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Bright lights, small city

Moving to a new city in my 40s was less about making mistakes I could learn from and more about making choices I believed in

Right around the time I turned 42, I started thinking about what my life was going to look like when I was 50. Long-term planning skills had previously been absent from my existence, and the fact that these concerns had surfaced was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Living day by day had always seemed a valid way to operate. But I wanted things to be easier and sunnier and I wanted to own a house, and I could not have that kind of life in New York.

This was five years ago, when there was another president in the White House, and many of us felt at least a little bit differently about life in America. It did not seem as indulgent as it might now to want to be happy. I felt that I had a right to a better life than the one I had, and for me that meant moving to a new place, in this case to New Orleans, where I had spent several of the past winters. I didn’t think about how I would feel after making a dramatic, permanent change from a city of 8 million to a city of 400,000. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to do it or what it would mean for me, a single woman in her 40s, to start over again; I just knew it was time to go.

It’s now been nearly three years since I bought my home in the Ninth Ward. Next summer I will have been living here full-time for two years. The frenzy of starting up my new existence has nearly subsided. I have furnished a home, with tall bookshelves and a charming guest bed (please come visit) and curtains that let the light in every room so I never have to feel gloomy, unless I look at Twitter for too long. I have a dozen houseplants now, after never having had a single one as an adult, and a papaya tree in the backyard, which bore me inedible fruit this fall, but it looks tropical and majestic so I don’t mind. I changed my voter registration, not that it much matters down here, my blue vote in a lipstick-red state, but still I enthusiastically cast my ballot. I am a Louisiana resident, for better or for worse. And enough time has passed that I now have perspective to reflect on the biggest differences in my life in this much smaller city.

In New York City, as with most big cities, there is the opportunity to be anonymous on the streets. For a long time, I loved no one knowing who I was or what my business was. I took comfort in the speed with which I moved through the streets of the city, head down, in my own little world, but still somehow absorbing a thousand details at once. It was helpful to my development as an artist, I felt. If all you want is to be left alone with your imagination, then there is no better place to do it than New York.

In New Orleans, there is an insistence to the way we all interact with each other out in the world. We share these streets, which are generally sparsely populated in the neighborhoods. There are good mornings, goodnights, how y’all doings, and head nods and smiles and eye contact. There are neighbors who walk out on their front porch to give treats to my dog. There is polite chit-chat even if we don’t know each other. There are waves from car windows. There is communication. My solo-artist instincts still sometimes rise up, but here, I can’t hide even on those rare occasions I wish I could. This is me now: I’d rather be seen and known than ignored and isolated.

It’s not just the streets to which I feel more connected. It’s the entire city. Part of this might have to do with being a homeowner, and being more cognizant of public services, especially in a city that has a complex and dramatic past with hurricanes and flooding, government corruption, and troubled, antiquated utilities. (We’ve had several boil-water advisories recently, not to mention power outages all year long; I keep a store of emergency supplies for the first time in my life.) My awareness of public issues has increased exponentially because they impact me and my neighbors on a day-to-day basis. Local politics is everything here. I witness the struggle every day, I listen to the conversations—in my neighborhood of the Bywater, affordable housing is a hot topic—and I try to participate in this community as best I can, whether through contributing time or money. I even clean the catch basin on my street before it rains. The smallest of gestures reverberates in a city this size.

In the past three years, I’ve had to reconfigure the yes and no coordinates in my brain. What I learned how to do in New York—and this is an extremely important skill to have in any big city—is how to say “no.” How to build boundaries and walls. How to know when enough is enough. How to reject or prevent distractions so that I could do my work most efficiently. I will take that power with me for the rest of my life, but I will use it sparingly from now on. Because you can’t say no to your neighbors here. You have to pay attention to the people around you.

There are other big-city expats here, in New Orleans, doing the same kind of reconfiguration. My friend Tamika moved here five years ago, to work in the television industry, after she began a relationship with a New Orleanian. She is wry and stylish and cool. For my last birthday, she brought me bounty from her backyard: several bunches of small green bananas, and also three large sprigs of fresh rosemary and an enormous pickle jar full of pecans still in their shells. Recently I biked to her house on the edge of the Treme neighborhood, for a visit on a Sunday, and found myself trapped there for a while when it started to rain viciously, as it often does. I filched leftover Halloween candy from a plastic pumpkin bucket while we discussed life in the big city versus the small.

She brought up transportation issues. We both nodded vigorously at the problem of the subway system in New York. Public transportation is no great shakes in New Orleans, but the city is bikeable, it’s walkable, and we are both fortunate enough to have cars. When I read tales of my friends’ morning commutes in New York on social media, and see the crowded platforms on their Instagram stories, I often worry the world is coming to an end, and this is just one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Then, Tamika and I talked a bit about moving to a new city in our 40s. “You can be any age anywhere here,” she said. Any bar, restaurant, show, gallery, street, public space; all are welcome. This is a city that respects its elders, and its history. New Orleans revels in its past. I admitted to her I had started to feel aged out in New York, a place that is constantly seeking the new.

