Should I Stay or Should I Go?

It’s a difficult calculation to make.

Image: Marcela McGreal (CC BY 2.0)

I never say no to an essay about leaving New York. I’ve read dozens, all, in their own ways, riffs on Joan Didion’s classic “Goodbye to All That:” romantic elegies to youthful striving as much as they are tales of the city. Even when the writer is insufferable, even when her New York is barely recognizable to me, I am fascinated by the weight, the dramatics of the writer’s decision to go or not to go, perhaps because my own departure from New York was so different.

I didn’t move to New York to follow a dream, test my mettle, or see if I could make it. I was born there, third-generation, and at eighteen did not think of myself as “moving away.” I was leaving for college. College was far away, and, sure, who knows, afterwards I might travel around or live somewhere else for a while, but I never really questioned that at some point I’d return.

Bafflingly, I am 33 and have somehow spent nearly as many years away from New York as I did growing up there. I drifted to San Francisco after college, due as much to being in its gravitational orbit as anything else, then stayed at a moment I might have returned when I met my husband. “I don’t care what anybody says,” he said, teasing, on his first visit to meet my family, “New York City is an exciting place with lots going on.” We talked now and again about one day moving to New York but instead gathered moss: two kids, a mortgage, a minivan.

My parents still live in Manhattan in the same place we moved to when I was twelve. I spend a fortune each year on plane tickets, visiting with my young children in tow as often as my budget and vacation schedule allows. When I’m there, listening to my children snore on their mats on my old bedroom floor or watching them cavort under a sprinkler in the same playgrounds I frequented as a child, I have the uncanny feeling that my adult life in California is just a kind of hazy, improbable dream, that real life is what snaps into focus on the familiar sidewalks of my natal city.

It’s not so much that New York is wonderful. (Though it is. It can be.) It’s that it is mine. I retain the sense of ownership that all city brats grow up with, taking pride in the way the world gawks at the places and things that are ordinary to us (that’s my Ray’s Pizza — RIP — in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thank you very much) while we thumb our noses at tourists and arrivistes. I have the native daughter’s sense of entitlement, too.

I push the stroller down 11th street, past the once red-lit window with its tableau of creepy old dolls you had to run past with your eyes shut because if you caught their glassy eyes one could enter your dreams and kill you; there’s a tasteful gray curtain in their place now. I see through current storefronts to past ones; the eyebrow threading joint that used to be the bakery my grandmother would take me to on the way to my weekly flute lesson at Greenwich Music House. She would buy me an enormous butter cookie and then chide me for eating the whole thing. Turn west again and I’m seventeen and barefoot and kissing a boy I barely know on the last Friday night of the school year.

It’s fantasy, of course. Those versions of me don’t exist anymore and the city isn’t mine to return to.

But there are less fantastical aspects to consider. I’m the only child of parents who aren’t getting any younger and who the jaws of life could not pry from Manhattan: my mother, who has lived her entire life in Manhattan below 14th street, save for a brief study abroad period at Brooklyn College; and my father, who at 67 still goes out to hear live music 3 or 4 nights a week and has, not jokingly, we think, requested we scatter his ashes at the Bowery Ballroom.

California has been good to my family in many ways but it’s not paradise; there’s still traffic, still problems, still bullshit. And we scramble every time a kid is sick or their preschool is closed for one of the 5 million Jewish holidays in October in a way that my parents, with both their mothers a subway ride away, never had to. Those grandmothers stepped in on sick days, trotted me over to my various afterschool activities, and whisked me away for a night or two of watching Golden Girls and eating Mallomars in bed when my parents needed a break. I feel sad when I consider what my children are missing out on.

For the last few years, with our two babies close in age and our two jobs, my husband and I were in survival mode, plain and simple. We did not have the faculties required for making such a decision. Now that the littler one is a real person and we’re all getting a little more sleep, the move, while still almost unfathomably inconvenient, is theoretically possible.

It’s a difficult calculation to make.

To move to New York would give us access to my parents and extended family, perhaps a greater sense of rootedness for my children, and of course access to all the pleasures and adventures that life in a capital of civilization affords. We spent hundreds on fill-the-gap babysitting last year and we go out for dates now once in a never, so the childcare savings of being close to my parents is not negligible and also probably beneficial to our overall quality-of-life and our marriage. We’d also no longer be paying to fly cross-country multiple times a year. And when my parents reach the stage at which they require more hands-on assistance from me, I have to assume that my proximity will significantly lighten the impact of fulfilling my duties to them.

But there are costs too, not the least of which is the price of the move and of suitable housing close enough to the city. Our income is outer-borough at best and we’re soft suburbanites by now, used to a guest room and parking. We’d have to find comparable jobs and sell our house on a timeline I can’t quite parse out. And there’s the opportunity cost of what we’d be giving up: the house we live in in Berkeley isn’t my dream house, but it’s cozy, it meets our needs, and it’s home. We’re in a school district we like, at least in theory, in a diverse, small city in a part of the country that, while far from perfect, is about as racially chill as one can hope for in America today — a significant consideration for my multi-racial family. We, both parents and the kids, have friends.

I love the ways that my New York childhood shaped me — my cosmopolitan-ness, my open-mindedness, my toughness, my independence are all points of pride — yet I’d be happy to spare my own children the street harassment, preoccupation with status, and generalized anxiety that I experienced growing up there. Is it better to ride bicycles on your own down leafy streets at nine or to go out exploring the city at night with your friends when you’re sixteen? Someone please tell me. I don’t know.

Change will happen one way or the other. Children will grow up and away from us, our parents will age and need us, our neighborhoods will gentrify and decay and possibly be subsumed by the sea. I’m not sure what the future holds, but either way, it is certain to cost me dearly.

Joanna Petrone is a teacher and writer in the Bay Area.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.