybe, with a little bit of balance, and a little more humor, I could stop writing such amazingly self-absorbed posts like this one, and actually engage with the world a little more.
New York hasn’t been an entirely negative experience. In San Francisco I got my hair cut by Joe at his barbershop. Joe lived in New York for quite a few years, and he works with a certain hunky barber who grew up in Brooklyn. This hunky barber has a hot, tough exterior, but I’ve always suspected that there’s something else underneath. I asked him how he was doing, and if he was dating anybody. “Nope,” he said.
“If I moved back to San Francisco, would you let me take you out on a date?” I asked.
He paused for a second or two, then launched into this long speech about the different kinds of dates in the gay world: the coffee date, which could be just between friends, the sex date (self-explanatory), and the date-date, which would be dinner and a movie with the possibility but not the guarantee of sex. There were a few other types as well, but I interrupted him.
“Dude, just tell me what the fuck I should ask you when I move back.”
I’d never seen him speechless before. He may have actually blushed. “A date-date,” he said, quietly.
“Alright,” I said. “But just so you know, I don’t put out on the first date-date.”
He nodded. “That’s fine.”
Joe caught my eye in the mirror and patted my shoulder. “New York’s been good for you,” he said.