Leaving New York

By FRANCESCA MIRABILE

“I hate New York,” MM said. His name was Mickey, but we all called him MM, short for Mickey Mouse. “You know how people walk the streets with a default angry face?” he used to say. “Well, I have a default happy face.”

It was true. MM had a default happy face, along with the high-pitched voice and larger-than-average ears. He looked, acted, and talked like Mickey Mouse. There is no place in New York City for Mickey Mouse, with the exception of Times Square, of course.

All the way from Miami, Florida, MM knew he wanted to leave the snowy, gray city and go back to his sunny, warm hood. He kept saying he was just there for school and nothing more, adding, “I can make money in Florida, I don’t need this crazy city.”

We all knew he wasn’t serious. Nobody is serious about leaving New York.

It’s the air. It’s the thick, gloomy air that pulls you in and never lets you go. During winter, the heavy, sticky snowflakes fall rapidly and cover you from head to toe. Suddenly, you find yourself stuck between Fifth and Sixth Ave., carefully observing a bunch of inexperienced ice-skaters running away from the golden Atlas behind them. You don’t know how you got there; you don’t know why you can’t move.

New York does that to you.

Six months in New York is too short a time to see it all, but it’s more than enough to fall in love with the city. I used to laugh at MM when he said he hated the city. We sat in our art class, discussing unrealistic future plans, and he always inserted that sentence in our conversations. There was no answer to a statement like that – what did he know about leaving the tiniest and most insignificant town in the world to become one of the tiniest and most insignificant people walking down Broadway?

I had been there for a few weeks when we had the first of a long series of similar conversations. Of course, I did not agree with MM. The thought of leaving the city in May left me with a deep sadness. MM said it was because I hadn’t been there long enough; I said it was because you either love New York or hate it – I loved it.

Even Rome, the Eternal City, cannot compare to the experience of the “city that never sleeps.” My first time strolling downtown all by myself was on a Monday morning. I had been in New York once before, but visiting a city is always different than really living it. That Monday morning, it hit me. The height of the skyscrapers slapped my vision, as I looked up at the gigantic, dark towers watching over passers-by. When you are short like me, you stop noticing heights after a while – everything seems taller than you. And, yet, there I was, vehemently crushed by the buildings of a city that awaits to render you smaller and smaller each time you take a stroll.

New York gives you the anonymity to be whoever you want to be, whenever you want to, freeing you from the ever-demanding stares of city-dwellers. No one stares at you, but all eyes meet. It’s an organized chaos of distracted gazes and autonomous, fast-paced legs, constantly reminding their owners that 24 hours will not suffice. On the right days, you seem to know everybody. On the wrong days, you don’t know a single soul. They all look angry, then happy, then angry, then happy. They all walk too fast, then too slow. They all seem to be looking at you, then they don’t.

I always thought about MM’s default happy face. I imagined him standing next to the angry businessman at 8:30 A.M. on the 6 train, with his world-isolating earplugs and his veiny hand violently gripping the subway pole – the image made me giggle every time. Millions and millions of those businessmen in the gray city, but only one happy-faced Mickey Mouse, placidly holding on while the subway cars raced underground.

They say that you can’t be in New York if you don’t have a purpose. MM said it too, “It’s all about the go-getters. I’m here to get my education and that’s why I’m surviving the city.” I wondered if I was one of them too. I still have no answer to my question, but now that I’m back in Rome, I know I do have a purpose: going back to the “city that never sleeps.”

MM graduated May 24. I asked him what he intended to do with his life. “I got a job in an art gallery in Midtown,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever leaving this city.”

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