Friday, September 21, 2012

That Old Magic Feeling

 Matt Domino ruminates on September in New York City.

It’s September and recently I’ve been thinking about New York losing its magic. Whenever I think about the dazzling quality of New York, I think about September; school starts, the days become warm and pleasant instead of humid and stifling; people are returning from sabbaticals, vacations and other trips. Like Jordan Baker said, “life starts all over again when things get crisp in the fall.”

Still, its funny that I have lived in New York for four years and that September always stands out. My birthday is September 11, but neither my birth nor the memory of a tragedy have had to do with the magic. I’ve seen New York in the middle of beautiful desolate December snow storms on abandoned Manhattan avenues; from Christmas parties in beautiful Upper West Side Apartments; from silent strolls along the Gowanus at twilight; from the peaceful perch of the hill of Sunset Park; on shivering rides on the 7 train in January with a stomach full of Szechwan; and I’ve seen the city wrapped in its distant haze and murk from the high noon sands of Rockaway Beach.

Through every year I’ve lived in the city, I’ve experienced the ups and downs of each season. I’ve trudged to work in Times Square through the rain and snow; sweated on the brutal 6-train platform at Union Square; lounged in Madison and Bryant Square Parks on long lunches. No matter what emotional high or low I’ve found myself at, there was always some aspect of the city, some overheard phrase, a faint smell, a disparate touch and temperature that brought me to full life—made me more alive than I ever knew possible. And I suppose that nothing made life seem more possible, more strange and tremendous than the onset of a cool September night with warm, still-summery, clothes on, a place or party to go for the evening and the promise of a girl when I got there. And that feeling, that enchantment always opened up every memory and every sensation of New York—and sometimes of memories further back and outside of New York—so that I was no longer just living one night in September, but instead it seemed as though I was living every moment, every night I had ever known.

But this September, I have noticed or felt a lack of magic. People seem busier and faster. Necks seem to be craned even further and further forward towards their screens. I see faces look at me strangely along 23rd Street—although, that just could be the frenzied looks of hunger or the narcotic glaze of someone either leaving or entering Eataly. Either way, it seems that everyone has somewhere to go. When I hear strange music coming from the dark of Madison Square Park, I want to stand and listen, but I know that I should be going as well— but I don’t know where to go. This isn’t New York’s fault; it’s most certainly mine. Because when I take that last breath of reasonably fresh air before getting on the subway, it’s harder for me to feel my heart flutter.

My birthday just passed, but this isn’t about me getting old. I accept the fact that each year the amount of people older than me will grow fewer, while the amount of people younger than me will grow greater. At 27, I’m stronger and faster than I’ve ever been—that is not denial, but merely fact. I jog three miles each morning and climb four flights of stairs at least 5-6 times a day while I’m at work. I play basketball; do pushups and isometric abdominal exercises. I read, write and tweet. I’m like a basketball player hitting his prime (M.J., Kobe, Wade and now Lebron all hit their peaks from 27-30). No, New York or growing old do not intimidate me and I’m not the kind of person to become jaded. So, then, there is something discouraging about the way I feel.

I want to blame my job, but that seems like its too easy. I work long, unrewarding hours, but so do many people. While I’m at work—again, like almost all other people—I want to be doing something else, namely writing. So, while I work, I do my best to keep up with the writing that is posted each day on the Internet. I flit from daily favorite to daily favorite; from Twitter feed to Twitter feed; from Tumblr post to a writer’s personal website. I get lost in reading about the romance between Keith Gessen and Emily Gould and then wrapped in why people hate Emily Gould and then why I’m not as famous as either of them. From there, I quickly check my Facebook to see if anyone liked a link to the latest post on my blog or to see if that girl from my not so distant past has decided that she needed me after all. Then, it’s quickly over to LinkedIn to see if anyone has looked at my profile or to see if there are any new job postings (there usually aren’t). Finally, I check the submission managers of all the magazines and literary websites that I have sent my short fiction to—everything is “In Review” until it is “Declined.” Again, my skin is thick; I know, to paraphrase Hymen Roth, “this is the business I’ve chosen.”

Now, I do all of this checking, maintaining and pruning of my online presence, of my worldliness and up-to-speediness all while still viciously plowing through daily work, customer service reports, e-mails and passive aggressive banter with my co-workers. Again, this is not a unique story, but for me it’s unique because it is my story right now. I feel out of sorts and jaded and I don’t like it. Just a few months ago, I was writing on my own blog about how all the possibilities of Internet writing and the development of content were tremendously exciting and an inspiration for me to get up each day. Now, just a mere few months later, and after a fantastic birthday weekend, I’m not so sure.

To be a writer, even an unknown one, is to be vain. Vanity comes above all else and then only steps aside to make room for truth—that is the inarguable hierarchy of writing. My inclination to write this first comes from a desire to be heard; it is only after I am heard that I hope I can glean a portion of the truth of my circumstance. What has me feeling jaded is that after I check the stats on my own blog and then read all of my favorite writers and then refresh Twitter and then refresh Twitter and then refresh Facebook and then go back to a long column I was reading and then get sidetracked looking up Alexander the Great on Wikipedia, I feel my vanity fading. You might say that is a good thing, but to be a writer, or to aspire to be a writer, it is a bad thing. The most important thing a writer can do is to read everything out there and still go to bed and wake up feeling that what they have to say still has not been said, or at least not the way they would say it, which, regardless of Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Joyce, is the right way to say it.

