“And the days went by / like paper in the wind / Everything changed / then changed again”
-Tom Petty, “To Find a Friend” (from Wildflowers)
I didn’t always dream of living in New York City. As a teenager, I fantasized about ditching the suburbs of Omaha and making my way to the big city of... Chicago. (As a Midwestern boy, even my daydreams were practical.) It had the mammoth skyscrapers and world-class museums I love, but also felt somehow attainable; I knew people who had moved to Chicago. I had been there. It felt… real.
I blew it on my first opportunity, getting rejected from Northwestern. I rerouted to Mizzou, where a few things conspired to shift my sights to the Big Apple. A few of my magazine friends got internships there, and so did one of my best friends, Rick, who interned at The Late Show in the fall of 2001. Some friends and I had plans to visit that October. Then the Twin Towers fell, which ultimately only steeled our resolve. We found a city still suffering from collective PTSD, expressing it with a sort of mass kindness. The cold and indifferent hustle I envisioned from Seinfeld-era New York had been replaced by a kinder, gentler M.O. There was hurt in people’s eyes, but also relief when they saw that you meant them no harm.
I was smitten. I remember waiting outside the Strand, feeling like Lou Reed (“Standing on the cornerrrr”). People passed me by and no one said “hi” or “excuse me” or even really looked at me—a 20-year-old busy doing some close to nothing. (To paraphrase something Steve Martin said about Johnny Carson, New Yorkers didn’t assume intimacy when there was no reason to.) It was impossible to be so wonderfully invisible back home.
Better yet, I had front-row seats for the full human carnival. As David Cross famously put it, I was constantly choosing between looking at the most beautiful woman in the world and the craziest guy in the world. Heading home, all I wanted was to head back.
I bought a one-way ticket to LaGuardia in the fall of ‘03, thanks to two fortunate breaks. One, I had landed an editorial internship at Paper, thanks in large part to a connection made through my girlfriend at the time. Two, my parents agreed to support me for a year, in lieu of going to grad school. I was determined to make the most of it.
The next year and change was mostly miserable, a mix of long lows and too-brief highs. The highs: getting press passes to CMJ; landing an internship at Spin (where Chuck Klosterman once told me “Good luck with your life, man! I’ll probably never see you again.”); writing my first national print magazine feature, one of the first American profiles of Franz Ferdinand; graduating from intern to super-intern at Paper, which meant getting a monthly stipend that almost covered rent. The lows: getting turned down for a job at Spin; getting turned down for a job at MediaBistro; getting turned down for a job at Dell—not the computer company, but a crossword puzzle magazine. (I still have the rejection letter.) Aside from a few freelance pieces and that small stipend from Paper, I basically spent a year doing unpaid internships, which back then was still legal. (Today, those internships probably just wouldn’t exist.)
Effectively broke, I lived with Rick in a part of Bushwick that still isn’t cool. Our apartment was broken into in broad daylight. (Rick was home at the time. And even though he, like me, isn’t exactly what you’d call physically intimidating, the intruder fled without stealing a thing.)
I spent my days working for magazines about nightlife, but I spent my nights at home watching old movies on Netflix. In a city of insiders, I was an outsider. And yet, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
If, per Hemingway, you tend to go bankrupt gradually, then suddenly, maybe it goes the other way, too. One day in January 2005, my friend and boss at Paper asked me if I was familiar with T: The New York Times Style Magazine. “Of course,” I lied. He told me they were looking for an editorial assistant (or, in T’s highfalutin term, a “features associate”). The only thing was they needed someone who could start right away. Given the state of my finances, right away wasn’t soon enough, so I immediately reached out to my contact. As I recall, I interviewed on a Friday and started on a Monday. At long last, I could exhale.
T in those years was led by Stefano Tonchi, who is an absolute genius. The other day, I happened to go through all of the issues from those years, and it was remarkable how much intelligence and wit, beauty and elegance, style and charm dripped off of every page. (Having next to no awareness of fashion then, I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.) I was given way better assignments than I had earned. I interviewed Sean Lennon and Zooey Deschanel, Kelis and Rachel Roy, Stephanie Seymour and Diane von Furstenberg (on her couch, sharing licorice). I wrote a lot for Paper and Spin, too, plus a few random magazines. I worked hard and hit deadlines, even if the work itself was rarely above-average.
