The Sixth Borough
If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. And I almost made it in New York. The grand irony being that when I was finally strong enough to live in the city, I decided to leave it. The first half of my thirties were spent annulling the many mistakes of my twenties: the unavailable men, a daily struggle with bulimia, that phase in the fetish scene. By the time 33 rolled around (the exact age in which Jesus had died for our sins, according to my Catholic upbringing), I had learned to keep my meals down and my head up.
15 years in the Big Apple had afforded me a wild ride, but I was in danger of becoming rotten all the way through. Despite the perks of living a semi-glamorous life in Manhattan—being a wellness guru to celebrities and scions while living in a centrally located shoebox—40 was a threat, not a promise. I had become so good at distinguishing the married women from their lonely single counterparts on the subway, before ever looking at their fingers, only their faces, whether their eyes possessed a certain softness or not, that I avoided my own reflection in those train windows. I didn’t need to be married, but I was sick of being single.
Not splitting the rent with someone was one reason; not splitting the nightly bottle of wine was another. Both were legitimate concerns for a 30-something female careening toward a future which looked less glittery with each passing year. And I’m not afraid to say it: most women want to hunker down with Mr. or Ms. Right (most men, too). For all the well-meaning friends who told me, from the comfortable confines of their own marriages, that being single should be enjoyed, that “it’ll happen when the time is right,” I challenge them to a years-long nightly habit of dining out alone. (“Just You?” is my name in Cherokee.)
I was a solid 6 in New York, but a negotiable 9 elsewhere, so I moved to Austin, where attraction inflation worked in my favor. This must sound terribly cynical, that there exists a citywide rating system based on income, status, age, and yes, looks, which evaluates an individual’s overall appeal, but it’s actually pretty comical—and I planned to have the last laugh. My new city promised a youthfulness and openness that would hopefully extend my own, and the ratio of men to women meant dating wasn’t a game of (men) shooting fish (women) in a barrel (Manhattan, and select parts of Brooklyn). I would have to give up 40 Carrots frozen yogurt at Bloomingdales and $20 mani-pedis on Mondays, art openings and alluring events that offered endless wine, seeing a thousand faces each morning by 9AM, and walking 50 blocks in any given day, but the move would surely be worth it. Besides, I was inching toward 40 and still dining alone. What choice did I have?
New York City’s dating scene, for all of its possibilities, opportunities, endless Tinder swipes, and tiny-waisted twenty somethings, was a conservative social caste system imposing rigid rules and assigned roles. Being attractive and smart, making money (or, at least, not being in debt), living in a desirable neighborhood, and whatever other seemingly positive traits were affixed to being “the whole package” were never going to be enough for me to feel safe and secure: even though crime was way down in the city, my fear of being alone and unhappy was growing at an increasing rate.
I was raised on the wrong side of the Hudson, for instance, and I was a chronic renter—no amount of money from my small business would ever be enough for the down payment of a 300 square foot studio below 125th Street. And even though I had gone to a good school, my family wasn’t a privately held company rooted in the city for generations. Being able to afford the city was becoming increasingly difficult—for me and every other New Yorker making less than $250K a year. There was no modest trust fund, no oligarchic sugar daddy, no rent-stabilized apartment from a deceased great aunt in my impending future. Just the number 40.
Austin’s nickname is the Velvet Rut, an image that perfectly conjures up comfy mediocrity. It’s a city which prides itself on its 1099 gig culture of hipsters, craft beer, and local music. It’s Silver Lake on steroids; Williamsburg minus the L Train. Easy going, but epicurean. A state capital dressed up as a college town, sophisticated about being a tiny blue buoy in an ocean of red. Like other mid-level burgeoning cities, it still affords newcomers a break with the cost versus the standard of living. There are those who have already been priced out of milk-and-honey Austin and have left for places like Asheville and Portland, but for someone like myself who just simply couldn’t cut the coastal mustard anymore, sliding into the center crease of the country, as if America were a neatly folded sheet of paper, right into the velvet rut was the better option. Rent might be rising, but it’s nowhere near NYC prices. And milk is still cheap.
With 110 people supposedly moving here each day, I keep wondering when the other me’s will show up: the Tri-State area young(ish) urban professional females in search of a simpler city life and a possible spouse, in need of a decent singles scene, a Saturday morning farmers’ market, and after-work pilates. A million people have left New York City since 2010, their new whereabouts a real-estate mystery. Did they head to Denver, also known as “Menver” for its promising ratio of less women? Are they day drinking in Portland—either one? Are they holding on, white-knuckled in one of the outer boroughs, praying that Bed-Stuy doesn’t become the next Bushwick? (Or is it the other way around?)
In the end, loneliness wasn’t the nail in my NYC coffin: housing was. I attempted to buy a studio in a middle-income co-op in Harlem, not far from where I signed my first lease 14 years prior. After jumping through the bank’s hoops for a mortgage, cobbling together a down payment, and asking three of my clients to write recommendations based on my stellar character (who doesn’t love a yoga teacher with anger issues), the co-op board showed no love for me during our 30-minute interview. One of the members asked if I wouldn’t feel more comfortable living downtown. Another asked if I ever let clients stay the night. This predominantly grey-haired group of apartment owners saw me as a whippersnapper wild card rather than a young female entrepreneur, which is why it ultimately didn’t work out with the co-op, and the city itself.
My husband and I met within six months of my move to Austin. After spending my first Christmas in Texas in New York, seeing clients and visiting friends, I reactivated my OKCupid account out of boredom during a delayed takeoff from JFK. There he was. We met in person a week later, our first date over drinks lasting for hours as we shared stories about his California roots and my East Coast ties, and what had brought us each to Austin. Two years later, we got married at City Hall in lower Manhattan during a polar vortex, right before Christmas. It was too cold for wedding photos by the Brooklyn Bridge so our photographer suggested the subway instead, snapping us smooching on a half-empty train heading uptown.
I don’t think we would have married, or cohabitated, had we dated in New York. He tends to disagree, but knowing what I know about being a solid 6 in the city, my husband would have been waiting for the upgrade. (Despite the open carry law in Texas, he’s never been inclined to shoot fish in a barrel.) And that’s New York’s punchline; by offering so much, the city becomes too much. I could have stayed, kept getting interesting work gigs and going to fun places every night of the week, but I would never have found the physical and emotional space Austin offered. Those first three months in my new city allowed me to decompress while untangling emotional knots which had formed since moving to New York the summer before 9/11. I slept long and hard each night, and streamed the Brian Lehrer Show each morning while sending out resumes and sipping iced coffee in my sunny one-bedroom in South Austin.
Life in the Velvet Rut is pretty darn good. There is something to be said for a Trader Joe’s checkout line that doesn’t end at the store’s entrance. I miss fall in Manhattan, but not the winter. I teach yoga at a great studio in town, but still go back and forth to New York for dear friends and old clients. My husband often likes to join. This new place is an easier existence, with just enough book readings and music happenings to be culturally satisfying. Instead of being a small city in Texas, Austin feels like the sixth borough of New York. Except now I take JetBlue home rather than the A Train.