When you move to a new city when you’re young, you can easily meet people. Go to a bar and sit there for a few hours—you’ll make two new best friends (and exes) in a night. All the friends I made when I first moved to New York City in the late ’90s were the ones I did drugs with. I am not knocking the friendships I made at 1 a.m. on the dance floor, but they were born out of different interests.

I don’t go out like that anymore. Moving to a smaller city was an opportunity to consider the next part of my life in a less frantic, more engaged way than I had in my youth. I was looking for a different kind of stability when I moved here. And it was less about making mistakes I could learn from and more about making choices I believed in.

The rain beat down on the roof of Tamika’s house. She raised the idea of anonymity. “You have more accountability for your behavior in a city this small,” said Tamika. “How you treat someone, how you break up with someone. Like, you can’t ghost people here.” Because you will keep on running into them. Over and over. Sometimes I get what I call small town-itis here. Everyone knows your business. That is the trade-off.

“I thrived on anonymity,” I said to Tamika. And then I paused. “Until I stopped growing.” I laughed at myself. “Well, this turned into a therapy session, didn’t it?”

For a long time, thriving meant one thing to me: to be writing, and to be writing well. To be alone, by yourself, in a room, working. There is no other way to be productive. That is a fact. But what about thriving because of human connections? What about slowing it down and seeing the way the world works? What about listening to others speak? What if human interaction made you feel better and not worse?

When I lived in New York, I constructed an elaborate protective system. I knew which path to take to the subway where there was less garbage on the streets to smell, and I knew what time to go to the bagel shop to avoid the rush, and I knew which bar to go to where I wouldn’t feel like I could have been everyone’s (extremely young, like I had them as a teenager, obviously) mother.

And I had this network of caregivers: a facialist, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, and a hair stylist, all of whom operated at various locations on or near Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. I used to refer to them as my “self-care coven.” I saw them all on a regular basis, ranging from weekly to monthly to once every six weeks. That is where my money went. To rent, and to these women. I relied on all of them to keep me feeling safe, attractive, and emotionally healthy. I believed I could not have survived without them. And possibly I was right.

To me, now, this seems insane. It was a big city, but I had created a small world. I was putting Band-Aids on myself for years. To survive life. I occasionally described myself as “good at New York.” I was able to maintain a life there. But that’s just it. I was only maintaining. I was not thriving. And it seems like a good and important question to ask oneself: What do you need to do in order to thrive? What does that kind of life look like? It’s an incredibly privileged question, of course: The idea that one could thrive rather than just survive the current daily pressure of contemporary civilization. It’s a question I could ask myself as a single, adult human being with a little money in the bank. But I believe, desperately, we all deserve to thrive. I want this for all of us.

I still miss a few parts of life in a much bigger city. I miss being able to get anything I desire whenever I desire it, and the exhilarating landscape, and the sense that I am exactly where I am supposed to be when I am there, because this is where everything happens. And I miss the people, specifically a group of people I shared a decadent, boozy meal with in Brooklyn last summer, a long table of boisterous, fast-talking, witty, brainy, big-hearted people. My people. Listen, our people can exist anywhere, in cities big or small. I have plenty of friends I love a lot in New Orleans. But that is what I left behind when I left New York, more than anything else. Eighteen years of building friendships. Those people are irreplaceable in my heart.

Once in a while, the street where I live is a route for a second-line parade. People park on the neutral ground and the sidewalks fill and it is a scene, one that reminds me of the day of the New York City Marathon, when everyone in the neighborhood stops racing around for a second and stands together on a street corner and cheers, except in New Orleans it feels like marathon day a few times a week.

During the last parade, I sat on my front porch with my dog, sipping a drink out of a plastic to-go cup from a bar I had never been to, which had somehow ended up in my kitchen cabinet. I was waiting for a friend to join me, but I was content on my own, too. It was sunny, and everyone was dressed to kill and people smiled at my dog. I watched a woman joyously approach a group of handsome men she knew; they all joked about how the second line was probably just getting started, miles away. The woman was bossy, and funny, and she wrangled all the men into a line to take a picture. Then she looked at me—perhaps she had been noticing me all along. Sitting there by myself. Maybe she was worried I was lonely. She yelled to me, “Neighbor, come get in the picture, come on now.” She insisted on it. I did not know how to say no to her, and I did not want to. And so, I rose and joined them.

Jami Attenberg’s seventh novel, All This Could Be Yours, is set in New Orleans and will be published October 22. Follow her on Twitter @jamiattenberg.


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