When I first wrote about being from Iowa, I opened with this: “My roommate is from the City—which means she’s from New York City, and which, when you say it that way, means that you aren’t from there.”
So it has to be some sort of dramatic irony that my parents up and moved to the City last summer. My dad has worked at Scholastic in SoHo since May. After several rounds of interviews by the housing coop board, and almost two months in a temp apartment on Wall Street, he and my mom moved into the first floor of a Brooklyn brownstone in July—a brownstone that shows up crisply in Google Maps Street View. We sold our wedding cake house and left the park with the elephant slide for Park Slope, driving for days until Iowa’s flat horizons crumpled into rolling hills and closed in around the skinny lanes cut between skyscrapers.
My dad bought new glasses and a suit with skinny pants. He started looking bored with the people who take a long time at the subway turnstiles. He obsessively checks Yelp ratings and says things like “I just need to get out of the city for the weekend” or “Park Slope is such a bubble.” He loves the big crates of produce outside the cramped grocery stores and the dudes cruising down the sidewalks with boom boxes, and he comes in grinning once a week to announce that someone is making a movie on our street.
Sitting on the bench outside the Vietnamese sandwich place on our block one Saturday, he said that this is the best neighborhood he will ever live in. And then our order was ready and he was telling me to keep moving. The little New York City dream he put to bed is suddenly up on its unexpected second wind, and not quite real. He has walked into the mirage but, instead of breaking it, he has become a part of it. He is made young inside it.
My mother is made tired. She has started saying “I’m sorry” to everyone who had to walk around our dogs and talking too much to the waiters in crowded restaurants. She still talks about “home.” She has no church auctions to organize now and all the neighbors’ gardens are tiny plots with fences that keep out her petunia transplants. But she is trying. While we were waiting in Wall Street, she made a floor plan of our new apartment on graph paper with little cut-outs of the furniture and started researching Murphy beds. The City is not a place either of them understands as just, home. I am not home there either.
I mostly left the apartment. I watched my parents move and felt surprisingly unmoved, since I figured I had already grown up in Iowa City and already owned my connections to it. Besides, I had friends in New York. I learned to meet them at subway stops. I was so startled, at first, every time I saw familiar faces come out of the mass of humanity. They waited humid hours while I got lost and then showed me their favorite parks and little corner shops. I went to art galleries and food trucks and one time I rode the handlebars of a stranger’s Citi Bike and, upon instruction, put on my “New York bitch face” to get into a club with hot tubs. One night at a party at my friend’s house in Chelsea, his friend asked something like, if you don’t live in New York or L.A., how do you choose between all the other little towns?
I laughed and said, “Family or work.”
I learned to be comfortable in the dizzying crowds and with the voices outside my window and the cars at night. Then, I learned that no one was looking. And I learned to be okay with that, too. In the jungle-gym of fire escapes and alleys and subways, I felt like the city would let me be anything. I would look up at all the buildings with hundreds of windows and think that different things were happening with different people inside every single one of them. While I was staring, everyone would walk so fast around me that I would forget I was standing still, and it would occur to me that I could live for the rest of my life on that street corner and it would never quite be familiar. Sometimes I think I have never felt such energy as in this city full of moving people, this city that looks like a circuit board from the airplane.
Sometimes I feel sad that I have learned to think of all of these endless individuals as strangers—to think of their faces as just unfamiliar instead of potentially knowable. I don’t like to forget or never to see so many other people. I don’t like to feel nothing when they brush by. I feel sad that I spent my time walking by things and watching the spectacles. I know that this has as much to do with me as with the city itself.
In the end, I didn’t look for the job I had planned to get in the city. I knew I was going back to Iowa before I got to New York. In the car, three hours outside of Iowa City, my sister called me and told me she’d be back to work on a family produce farm maybe five miles from our old house. She volunteered at Friendly Farm through high school and worked full time there for a season two years ago, when I first went with her to work. This year, she thought they could use help picking tomatoes. I surprised us both by saying yes.
Retracing my steps, the land opened back up until I could see to the edges of the earth in both directions, and dumped me out in front of the barn. It was just three of us living on those twenty acres—me, Dave, the 27-year-old farmer who was born there and now runs the place, and Jeff, the navy veteran who pitched a tent below the mulberry trees. That was it. Then a week into work, Jeff left one day while I was picking apricots. For the next month, it was just me and Dave and the regular volunteers, until my sister showed up. I knew everyone’s full name and got to know at least the major plot points of their stories. There was time to talk until we were finished talking, and enough left over to disappear for hours in a row of cherry tomatoes or the raspberry patch out front, and not see anyone at all.
I am not from this farm, but I could live there and see the edges of it. I felt different in the fourteen-hour days of sunrises, and bees caught inside squash blossoms and weeding until the fireflies dance the tomato rows. The tiny wonders were too pure for anyone to make them up, and I liked them better than playing dress up in the city’s endless possibilities. I am not sure I will always feel that way.
I guess it was like I told that New York City party guest: I went back for family and work. But I can’t really explain how you choose between towns to someone who is from somewhere that is so clearly chosen. I never picked Iowa City at all. I just love it unconditionally because it is finite and I can fit it in my heart.
I think my dad is really in love with the infinity of New York City. To some people, I think, there is an absolute beauty in the sidewalks shared by every language and the buildings you can’t crane your neck enough to see the top of—the grime and the riches and the youth. They see humanity there.
I am sure that the mirage will break for both of my parents a little bit. They will become regular customers at a takeout restaurant and working members of the coop and join various committees and boards and biking groups, and it will not be so vast anymore. New Yorkers will not seem so different from regular people. They will find places where the buildings disappear. And for as long as they are there, I will go home to Brooklyn. I will wander the streets with my friends and never run out of new flavors to try in different parts of town, and it will be—as it has been—some of the most fun I have ever had. I will feel every time like I am lucky to be in my dad’s favorite neighborhood, in a city on every map of the world.
Eleanor Marshall is originally from Iowa City, IA, a UNESCO city of literature in a state with more pigs than people. Her family recently moved to Brooklyn, NY, a city with more rats than people and more people than she has ever seen, in a state she is getting to know. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.