Twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom, 8/10/20
I have had the same song stuck in my head for the past month. No, it's not Weird Al's Hamilton polka (though that one did take up residence in my cranium for about a week) or "Lose Yo Job," which did the same back in June. Instead, it's French composer Maurice Ravel's 13-minute opus La valse, which premiered a hundred years ago, in 1920. In the quiet moments when I'm waking up, or absentmindedly brushing my teeth, or reading anything, I'll realize that swoony, ominous waltz melodies are warbling very quietly through my mind, like a soundtrack for the very boring public television show that is my life.
La valse isn't just a waltz, though, despite its name. Most waltzes are stately and proper; La valse is messier, more impressionistic, chaotic neutral instead of lawful good. Even at the beginning of the song, when things haven't fully disintegrated yet, you get the feeling that you've maybe quaffed one too many glasses of sparkling wine and are lurching more than dancing across the ballroom. (It doesn’t help that every thirty seconds the orchestra keeps changing the tune.) And closer to the end, things slowly but surely become apocalyptic: suddenly there are Star Wars-like horn blasts and it sort of sounds like chandeliers and chunks of ornately carved ceiling are now breaking free and falling on people. The general mood is "edifices crumbling." Which is why, when the piece premiered shortly after World War I, everyone thought it was really about the collapse of decadent Western civilization. (Ravel, for his part, was like, "Look, people, I just wanted to write a tribute to Johann Strauss II, the greatest waltz composer of all time.”)
In some ways it's obvious why La valse would be stuck so insistently in my head right now. It's a mood, the mood of the newest iteration of the decline of Western civilization currently underway, or 2020’s ambient, all-encompassing chaos, or simply the doom-laden state of mind that creeps in whenever I think about the/my future. But the song is also connected obscurely in my mind with what I spent large swaths of July doing. Somehow, with the help of modern technology, very good spatial recall, and two impossibly generous and reliable Brooklynites, I managed to move out of my New York apartment without leaving California. Moving remotely is actually kind of great: mostly I let my friends take whatever they wanted, arranged to sell my furniture for extreme bargain rates on Craigslist, and donated what I couldn't sell or give away to Goodwill. And last weekend, I received all of what remained: the rest of my possessions in New York crammed into a large suitcase, a duffel bag, and five cardboard boxes (one of which contained 43 pounds of books) and shipped across the country. I am officially, as of July 31, no longer a New Yorker.
But really, I ceased to be a New Yorker months ago, though I couldn't tell you exactly when. At some point I put my carry-on away in the closet next to my puffy winter jacket, stopped looking for cheap flights back to the city, and let my New York Review of Books subscription lapse. There was no real inciting incident, no sudden epiphany of how untenable it was to go back. As late as June I was still devising plans for where I might live for the final semester of my program. Hear me out, I told my parents—what if I just couch-surfed for three months straight? (Did I really have that many friends in New York?, they countered.) Eventually I came to the obvious conclusion that I simply would not be returning to New York for the next very long while.
Which is fine, honestly. I spent barely seven months physically there, and spent most of that time bearing something of a grudge towards the city for being overhyped and underdelivering. Why on earth was the food so mediocre and so expensive? Why, in fact, were all basic necessities priced so exorbitantly? Why was it utterly exhausting to go anywhere? And how could anyone live in peace knowing that rats and cockroaches could scuttle in and out of your home with impunity???? So much of New York's glamour either glosses over the steep costs of living there or romanticizes them (the grime and the hustle, they make you strong), and I felt stodgy and uncool for not buying in.
Of course there were things I genuinely liked. I liked the unaccustomed sense of autonomy I felt when I could walk or take the subway anywhere without feeling like a second-class citizen because I don't drive. (Living within walking distance of the Met and paying merely a suggested donation because I was a student in New York felt like a literal miracle, or some sort of amazing scam, though I never actually got in for free—I felt too guilty about informing the cashier that I wouldn't be donating anything.) I liked how many of my friends I was able to see—everyone comes through New York eventually. But in the vast majority of my memories from those seven months, the parts I really remember, I was cold and exhausted and lonely. When I left, I felt more relieved than anything else.
But there's New York the actual place and New York the dream, and while I'm skeptical of fetishizing any real person, place, or thing (or animal, vegetable, or mineral), I can't help but feel a twinge of loss. I'm far too close to thirty to fritter away my youth in some low-paying media job and have a series of meaningless flings in ThE GrEaTeSt CiTy In ThE wOrLd, but now I'll never get to—even if I've never, at any point, actually wanted that life. But that's okay, because someone's already written something that captures the complex swirl of grandness and dissolution that comes with moving away from The City, and it ain't (just) Joan Didion. It was also a French dude who lived a hundred years ago and thought Viennese waltzes were the shit.