Like anyone you meet with a loud, dominating, self-aggrandizing personality, it does not take tremendous gifts of foresight to know that once the initial amusement of meeting her wears off, New York City will get on your nerves. You know that one day, maybe soon, you will develop hypersensitivity towards her surface irritants—shoving, honking, competition, inflated prices, urine. But irritants by themselves are not what break the city dwellers heart. It is the firsthand knowledge of people constantly walking in and out of your life.
Once you taste the empty flavor of being left behind, you understand the lonely nature of City life. The New Yorker suffers this in silence, nobly accepting the harsh relational reality as an inevitable aspect of transience. This is why the saxophone is so fitting played alone late at night on 5th Avenue. It sings the ache of not being able to take being abandoned personally. But then add an old lady shoving you in rush hour at Fairway to your neglected despair, and a mere trivial irritant suddenly has the power to throw your heart into a bitter depression, not to mention living with the horrified guilt that you just accused an 80-year old woman of being a cow while shoving her back as hard as you could.
The pain is unfortunate, but it is also unfortunately your problem, and you are left to pick up the pieces however you choose. Some of the common options to coping, both healthy and unhealthy, that I have witnessed and tried include:
• LOVE: Finding love in God and/or relationships gives confidence to love others. Romance, however, fades, and people fail. So in a world of rapid changes and fleeting feelings, the only steady love I have come across that does not change or fail has been the love of God.
• ANTI-LOVE: As only the eloquence of an 80’s pop song lyric can describe, "I'm gonna harden my heart, I'm gonna swallow my tears..." More commonly expressed, "f*** 'em”. This actually does not work, and gallons of oil of olay will not reverse how it ages you.
• HOLLYWOOD: Forrest Gump-like innocence that accepts and loves people as they are without assumption or suspicion. Difficult for the street smart. Exceptionally rare in people possessing a normally developed human brain.
• PARANOIA: Embracing suspicions, cutting off anyone who even hints at leaving you in the wake of their own self-interests. Fast forward to the end of this story… she winds up without any friends.
• DOGS/CATS: Walk around New York for 20 minutes and count how many dogs you see with their owners, multiply by 8million, and there you have one emotionally needy epidemic! (Even my parents own a German shepherd in their one-bedroom apartment and I am even compelled to take of his affectionate love wovey’s on a nearly daily basis)
• NUMB: Drugs/Alcohol
• VOLUNTEERISM: Love the City and seek to repair what is broken. Give back to regardless of everyone consistently taking.
Someone said that you can tell who a New Yorkers real friends are by who they cancel plans with, and who their acquaintances are by the engagements they see through. It’s sad, but true. Considering how starved for lasting connection and community people in this City are, this fact is baffling.
I realized this heavily while I was in Paris this summer, and brought back with me the French’s concept of savoring quality and authenticity over quantity. This extends far beyond vin et fromage (wine and cheese) but to relationships as well. In fact, it is very difficult to make friends in Paris because Parisians generally hold close to the friends they make in their youth, ripen with age, and see no need to go out finding new friends beyond the ones they’ve already spent years establishing. This can shut many out. On the other extreme, New Yorkers have a tendency to make friendships very quickly, spilling intimacy everywhere, but without time to develop solid trust, the relationship will not be strong enough to hold the weight of the demands placed on it. It collapses. There is a balance somewhere between New York and Paris.
True friendship, regardless of culture, is very, very rare. If you have three real friends, you are rich. I don’t care how big a New Yorker’s sense of entitlement is, no one is entitled to friends. Friends are a gift, to be treated with gratitude and value. And in this economy (how many times a day do you hear that prefix?) any friendship that requires you to spend money, not to mention your waistline, on drinks in order to keep the relationship going is not worth as much as the time you spend with the friend you can meet on the couch in your jim-jams for free.
As I flew back over the Atlantic, I thought about the people I aired so much of my dirty laundry to and how our relationships crumbled after just 1-3 conflicts. Where are they now? Then I thought about my friends who never held it against me if I cancelled, or didn’t call back, or didn’t show. It touched on all the quiet hurts of all the people that had left me, and I suddenly found a new gratitude a la Scrooge that filled me with hope that I was not too late to appreciate the people I was blessed with.
The first person I called when I got back was my beloved friend Israel Julien. Of all my friends, I told Israel, he would love Paris. I couldn’t wait to tell him my epiphany because I knew he would understand. Israel has the most incredible eye for quality and savors good things-- food, style, and people. Here is someone who celebrates life, and his friends, even when they are distracted. Someone who tirelessly invites me out or over just because he misses me. Someone who has come to almost every one of my shows, and listens to my music on repeat even when I’m not around. Someone I should not take for granted.
We had a wonderful dinner, two New Yorkers mulling over the aches that come from living in a transient City with transient people. He totally got it. He completely agreed. I told him my regrets, and celebrated his friendship, and there was healing in the moment.
I went home that night empowered that my entire relational life in the City was figured out. I have wisdom born of pain met by my new found international understanding of how to beat a broken heart, and my list of valuable friends checked off in my mind. The ones I know are in it for the long haul.
3 weeks ago on September 5th, Israel died. No one saw it coming. He chose not to be a burden and hid from his friends that anything was wrong. I am broken, traumatized, and in my confusion, back at where I started, feeling like a lone dull saxophone on 5th.
Israel is no longer physically a part of my life. Nothing personal. At his memorial service I confessed through blurry tears that I’m a New Yorker, and people come and go in and out of my life all the time. I thought I was better at “goodbye” than I was “hello”. Not this time, this is different. There is a hole. Treasures cannot be replaced. His death tripped me while I walked as if I could control my heart from breaking. But if you love, you will hurt, and I would rather hurt all alone in this City than to have not known Israel, and all the people I have loved who have left me behind.