Rick and I were able to move to Manhattan, a little railroad apartment on Avenue B, which back then still maintained a little edge. (Walking home late one night, Rick was relieved of his iPod by two enterprising hoodlums. He successfully persuaded them to let him keep his wallet, sans cash.)
I took a new job at men.style.com, where a typical day’s work might consist of an after-hours whiskey tasting in a conference room, and where I began to immerse myself in the world of men’s style. It was fun; it was hard. I worked with a ton of great writers and editors, too many to name here, but they taught me how to dress through their words and through their examples. I went from wearing Krameresque vintage trousers to relatively polished gear from J.Crew. I grew out my hair and my beard. (On one memorable occasion, a man parallel parking his pickup truck saw me, stopped what he was doing, and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.) There wasn’t a ton of cash to spare, but I began to feel something like confidence.
Though I didn’t realize it then, I also began to feel a deep loneliness. Rick worked overnights, which limited our interactions during the week. I had settled into a routine, one based around work and seeing the girl I was dating at the time. My main social outlet was a weekly Saturday morning basketball game at Tompkins Square Park, which over the years had begun to fade.
But it turned out the antidote was on its way, in the form of two people I consider my very best friends.
I met her in Austin in 2005. But in those days, it was possible to disappear. Facebook hadn’t opened to the general public yet; she (wisely, perhaps) didn’t have a MySpace page. We had each other’s email addresses, and I managed to see her a couple times when she came through New York. But for about two years, Allison and I weren’t really in touch.
And then came 2007. Adam—my friend since middle school, when the fact that we both had Mariners caps was enough to build a friendship on—moved to the city at the beginning of the year. It was Adam who had introduced me to Allison on that hazy, tipsy Texas night two years prior, and it was Adam who would reintroduce us later on. Even now, I remember hearing that Allison was moving to New York and thinking “Here comes trouble.” I didn’t know the half of it.
For reasons both too boring and scandalous to get into here, Allison and I didn’t really get together until spring the following year. Almost immediately, life became richer. It was like there was this whole other world hidden behind a curtain, and I just needed someone to show it to me. We indulged in long brunches at Le Barricou in Brooklyn; shared oysters at the late, great DuMont; watched the entirety of Mad Men. I began to savor countless things I hadn’t fully appreciated before. Coffee. Lucinda Williams. The beach.
We moved into a charming little place on Avenue A. We lingered over burgers and trout at Back Forty, or coffee and eggs at Mud. I started at UrbanDaddy, where I could walk to work, and where I received a rich education in writing and teamwork, and where I made friendships I hope will last a lifetime. I co-founded Whim, which wasn’t much of a business, but brought me closer to my good friend Brock, and got me back to performing for the first time since college. And being close to Adam again was a welcome reminder of how rare and wonderful it is to have a true friend living just a short train ride away.
We started our lease as a new couple. We ended it six years later married with a beautiful seven-month-old daughter. Having Rose necessitated a move to Brooklyn, where it was quieter in ways both good and bad. It wasn’t easy—our commutes were longer, our friends were further away—but we ultimately made it work. We expanded our circle of friends. (Mostly our neighbors, who, in keeping with Park Slope building codes, are new parents just like us.) And even though it’s been more than a year and a half, it feels like we just moved here.
But we’re still growing our family, which meant making a choice. Either move further from the city I fell in love with 15 years ago, to some suburb upstate or in New Jersey, a suburb ultimately not that different from the one I fled when I was 18. Or move to a new city, where we can have a yard, a little more space, and (okay) a lower overhead, all within walking (or biking) distance of life.
In the end, it wasn’t really a choice. And so we’re heading to Austin this Tuesday. Our hearts are heavy for all that we’re leaving behind, all the friends we won’t see often enough. And yet, I’m hopeful for all that lies ahead: new opportunities, new energy. And so I quote another song from Wildflowers:
"It’s time to move on / time to get goin’. / What lies ahead I have no way of knowin’. / But under my feet, baby, the grass is growin’. / Yeah, it’s time to move on. / It’s time to get goin’."