Let me tell you a story. When I was in my early twenties and living on Long Island, the city seemed made of emeralds for me. If I needed a new heart, lacked a little courage, or felt the urge to fill up my head with something other than straw, I headed west. And nine times out of ten, the yellow brick road led to The East Village’s Avenue A, which, in the nineties, was still filled with its share of ruffians and cosmic travelers.
Despite the shady characters, drug dealing and the No Tell Motel (a strange but ultimately fun place to hang for a young poet/songwriter from LI with stars in his eyes), Avenue A always managed to resonate that soft glow associated with things of beauty. It was prime real estate for the imagination. I played shows there with my band Surreal. I read poetry on the sidewalks. I transformed billboards into prayers, gargoyles into heroes, the night sky into a gigantic eye. I ate at the Odessa Diner.
What is it about overcrowded and overbuilt New York City that serves delicious freedom on a plate to Long Island youth, loosens the reigns and projects an ultimate playground onto the IMAX screen of the mind? Sometimes when I’m carrying home groceries down Avenue A, I’ll get a glimpse of the old me, who is (as Ferlinghetti writes in A Coney Island of the Mind) “constantly risking absurdity,” in love with life and the moment. He’s parked illegally, but I don’t tell him. He’ll figure it out on his own.
While most people leave the city and move to the suburbs when they get older and establish families, I’ve found myself in a kind of reverse commute. The city where I used to play and the city that used to be my escape is now my home. And this strange paradox keeps teaching me about what it means to be home and how we change and don’t change as people as we grow older. There is no moral to this story, only an invitation to remember. Head west, people. The city is a mirror and waits for you.