(Written between 8/19/2022 - 8/23/2022. Photographs from August - October, 2013.)
Before I moved to New York for college in August of 2013, I was working part-time as an education intern at a children's’ theater program. One day in June of that year, while we were waiting around for the kids to get picked up, I was goofing off and checking my phone. I noticed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had put out a video for a new song from their upcoming album, Mosquito. The song was called "Despair."
In the introduction, Karen O, blonde for once, sings the song to a crowded bar in a killer yellow suit. Brian Chase and Nick Zinner head to a second location in a cab and on the train, respectively. The first time I saw the video, I wasn't able to recognize where in New York they were.
Karen sings to the bar a capella, the same way you might sing coming home from the bar after a long night: quietly, a little off-key. Then the video opens up on a rooftop, and the album version of the song comes in. Karen has a parka on. She’s as moody and moon-faced as she is in the "Maps" video. Brian starts banging on the drums, at first stoic, then determined. There are some glimpses of the city, along with the start of a sunrise over Manhattan.
The actual track is jangly and quick, and there’s a bright guitar riff in the second half that always makes me smile a little. In the video, Nick Zinner is still on his way to the band on the roof. When the guitar comes in, he makes his entrance, and he really digs into those chords. Watching the musicians today, I’m thinking about Sonny Rollins wailing on his saxophone from the Williamsburg Bridge, which I am crossing on the J train as I type this on my phone. They’re all playing out into the wide open air – as wide open as it gets, around here.
I have a distinct memory of watching the video for the first time and thinking about New York, about art school, about my adult life, and everything that was ahead of me, and still being so sad to leave what felt like my whole life behind. I found myself crying at a sweet video — which did not warrant crying — because of the passage of time, and because I’d never be able to go back to being a kid again, really. I loved the relationship I was in then, too, and I was sad that Lowell and I going to college in different states meant we would split up.
I knew one other person from home who would be going to college with me. I had another friend who was already at Columbia, two years ahead. But past that, all I knew was that I was heading to a city of seven million strangers, in a competitive art program I’d never seen the likes of, in a place I’d never had to navigate before. Everything that was happening to me was good, but it was still a lot of change. I was eighteen. I grew up in one house, in one town. Who the hell wouldn’t be a little scared? Who wouldn’t want to indulge in a little despair? I was definitely prone to thinking, at that age, that sadness and trouble were the only constants in my life. Tonight I am cracking myself up on the J train at this thought.
The whole summer before I moved away, I would return to that song and that video. What I chose to hold onto was the fact that, even if despair had always been "there through my wasted years," there was still the fact that the sun would rise every day, and that I had something bright to hang onto. I kept looking for brilliance, even if it was only the music that would cheer me up, or something fascinating to look at, or, if I was lucky, a friend or two. At the end of the music video, the sun rises, Karen O has unzipped her parka to show the same yellow suit from the bar, the guys are banging away at an unassailable song, and everyone is pretty thrilled. Nick Zinner might never smile in a music video but he’s definitely having a good time.
An early drone shot pans out – possibly from a helicopter – and we see the band is playing on the top of the Empire State Building. During my first week in New York, which was orientation week at Pratt, I visited that same observation deck.
I am always considering what it means to hang onto despair at the expense of happiness. I have heard that I am prone to wallowing. About a week before I was set to leave New York, I took the long way home to walk through Times Square at night. I expected to hate it. I am not writing the definitive essay on cultural maxims about New York, but it is a truth that, if you spend long enough in New York, you’ll learn how fun it is to hate things, and Times Square is an easy target for New Yorkers' ire. (Touristy things like the ESB, too.) If anything, I wanted to give myself a reason to say, fuck this place, I'm done.
Still, when I exited the train that night, the first thing I saw was the Radio City sign, and my heart swelled a little. I rounded the corner from 57th to Broadway and walked down to 42nd, and filled my eyes with all of the lights, all of the tourists, all of the costumed weirdos, all of the painted nudists, all of the proselytizers, all of the vape clouds, all of the Sabrett's smoke. I realized I had this smile on my face. I realized I was happy to be there; I was content to not stay put, but to move through the space on my own terms and exit gracefully, with no Krishna coins or tourist-trap Polaroids in tow.
Over my last few weeks in New York, I’ve had multiple people ask me what I’d miss. What I came to realize, and part of what’s made it easier to leave the place I called home for nine years, was that the things I missed had to do with my own associations. I would miss walking around the places where I could access my memories more readily, places that have been integral to my development.
For me, it's taking the easy way out to say, fuck this place, I'm done. The harder thing, the more authentic thing, the thing I've been trying to do for the last eight weeks, is to say, it's time to go, and that's okay. The four clocks on every side of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower haven't matched up for weeks now. It's a sign, among many, that it's time for me to leave.
One thing that hasn't changed about me since high school is that I still have difficulty with endings. Now, though, it feels like I've found some sense of permission, some peace of mind that the next thing will be better. I’ve had to reconstruct my understanding of home a lot over the last few years, and what I’ve come to think is that home is not only a state of mind, but a gut, instinctive feeling. Is home where all of your earthly possessions are? Is it where all of your favorite people are? Is it the sound of late summer cicadas in faraway grass? In the future I'd like to make less work that is mired in nostalgia (this and all of my other emails notwithstanding). That said, remembering the last time my life changed like this has helped immensely. Remembering how afraid I was to come here in the first place has helped me come to terms with getting ready to leave.