After living for three years in a small village in the mountains of rural Japan, I'm back in New York City, on the lower east side. I live in a bunch of big, brick buildings that are architecturally indistinguishable from the projects just a block north of us. There was a time when I would have seen our entirely middle class housing as bland, boring, anything but the exciting, artsy, and edgy east village that I first moved to in 1995.
Back then I was 25 and I was in love with a dream of artists living entirely on their own terms, being free of the social pressures to succeed, have a boring career, or otherwise buckle down and succumb to what I saw as an empty life, scripted by our ancestors in a tedious span of conformity.
Well, I never pulled it off. The fantasy that I had of an artist's life was as out of touch with reality as my blinkered vision of life as a family man. The joke was on me. I thought I was a free-thinker, but in fact I was just acting out an extended adolescent grudge against growing up. I saw adulthood as a huge compromise, a sell-out. It never occurred to me that growing up could also be freeing, liberation, that it could mean learning new ways to see the world and blowing my mind. For me, growing up hasn't been a slow defeat — it's been a slow surrender certainly, but what I've given up reluctantly was a straightjacket that I'd been wriggling in for many years.
For years, what I saw happening in New York, the changes, the expensive housing, the new shops, the growing hordes of fancy people, I took as an acute loss. It was visible evidence everywhere that my dream of living as an artist in a Mad Max dystopia would never come to be, and it really pissed me off. I wasn't alone.
There is an endless supply of articles about how great New York City was...back then. Writers I really respect, like Luc Sante, wrote about how this creative place of artists had become a vacuous nightmare. I used their words to fan the flames of my resentment, and decided to flee to Japan to lick my wounds.
This is just one of many narratives to describe my life in New York, catch me on another day and I'll tell you something else. But the truth is, despite all my complaining, New York had been very, very good to me. It introduced me to my wife, it is the birthplace of my son, it's where I met many great friends, and have seen and done things I couldn't have done anywhere else. But I forgot all that, and just thought about how my dream of being an artist in a society of inspired misfits was dead, and it was all New York's fault.
Then I moved to the most conformist, conservative, and cut off places I could: Hachiman-cho, Gujo-shi, Gifu-ken, Japan. And for the first year I loved it. I saw folk dances, played the shakuhachi, ate killer soba, watched my son turn Japanese, and taught fun, funny, and hard working students. I also learned how nice it is to trust the people around you, to see everyone working together, and to see a tight-knit community function. People met on weekend mornings to clean up their shared spaces, old people took breaks on their walks to clean gutters, and kids cleaned their own schools. This wasn't selling out, it was making the world a better place. I liked it.
But after three years I realized beyond a doubt that I wanted to return to America. I came back to New York City, and now I live in a middle class apartment with a bunch of other New Yorkers working straight jobs and raising kids, and so far I love it. I am experiencing some reverse culture shock. I look around in a cafe and I think, "A year ago I was driving on the left side of a winding mountain road to work in a driving blizzard with knee-high snow. Nobody here knows about that. Nobody here knows how to drive the back roads from Hachiman to Takayama" and I feel strangely unappreciated for this. It's silly, but I understand it's a typical emotional response.
I also read articles like this one, wondering if New York has reached carrying capacity, and I realize how provincial this city is, how huge the world is now, and that New York is not at it's center like I once thought it was. I love New York, I'm delighted to be back, and I welcome the changes that I once deplored.
I want more tall buildings, I want more nice shops, I want a better subway, cleaner sidewalks, and more civilized manners. Last week a cop was shot a block from my house. I don't want the gritty New York that I once moved here to live in. And when I hear people like me, middle class midwestern transplants who moved here to be someone or something else, I wonder how they could actually long for a time that I remember well, when the gutters were full of needles and gunshots went off nightly.
I want my son to be able to look up when he walks instead of looking down to dodge dog shit. I want him to be able to say good morning to people and smile and take his time and not feel an edgy threat. I was a tourist in all that anyway, and New York is a better place now, and a great place to raise my son.
Last night I was taking my son home from Japanese class. We got on the bus and it was one of those new ones, very nice, with that new bus smell. We were cruising past the projects, making all the stops. I sat facing the back, and a young man sat facing me. He had scruffy facial hair, a black hoodie, and sat hunched over. We were doing that public transportation thing, both staring into space and avoiding eye contact.
I looked to my left and saw my son sound asleep with his head against the window. The man across from me followed my gaze and we made eye contact and both smiled.
"My dude's wiped out," I said.
"Long day," the guy said. And we both just grinned at each other until he got off at his stop. This is the New New York, to me, when I don't have to be tough, not that I ever was, and strangers can exchange a smile on the bus. It was midwestern corniness when I was 25, and now it's just being human to me now that I've got nothing to prove and less testosterone pumping through my veins. It's humbling, growing older, and it's wonderful to slowly lose all the fights I picked on the day I was born.