{ New York Milestone #1 }
Joe West

our dirt and home noise ofI remember very lucidly a conversation I had with someone at Harris Bar and Grill a few nights before I was to leave for New York, several years ago. I don't remember what the girl's name was, but she was a friend of a friend's old girlfriend, employed at Lycos, had grown up in Pittsburgh, and had spent two years in New York. In those last days of Pittsburgh, I was starving for real, honest-to-God, hard-livin' proof that New York was a great decision and that it was the one true place to cultivate a mind.
   I hadn't told the girl before this (she was a regular at Harris as was I) that I was moving to New York, because it never seems necessary to share future plans and details with people I don't know well. It came out that I was in fact making the move and that I was going to be attending a university in Manhattan.
   "I did that," she said quite matter-of-factly.
   "How great was it?"
   "It was okay."
   "I mean, did you do all the cool stuff? Art galleries, hidden-away bars and cafes? Did you live in a cool apartment?" I asked quickly and excitedly without the heaps of sarcasm that I might include in the above dialogue today.
   "Not really. I lived in the Bronx in a shitty apartment and spent most of my time going to school," she said offhandedly.
   Then it dawned on me: a location, even New York, is only what you make of it. Thinking back to the year I spent studying in Pittsburgh, I remember doing a little inventory of the "cool" and "cultural" events and services I frequented.
   Well...I saw one of Pitt's jazz bands perform, but only because it was a requirement for one of my classes. I did see an opera at CMU, but only because a roommate had a minor role in it and I'll be damned if I didn't miss the first twenty minutes because I was waiting in line for some hot dogs at the on-campus "O". There was the afternoon at Beechwood Farms spent trudging through the wily wilderness of greater Fox Chapel whereupon I soiled the carpets in my car with my muddy feet and came down with a snotty cold from standing in the rain in a field and yelling up at the sky like it seemed that you are supposed to do in such circumstances. Other than that, I studied hard, I read, I wrote, I went to CMU parties (yes, I was a Pitt student, but I had aspirations) where everyone was a fucking actor or performer of some sort, and I ate dinner at my parent's house like a good boy.
   "I left after two years," she said some minutes later after some minutes of silence.
   She didn't say this to impress or even to request further questioning.
   "You couldn't find a job after school?"
   "No, I just left and came back to Pittsburgh."
   "Should I be sorry?" I asked, trying to act as coyly Cosmo as possible.
   "Uh-uh," she replied. "You'll see in two years how New York is for you...."
   How New York is for me? No, it's about how I'll be for New York. Everyone here in this bar will have forgotten me in two years. The friends I have made will be dusty. I'll be grand and big by two years, bigger than this town. I thought all this as she went to the bathroom, and I made it a good time to drop a ten on the table and walk out the door into the freezing rains of April. It's circumstance that I came back a little over two years, but I spent the walk home from Harris and the next weeks thinking about not making it. To me, that girl at the bar hadn't been tough enough, couldn't stand the flickery, brilliant light of the city; she didn't have what it takes.
   Every once and a while in New York, I might be walking under a bridge or sitting thirty stories up and seeing just about everything around me and I would informally check myself against that night—against the failure of that night, as I saw it. Okay, I remember thinking, I've been here eight months. No signs of illness, check. Little or no malaise, check. Relationships, check. Attitude toward the city meekly positive, check. Six degrees to celebrities, check. Envy of friends and relatives, check. Fulfillment, check. But, in the back of my mind was that very discrete, very short length of time—two years. She had lasted that long and I was not particularly impressed with her tenacity, drive, verve, whatever. She was my first New York milestone and I would beat her bad.
   Perhaps that's just the way I think, setting goals for which there was little reason to set in the first place. I am more inclined to think that this is one of the things that New York does to you. It forces you to compare yourself to its opaque glow. In situations where something transcends a person so powerfully, and in such myriad manners, it requests a duel. Touching precisely back to the idea of New York's personal mythology in all of us is the idea that one comes to New York to slay it, not to live in it, among it, in harmony with it, but rather to destroy enough of it to fit quite nicely inside, to make a home, a career, a life. That bully in school was only as tough as your ingenuity and courage weren't.

[ Editors' note: This piece was written a couple of years ago when Joe West was leaving New York. In a few weeks he is moving back. The New Yinzer wishes him well in his semi-new home. ]

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