“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was…”
In the final days of July, 2009, I made the decision to torch my history almost entirely. I was standing in the middle of the Astoria apartment I had shared my wife at the time, an apartment she had already abandoned. All that was left inside our former home were my furniture and belongings. Any other trace of the life we’d once tried to make together was gone. So as I moved silently through each room, feeling as if I were a ghost that barely disturbed the dust particles hanging in the still air, I took stock of all that was mine — what I’d brought into the marriage and what I would now leave with. Outside it was a misty and unseasonably chilly New York City day and most of the apartment was a gray darkness, the power having already been shut off. Maybe that was what helped me decide: the chill, the mist, the quiet, the sense of isolation. It all felt as if my heartache and loss were physically manifesting itself.
I was traveling in a big Dodge pick-up, which I’d used to turn my drive north from Miami into a full-fledged road trip — the perfect thing, I thought, to clear my head — and had just returned from a party for my daughter’s first birthday. The plan, such as it was, was to rent a U-Haul and attach it to that truck, pile my things inside and drive the whole rig back to South Florida. But then came that choice — to just let everything go. To figuratively burn my life to the ground. I loaded up only what would fit in the pick-up’s cab and covered bed, leaving behind furniture, boxes, photos — history, everything I’d accumulated over more than 20 years — and drove away. I was in no position at the time to think about what would come next, but I knew that whatever it was it would be new. Completely new. I had hit the reset button before, but never in a way that completely hard-wiped my existence. It was necessary now, though. It had to be done.
“Get here and we’ll do the rest…”
New Yorkers have always regarded Los Angeles with a strange combination of fascination, condescension and outright revulsion. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s consummate New York mope Alvy Singer dismisses L.A. completely, saying of the place, “the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” The New York Times, a paper which has led the charge in holding its West Coast counterpart at arm’s length and examining it like one would a piece of dusty roadside kitsch, pens columns on the subject of those weird Angelenos and their even weirder customs every several months or so like clockwork. It happens so often, in fact, that one L.A.-centric website recently published a “Los Angeles Through the Eyes of The Times Bingo Card,” featuring all the buzzwords sure to be hit on within any piece the paper writes on L.A. They include, of course, kale and yoga, celebrity, scriptwriters, the ’92 riots, “no sense of history,” and the requisite unflattering comparison to Gotham. As the website put it, the idea is to “quantify our scorn for this condescending shit.”
But then came last week, and the latest Times piece on Los Angeles which suddenly deigned to give L.A. its somewhat begrudged acknowledgement. In the article, titled “Los Angeles and Its Booming Creative Class Lures New Yorkers,” the Gray Lady explains how so many New Yorkers are leaving the City and heading west for sunnier skies, cheaper rents, a multicultural artistic “renaissance” and an atmosphere that’s inviting to creatives rather than one aimed at pushing them out in favor of catering only to the obscenely wealthy. The piece points out that Moby and Lena Dunham now live in L.A., as if that somehow makes the city more appealing rather than infinitely less, and it acknowledges the obvious: that high rents and brutal winters can’t compete with all those images of sunshine and palm trees being posted on Instagram by friends out on the coast. No, if you’re in investment banking maybe Los Angeles isn’t the place for you, but if you’re a hipster — or really anyone else — maybe that’s the idea anyway.
New York, as much as my heart remains there thanks to my introduction to the City post-9/11 — its resilience and spirit was so profound that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it — isn’t what it was then. Manhattan is now, almost literally, millionaire’s island. And Brooklyn is little more than a brand. I’ve always said that if I were making a fortune I’d be happy to go back, but I’m way past resigning myself to the knowledge that I’m never going to make a fortune. If I’m lucky, I’ll always be middle-class — and barring a few scrappy outliers middle-class simply doesn’t cut it in New York City anymore. Sure, I could shack up with three other people, but at the age of 45 that doesn’t exactly seem feasible and it damn sure doesn’t seem very good for my constitution. And that’s what it really comes down to: As much as I love New York City, I just wouldn’t want to put up with it day after day anymore. In the eyes of many New Yorkers — I know because I was once one of them — that makes me a pussy, a disgraced warrior who rather than allowing himself to meet a dignified end on the field of battle chose instead to run, to leave his brethren behind to continue the fight.
Except for the fact that the fight isn’t necessary. There are other ways to live your life when you’re middle-aged and middle-class. There are plenty of other places to live. Waking up most mornings to sunshine and cloudless skies and spending most of the winter with your car windows rolled down and your sunglasses on — that’s not so bad. I’ve got my scars. I don’t need anymore. The City will always feel like home. But it can’t be my home now.
At the end of 2011, after three years of being alone, most of that time with the knowledge that all the things that once weighed me down but also made up the entirety of my history no longer existed somewhere, I again left. I again hit the road, this time heading out from Miami toward the west — and Los Angeles, a place I’d lived before with disastrous results. I had once let my life spiral out of control there, down through a heroin pipe and into a hole I couldn’t climb out of. But all of that was gone. I’d burned it up. I’d abandoned it. Other than my young daughter I had no one to answer to and nothing to hold me in place anywhere. So I came back to L.A. with the intension of working for a little while at some freelance jobs and eventually going back east. That didn’t happen, though. I felt the sun on my face and the Pacific at my feet and I stayed. I rented an apartment. I met someone wonderful and fell in love when I didn’t think I was capable of that anymore. I furnished my new home from scratch, with nothing to remind me of the past. Finally, genuinely, completely — I started over.
“When there’s nowhere else to run, is there room for one more son?”
There are cats in my apartment now. It’s a little strange, given that for three years my apartment in Los Angeles was mine and no one else’s — my girlfriend also choosing to keep her own place just about ten minutes away from me. In the years before L.A. I lived with the devastating psychic and emotional damage of my last relationship, which hollowed me out and led me to follow the immortal dictum of Heat‘s Neil McCauley: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” With the “heat” being the sudden desire give up that lifestyle and put down real roots. In many ways, that extended into my time in L.A. I loved the person I’d finally chosen to let in, but there was always the knowledge that if things went sideways, I could retreat to my own space or leave town altogether at a moment’s notice. But then, after so long together and firm in the knowledge that she had become my partner and my best friend, I asked her to marry me — and my girlfriend became my fiancée. So we moved in together.
While she was out of town for work, I spent a weekend last month cleaning out her apartment and moving it into mine. There was so much there, within her home, that I was somewhat awestruck. There were items that I expected: clothes, shoes, artwork and kitchen utensils and appliances — a metric ton of those, as she’s a chef — as well as some furniture we were mostly leaving behind in the name of consolidation. But beyond that there were board games, photos, knick-knacks — dozens of meaningful tokens of a life that extended back throughout the years. It made me wonder about the choice I made in 2009: to rid myself of my past and for the most part refuse to be sentimental about anything from that point backward or forward. I can’t even be sure what got left behind in New York City, my attitude always being that if I didn’t miss it then it didn’t matter anyway. For a moment, I felt regret about what I’d done, what I might have deprived myself of. It passed, though. Because my time completely letting go and drifting was necessary. I needed it to heal fully and learn to crawl, then walk again. It was good for me.
We’re still going through the mess we’ve created in our apartment, trying to figure out what will go where and how we’ll fit it all in. But that’s what happens when you make the decision. The decision to truly share your life with someone and to finally not be willing to let go. The decision to start making a new history.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.