I just got back from New York. Every time I go to New York I inevitably have a conversation that goes a little like this:
“You live in Maine? Oh, you should move here.”
There are slight variations on the structure, but the subject is always the same “You are a young creative, you should move to New York. Why are you not living in New York?”
This is the one where I talk about the looming spectre that is the Manhattan skyline. It’s no secret that my relocation to Portland from Boston has been kind of a bust in a few important ways. I’m barely surviving financially even though I work nearly every day of the week (when I can – arts organizations kind of go to sleep in the summer months, but that’s an essay for another time). I’ve discovered in the last four years that Portland is a great place to settle down and start a family – but as I have previously stated in this very blog, I don’t want those things. Finally, to be blunt, there’s not a whole lot to do here if you don’t drink.
Right. I quit drinking three months ago. I’ll pause here while you say something along the lines of “wow, that’s so great for you!” Yeah. It’s fine. It’s really, really boring, but it’s fine. Every person I know socially (save for an outlier or two) drinks. Lately going out in Portland for me has looked a lot like me ordering a seltzer (or juice if I’m feeling saucy) and watching my acquaintances get drunk.
Portland is a drinkin’ town full of drinkin’ people. Maybe it’s the long winters that keep us indoors. Maybe it’s the fact that, frankly, there’s not a whole lot to do after dark, socially. Yes, Maine is full of incredible natural beauty, but on the real dear reader, I’m not going to start night hiking any time soon. Beyond that, as a 30-something, the most common thing on my Facebook feed other than pictures of my friend’s kids and 5k victories are artfully arranged glasses of wine, beer, cocktails, artisanal liqueurs… whatever. Drinking is as much a pastime up here as hating the Yankees is, but for me, it stopped doing the things it used to do. So I stopped.
So what does any of this have to do with New York? Well, people my age in New York do things. I mean, they do seemingly endless piles of things. They go to see one another doing things. Now I’m not saying that they aren’t having a drink or two while they do these things, but drinking isn’t the thing they’ve gone out to do (at least not every time). Perhaps my perception is biased – but I’m beginning to think there’s something to this. Is this the best we can do? I’m not sure I have any solid suggestions here – this has just been my life for so long, I honestly don’t know any better.
It hurts me to say that about Portland, it really does. I love Portland. I love Portland the way I loved the Beatles in Junior High – passionately, then obsessively, and then not nearly as much the second I heard OK Computer. That record changed my life in exactly the same way stepping foot on Manhattan did for me at nineteen: There was no going back once I realized the world was so big and so full of opportunity. That’s pretty much Plato’s allegory, and my dillema.
A good friend said something to me that’s been buzzing in my head since February: “You don’t owe Portland anything.” The definition of insanity is persistently doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I keep applying for jobs. I keep sitting in booths. I am not getting anywhere. My perception of Portland is not the image of Arcadian splendor and simplicity that we peddle to tourists. It is not one of lobsters and “ayuh” and lighthouses. My perception of Portland is of struggle, and an increasing push not just toward banality and homogenization, but also toward what is effectively a jettisoning of the creatives it so desperately needs to keep up the charade that this place is “hip”, “the 8th most attractive”, and “a great place for artists”. None of us will be able to AFFORD this place very, very soon if this city keeps catering to wealthy people from away who use Portland as a glorified hitching post for their yachts.
What I love about Portland is that it ISN’T New York. I can stretch my arms out in any direction and not touch a wall or another human being. I have privacy. The air is clean and on a clear May morning, I can smell the Atlantic, and if I close my eyes, I can pretend that it is 1915. 1815. 1715… But it’s not enough anymore.
So I can stay here and duke it out. I can fight for my city. I can keep getting by on less than the required living wage and off of my parent’s charity (as many of my peers do). I can keep complaining to anyone who will listen that public transportation here is deeply flawed and getting worse. I can rail against employers who insist that I MUST have a driver’s license in order to work for them (which is highly discriminatory and insensitive). Or, I can take my University of Maine education and move away. I can do as thousands have done and write about New York the way I’d rather be writing about Portland. It’s just that New York offers the independance both financial and transportation-wise that Portland simply can’t provide. Like I said, it’s a dilemma, and it breaks my heart.
There’s this band I like called The National, and yes, they’re based in Brooklyn. Their lyrics can be kind of dense and hard to interpret, which I find makes them even more universal. Their most recent record is pretty fantastic, and the title Trouble Will Find Me comes from a track called “Sea of Love”. I like to listen to this song while I wander around Portland with my headphones on. The line that sticks with me most, and is a kind of a bookend to the thing my friend said about not owing Portland anything is “if I stay here, trouble will find me. If I stay here, I’ll never leave”. I don’t know, maybe my friend is right. I can’t just stay here because the Maine in me makes me bullheaded and contrary. I have no way of knowing what the future holds for me here, but the longer I stay, the more hardship I see. I quit drinking because it wasn’t doing the same things it used to do for me. I fear that I may have to quit Portland for the same reason.
I just… really don’t want to.