Yet, when I scan the Internet landscape and read so much that I enjoy and see so many young writers who are much more adaptable and seamless in their navigation of this constant rapid life of information and thought we live in than I am, doubts begin to form. Perhaps there isn’t enough room for me in this brave new world after all; perhaps all that muscle, all that blind faith behind my words were no match for the vast ocean of history and the ceaseless undertow of the present. Maybe the stars just weren’t aligned the way you wanted them to be. Or, as Marlo Stanfield of Baltimore famously said, maybe “I want it to be one way, but its the other.”

And so, as I said, I have been sitting on lunch break in Madison Square Park recently, lying in the shade of one of the grass pens, and thinking that perhaps the magic of New York, for me, is gone. Yet, the other day, not wanting to feel hopeless and sorry and jaded, I decided to take stock once again.

Earlier this month I enjoyed a celebratory birthday weekend that included a reading I hosted on Friday (9/7), a late night birthday party on Saturday (9/8) at a cozy neighborhood bar that stayed open past closing time to accommodate us and then an all-day drinking marathon ending with grilled steaks on Sunday (9/9). On Monday (9/10), I had dinner with two of my best friends and then all of a sudden it was Tuesday, 9/11/12—the eleventh anniversary of 9-11. Having a birthday in the Facebook era is funny. By my real birthday, I was done celebrating, but I spent the whole day watching as a stream of different messages flooded through. Messages from people I don’t even speak to or quite remember how I know. You can almost separate yourself from the situation and just sit back and take in the stream of good-tidings. Still, I spent that day at work thinking about how bad my job was and about how much more I wanted from my life. I ended up walking alone along the streets of Little Italy that night. I talked to my mom on the phone, picked up a cigar and then took it back to my apartment. I sat out on my fire escape with a cool September breeze blowing. I put on my stereo and listened to Nilsson Sings Newman.

From my fire escape, I looked up and saw the beaming lights of the former World Trade Center shooting up into outer space. I realized that I was more vain than I even imagined. Growing up, I made a point to separate my birthday from the memorial of 9-11. “It was my birthday first,” I used to say. And there is a merit to that: you can’t lose your identity to tragedy. Yet, here I was at 27, not taking more time to even fathom and think about the terror and loss that had once occurred at the spot where those lights now shone. Instead, all I had were hang-ups and rapid, unconscious clicks to my LinkedIn profile. I wasn’t going to say a prayer, but I was going to think for a minute about those people who lost their lives and about the fact that life always goes on. I kicked my legs up and looked at the lights. I made my way through my cigar and I listened as Nilsson sang:

I sing a song of long ago,
When things were green
And moving slow
And when people stopped to say hello
They’d say hi to you.

When I put my cigar out that night, I remembered that I had a good book to read on the subway in the morning. A book that I had already read, but liked so much that I wanted to read again just to remember how good it was. And I’d have coffee the next morning, my birthday celebrations over, read that book, get to work, start plowing away and just see what happened.

So, after taking stock on lunch break in Madison Square Park, it seems that I’m as vain as any other writer and that New York may seem foreign and without magic for now, but life starts over when things get crisp again in the fall. And from what I read, my beloved Phillies are making a run at the Wild Card and the Orioles have a little bit of magic down in Baltimore.


  1. My Lord,

    A great post. I am aware how little my advice likely means to you, but allow me to say this: society is greatly overrated. All those things you did on your birthday, all the attention drain that is New York city, is what would make many writers want to leave most--not stay. You know that New York is no brusquer or more harsh than it has ever been, indeed it is probably a great deal less so. The change you feel about the city is a change in you.

    Before I go on, think of the writers you love. Joyce wrote Ulysses from numerous different cities, finding it impossible to write his masterpiece about Dublin in Dublin. Similarly, Rilke was driven to a castle to complete his masterpiece and Kafka dissolved nearly all of his friendships in the name of writing.

    Now, as someone who has lived on and off in New York city his entire life I always find the literary odes to life in Manhattan somewhat humorous in that they all purport to be so unique, and yet, all reiterate nearly identical details. i.e. city streets abandoned in snow, seeing the streets from glitzy uptown pads, etc. It is all just as cliche as the dusty country road.

    Think of how overused New York is in terms of literature and, meanwhile, think of how much of this country is prime for literary investigation, how many 3X7 mile swaths of land could give up their secrets much in the way Manhattan has.

    Anyway, I have gathered leaving New York City is not very palatable for you as you would have done it the moment you felt your vanity waning. However, if you stay, your writing may suffer for it. Friends are wonderful things and the average person does and should enjoy them, however, make no mistake, friends are worthless to the writer.

    With endless love,


    1. Hey Anon,

      All great points as always. Its true, I threw so many cliched images of New York into this post. Snowy night? C'mon I could've done better than that.

      And I do think about Joyce's exile a lot.