No Place Like Home

Brooklyn, NY, USA

Walking over the Manhattan Bridge alone in the rain in the evening, I felt melancholy and nostalgic, but tinged with something sharper: fear, maybe, not of anything in the present — New York is not the scary place it was when I first moved here in 1993 — but of an uncertain future.

I’ve come back to New York, I now realize, because I wanted to come home. For six long months, I moved every few days to some new place. I was always somewhere strange, with everything unknown and to be figured out: how transport works, what to see, where the good restaurants are, how to do laundry, where to get cash, how to say hello and thank you. Even Phoenix, my current US address, is a place I don’t know well, where I navigate by GPS.

New York is different. On my first day, I had some time to kill in Midtown, and I knew exactly where to go — Bryant Park — and when a bus rolled by on Fifth Avenue, I knew exactly how to jump on it. While sitting in the park, when I felt like writing, I knew that Kinokuniya was across the street, so I could go there to buy a notebook. In NYC, I know where things are. I know how things work.

Still, if NYC is more familiar than anywhere else, it’s no longer home. I can’t go back to my apartment, and I can’t go back to my office, my two landing pads when I lived here. And I’m floating free of purpose or connection: I don’t have a job, I’m not looking for a job, I’m not going to school. Nor am I a tourist, out to see New York’s cultural institutions and landmarks. I’m just here. I’m visiting friends, with the uncomfortable awareness that the threads that connect us will fray in the coming years, that this is perhaps the last time I will see each of these people, or the last time in a while, and that, try as we might, we will mostly drift apart, separated by oceans and continents.

I am old enough now, at 41, to understand the passage of adult time. I have lived out of the Bay Area longer than I lived in it, and it no longer feels like home. I know very few people there, and when I go back, it’s just not the place I grew up. That place is gone, erased by time and change. So is the New York City I first came to in 1993, but I was part of the change; I was here as neighborhoods transformed, buildings came down or went up, new laws changed the landscape (remember smoke in bars and nightclubs?). It’s like aging: you notice you’re older, but it happens day by day. I’m not the same person I was in 1993, but I was with me every day between there and here.

Now New York will go on changing without me. I’ll come back in five years, know in my bones that Kinokuniya is right next to Bryant Park, and be startled to discover that it’s moved downtown. Or that Metrocards have been replaced. (I was already thrown by Trash and Vaudeville‘s move from its old St. Mark’s Place home, and pleased to discover the new public Wi-Fi being tested around the city.) New buildings will go up, and no one will tell me. Friends will move away, and I won’t replace them with new New York friends.

All of this might feel less melancholy once I have a new home. Right now, New York is the home I picture, and it’s not home anymore, but there’s not yet a picture in my head of my Seoul home. There will be. I will have a street that feels like my street, an apartment with my stuff in it, friends, patterns, regular places. That’s coming soon. But for the moment, I’m in the curious position of feeling homesick for the place where I am.