New York City keeps you runnin’

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I have a complicated relationship with Facebook’s “On this Day” feature. Sometimes I enjoy the reminders of places I’ve visited, of spending time with friends who I rarely see and of brief flirtations with the Paleo diet, revenge poetry and a man with an unfortunate tooth-to-gum ratio, in reverse chronological order. Mostly it shows how often I’ve worn the same bleach-faded Doobie Brothers T-shirt over the past decade.

This month, Facebook’s daily updates have been commemorating the time I ran away to Brooklyn for six or seven weeks, and there’s really no better way to describe it than running away. I was a couple of years out of a relationship that even Facebook rarely reminds me of, and my career felt like it had turned into a collection of tight-lipped responses thanking me for my interest. I wasn’t writing anything other than cover letters for résumés that were ignored, selected and dragged into the trash, along with Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, LinkedIn updates and other things that no one really wants.

A friend of a friend was getting ready to sublet her place and needed a reasonably responsible renter, so I went. I wanted a change of scenery, even if that meant laying awake at night, staring at a different pattern of shadows on a different ceiling.

Her apartment was in an imposing, impressively crumbling building in Williamsburg, one that looked like it would slide into the East River if you scrolled through Google Street View too quickly. It had exposed pipes, chunks of missing plaster and faded spray paint in the stairwells from an artist who called himself Dick Chicken. (This may or may not have been the Dick Chicken. I never found out.) Anyway, it was perfect.

I carried two months worth of stuff into her apartment and immediately knocked over one of her bookcases, spending the first 20 minutes trying to re-pot a plant and brushing black soil out of thousands of pages before sliding them back onto the shelves. These were her books — she was (and is) a talented, critically acclaimed novelist — and those previously well-organized paperbacks were bound, ISBNed proof that she’d done something, finished something and sent her words out into the world.

My career had been entirely confined to the internet, so I didn’t have anything tangible to show for it, not without an active wi-fi connection. I can’t pull a paperback out of my bag and casually drop it onto the table at parties. (Not that novelists typically do this, although I believe that Mitch Albom might.) The best I could do is to corner someone by the guacamole, shoving my Twitter feed in their face and shout about the time I was retweeted by the former governor of Vermont. I’m super fun, obviously.

Anyway, at the time, it felt wrong to even refer to what I had as a career. It felt dishonest, like trying to convince someone that your poorly stitched Canal Street knockoff handbag was the real thing. I spent six weeks trying to shake that feeling, and the city helped as much as the people in it, whether it was seeing Chrissie Hynde in concert, hearing Laurie Anderson talk about creativity or just forcing myself to make eye contact with handsome baristas with deliberately crappy tattoos.

It worked, so I worked. I got a job fact-checking a book about investment strategies, sspending most days sitting in battered, leather coffeeshop furniture, circling slightly inaccurate Warren Buffett quotes. I had a brief-but-enjoyable gig with a celebrity magazine you probably read while you wait to check out at Target, an assignment that lasted just long enough for me to make out with one of my (equally temporary) coworkers.

There is something about that collection of boroughs that makes you work harder, if only because every day you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with people who are doing the same thing. My friends — the real ones and the temporary ones — were all networking, hustling, freelancing, striving and forcing themselves to be confident enough to do all of it. At the end of the day, when I dragged myself past the Dick Chicken on the second floor, I felt like I needed to roll a heavy mesh security screen over my own brain, just in case someone tried to steal my motivation while I slept.

After six weeks, I came back to Winston-Salem feeling sharper, and like I’d learned how to use my own newly forged blades to trim anything unnecessary from my life, slicing free of anything that slowed me down. I was also exhausted. (But I went back for another five weeks later that summer.) Seeing those Facebook posts reminds me that I need to get back there. Not necessarily to that hulking Brooklyn building, but I definitely need that kind of lean urgency again.

The apartment owner and I exchanged emails shortly after I originally settled in and the bookcase was again in one functional piece. She asked how I’d gotten there, and I told her it was mostly because I was running away from my problems. (In retrospect, I think she’d just meant, “Which train did you take?”)

She said she understood, but that she’d reached a point where she knew what she wanted and ran toward it instead.

I think I can do that now, too. I’m trying, anyway.