Bright lights, small city

Moving to a new city in my 40s was less about making mistakes I
could learn from and more about making choices I believed in

Right around the time I turned 42, I started thinking about what
my life was going to look like when I was 50. Long-term planning
skills had previously been absent from my existence, and the fact
that these concerns had surfaced was as much a surprise to me as to
anyone else. Living day by day had always seemed a valid way to
operate. But I wanted things to be easier and sunnier and I wanted
to own a house, and I could not have that kind of life in New
York.

This was five years ago, when there was another president in the
White House, and many of us felt at least a little bit differently
about life in America. It did not seem as indulgent as it might now
to want to be happy. I felt that I had a right to a better life
than the one I had, and for me that meant moving to a new place, in
this case to New Orleans, where I had spent several of the past
winters. I didn’t think about how I would feel after making a
dramatic, permanent change from a city of 8 million to a city of
400,000. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to do it
or what it would mean for me, a single woman in her 40s, to start
over again; I just knew it was time to go.

It’s now been nearly three years since I bought my home in the
Ninth Ward. Next summer I will have been living here full-time for
two years. The frenzy of starting up my new existence has nearly
subsided. I have furnished a home, with tall bookshelves and a
charming guest bed (please come visit) and curtains that let the
light in every room so I never have to feel gloomy, unless I look
at Twitter for too long. I have a dozen houseplants now, after
never having had a single one as an adult, and a papaya tree in the
backyard, which bore me inedible fruit this fall, but it looks
tropical and majestic so I don’t mind. I changed my voter
registration, not that it much matters down here, my blue vote in a
lipstick-red state, but still I enthusiastically cast my ballot. I
am a Louisiana resident, for better or for worse. And enough time
has passed that I now have perspective to reflect on the biggest
differences in my life in this much smaller city.

In New York City, as with most big cities, there is the
opportunity to be anonymous on the streets. For a long time, I
loved no one knowing who I was or what my business was. I took
comfort in the speed with which I moved through the streets of the
city, head down, in my own little world, but still somehow
absorbing a thousand details at once. It was helpful to my
development as an artist, I felt. If all you want is to be left
alone with your imagination, then there is no better place to do it
than New York.

In New Orleans, there is an insistence to the way we all
interact with each other out in the world. We share these streets,
which are generally sparsely populated in the neighborhoods. There
are good mornings, goodnights, how y’all doings, and head nods
and smiles and eye contact. There are neighbors who walk out on
their front porch to give treats to my dog. There is polite
chit-chat even if we don’t know each other. There are waves from
car windows. There is communication. My solo-artist instincts still
sometimes rise up, but here, I can’t hide even on those rare
occasions I wish I could. This is me now: I’d rather be seen and
known than ignored and isolated.

It’s not just the streets to which I feel more connected.
It’s the entire city. Part of this might have to do with being a
homeowner, and being more cognizant of public services, especially
in a city that has a complex and dramatic past with hurricanes and
flooding, government corruption, and troubled, antiquated
utilities. (We’ve had several boil-water advisories recently, not
to mention power outages all year long; I keep a store of emergency
supplies for the first time in my life.) My awareness of public
issues has increased exponentially because they impact me and my
neighbors on a day-to-day basis. Local politics is everything here.
I witness the struggle every day, I listen to the
conversations—in my neighborhood of the Bywater,
affordable housing is a hot topic
—and I try to participate in
this community as best I can, whether through contributing time or
money. I even clean the catch basin on my street before it rains.
The smallest of gestures reverberates in a city this size.

In the past three years, I’ve had to reconfigure the yes and
no coordinates in my brain. What I learned how to do in New
York—and this is an extremely important skill to have in any big
city—is how to say “no.” How to build boundaries and walls.
How to know when enough is enough. How to reject or prevent
distractions so that I could do my work most efficiently. I will
take that power with me for the rest of my life, but I will use it
sparingly from now on. Because you can’t say no to your neighbors
here. You have to pay attention to the people around you.

There are other big-city expats here, in New Orleans, doing the
same kind of reconfiguration. My friend Tamika moved here five
years ago, to work in the television industry, after she began a
relationship with a New Orleanian. She is wry and stylish and cool.
For my last birthday, she brought me bounty from her backyard:
several bunches of small green bananas, and also three large sprigs
of fresh rosemary and an enormous pickle jar full of pecans still
in their shells. Recently I biked to her house on the edge of the
Treme neighborhood, for a visit on a Sunday, and found myself
trapped there for a while when it started to rain viciously, as it
often does. I filched leftover Halloween candy from a plastic
pumpkin bucket while we discussed life in the big city versus the
small.

She brought up transportation issues. We both nodded vigorously
at the problem of the subway system in New York. Public
transportation is no great shakes in New Orleans, but the city is
bikeable, it’s walkable, and we are both fortunate enough to have
cars. When I read tales of my friends’ morning commutes in New
York on social media, and see the crowded platforms on their
Instagram stories, I often worry the world is coming to an end, and
this is just one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Then, Tamika and I talked a bit about moving to a new city in
our 40s. “You can be any age anywhere here,” she said. Any bar,
restaurant, show, gallery, street, public space; all are welcome.
This is a city that respects its elders, and its history. New
Orleans revels in its past. I admitted to her I had started to feel
aged out in New York, a place that is constantly seeking the
new.

