The pilgrim’s process A CITY OF NO ILLUSIONS. by SHASTI O’LEARY SOUDANT
uby loves New York City. It’s a Center-of-the-Universe thing. She can feel it. After seeing Patti Smith speak at Kleinhans this spring, she turned to me in the car and said, “When I’m older, I’m going to go there with $20 in my pocket and see how far I get.” I take a deep breath. I grew up there. That city can fuck you up. My daughter’s 12-year-old ambition and sense of adventure fills me with pride, but my perspective on New York is distorted by experience, having witnessed the ceaseless onslaught and exodus of thousands of hopeful seekers. The City is like boot camp for the wannabes of the world. The promise of a larger-than-life stature in a larger-than-life metropolis can feed an overgrown ego, or mercilessly execute a shrunken one. I fear for her. I was born in that messy mecca, and spent my early childhood being dragged around the world by a man desperate to escape its incredible gravity. But where could we go? After New York, what was enough? What could he aspire to? When we returned from Europe, I was ten, and the following years were bruising. My parents divorced, and with my mother’s emancipation, our fabric frayed. She embraced The City with an adolescent fervor, and I was suddenly left holding down the fort while she partied like it was 1979. The week I turned 16, I broke ranks, left high school and dove in. My stupidity was enormous, and I incurred a series of battle scars that left me armored to the teeth. Anger, ennui and luck all combined to form the quintessential Native New York City Girl: numb, frustrated, overwhelmed, unimpressed, over-stimulated and bored all at the same time. A month and a week after I turned 19, my father succumbed to the inevitable result of treating his body like an amusement park. A year later, I broke like an off-brand 24 BCM 40
Barbie doll. The next five months were spent working through grief, panic attacks, agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress, and in the fall of 1987, I saved my own life by taking my little inheritance and leaving. I talked my way into a transfer to Purchase College with a disastrous 1.29 GPA from the film program at the School of Visual Arts, and made a clean start. Four years later, I emerged with my very first Real Friends, and a renewed appreciation for the city of my birth. During our occasional forays, I had come to see it through their eyes, and my armor gradually relinquished its choke-hold, allowing me to finally let go of the clumsy, destructive coping mechanisms I had once glued to my hands. When I met my husband in 1994, New York and I had finally come to an understanding: it was where I was from, but I suspected “home” would one day be someplace else. When the time came for Jethro to return to his yearly cooking gig in Provincetown, I didn’t hesitate. We got engaged, and I left New York for good. Kind of. I was glad to be gone, but I continued to build my client base there and did relatively well as a freelancer. I had grown up terrified of becoming a bag lady, so it was an accomplishment to have extracted a successful creative livelihood from publishing, one of the many “glamorous” industries. Truth be told, the drab hallways and cramped offices that churn out blockbusters and bestsellers are a disappointment. When the curtain is pulled back, the wizard is just another cranky alcoholic, afraid for his or her job, barely making ends meet on a salary that would buy a lifetime of security in a hundred other towns. After he graduated cooking school, Jethro and I went looking for one of those towns. We made quick work of many lovely second-string cities, feeling them out, plumbing their cultural depths, taking measure of the available friend-stock, but still finding ourselves strangely lonely and not fitting in. While trying Brooklyn again, the World Trade Center vanished less than a mile from our stunned eyes. A month later, we carefully drove our moving van through narrow streets papered with heartbreaking flyers featuring the faces of the missing, and left New York for the last time. We came close to finding home in Portland, Maine, where our daughter was born. There was great art, good food and wonderful people, but coastal real estate had skyrocketed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and we found ourselves priced out faster than we could save the money for a down payment. Buffalo, where Jethro’s mother had grown
The last issue of Block Club explores the corners of our home.