When you move to a new city when you’re young, you can easily
meet people. Go to a bar and sit there for a few hours—you’ll
make two new best friends (and exes) in a night. All the friends I
made when I first moved to New York City in the late ’90s were
the ones I did drugs with. I am not knocking the friendships I made
at 1 a.m. on the dance floor, but they were born out of different
interests.

I don’t go out like that anymore. Moving to a smaller city was
an opportunity to consider the next part of my life in a less
frantic, more engaged way than I had in my youth. I was looking for
a different kind of stability when I moved here. And it was less
about making mistakes I could learn from and more about making
choices I believed in.

The rain beat down on the roof of Tamika’s house. She raised
the idea of anonymity. “You have more accountability for your
behavior in a city this small,” said Tamika. “How you treat
someone, how you break up with someone. Like, you can’t ghost
people here.” Because you will keep on running into them. Over
and over. Sometimes I get what I call small town-itis here.
Everyone knows your business. That is the trade-off.

“I thrived on anonymity,” I said to Tamika. And then I
paused. “Until I stopped growing.” I laughed at myself.
“Well, this turned into a therapy session, didn’t it?”

For a long time, thriving meant one thing to me: to be writing,
and to be writing well. To be alone, by yourself, in a room,
working. There is no other way to be productive. That is a fact.
But what about thriving because of human connections? What about
slowing it down and seeing the way the world works? What about
listening to others speak? What if human interaction made you feel
better and not worse?

When I lived in New York, I constructed an elaborate protective
system. I knew which path to take to the subway where there was
less garbage on the streets to smell, and I knew what time to go to
the bagel shop to avoid the rush, and I knew which bar to go to
where I wouldn’t feel like I could have been everyone’s
(extremely young, like I had them as a teenager, obviously)
mother.

And I had this network of caregivers: a facialist, an
acupuncturist, a massage therapist, and a hair stylist, all of whom
operated at various locations on or near Bedford Avenue in
Brooklyn. I used to refer to them as my “self-care coven.” I
saw them all on a regular basis, ranging from weekly to monthly to
once every six weeks. That is where my money went. To rent, and to
these women. I relied on all of them to keep me feeling safe,
attractive, and emotionally healthy. I believed I could not have
survived without them. And possibly I was right.

To me, now, this seems insane. It was a big city, but I had
created a small world. I was putting Band-Aids on myself for years.
To survive life. I occasionally described myself as “good at New
York.” I was able to maintain a life there. But that’s just it.
I was only maintaining. I was not thriving. And it seems like a
good and important question to ask oneself: What do you need to do
in order to thrive? What does that kind of life look like? It’s
an incredibly privileged question, of course: The idea that one
could thrive rather than just survive the current daily pressure of
contemporary civilization. It’s a question I could ask myself as
a single, adult human being with a little money in the bank. But I
believe, desperately, we all deserve to thrive. I want this for all
of us.

I still miss a few parts of life in a much bigger city. I miss
being able to get anything I desire whenever I desire it, and the
exhilarating landscape, and the sense that I am exactly where I am
supposed to be when I am there, because this is where everything
happens. And I miss the people, specifically a group of people I
shared a decadent, boozy meal with in Brooklyn last summer, a long
table of boisterous, fast-talking, witty, brainy, big-hearted
people. My people. Listen, our people can exist anywhere, in cities
big or small. I have plenty of friends I love a lot in New Orleans.
But that is what I left behind when I left New York, more than
anything else. Eighteen years of building friendships. Those people
are irreplaceable in my heart.

Once in a while, the street where I live is a route for a
second-line parade. People park on the neutral ground and the
sidewalks fill and it is a scene, one that reminds me of the day of
the New York City Marathon, when everyone in the neighborhood stops
racing around for a second and stands together on a street corner
and cheers, except in New Orleans it feels like marathon day a few
times a week.

During the last parade, I sat on my front porch with my dog,
sipping a drink out of a plastic to-go cup from a bar I had never
been to, which had somehow ended up in my kitchen cabinet. I was
waiting for a friend to join me, but I was content on my own, too.
It was sunny, and everyone was dressed to kill and people smiled at
my dog. I watched a woman joyously approach a group of handsome men
she knew; they all joked about how the second line was probably
just getting started, miles away. The woman was bossy, and funny,
and she wrangled all the men into a line to take a picture. Then
she looked at me—perhaps she had been noticing me all along.
Sitting there by myself. Maybe she was worried I was lonely. She
yelled to me, “Neighbor, come get in the picture, come on now.”
She insisted on it. I did not know how to say no to her, and I did
not want to. And so, I rose and joined them.

Jami Attenberg’s seventh novel,
All This Could Be Yours
, is set in New Orleans and will be
published October 22. Follow her on Twitter @jamiattenberg.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Bright lights, small city